GSA Connects 2021 in Portland, Oregon

Paper No. 217-5
Presentation Time: 9:20 AM


LUCKIE, Thomas, CARRERA, Anahi and COOPERDOCK, Emily, Earth Sciences, University of Southern California, 3651 Trousdale Pkwy, Los Angeles, CA 90089-0740

First-generation (FG) college students, defined as students whose parents did not earn a baccalaureate degree, encounter distinct obstacles navigating academia. The barriers faced by FG students, including lack of financial security, lower sense of belonging, and ineffective mentorship, can be a proxy for challenges encountered by students with other underrepresented and marginalized identities. As such, efforts to achieve diversity, equity, and inclusion goals can and should include FG students. To better support FG students, first we must fully understand who they are, what they choose to study, and their representation in geosciences.

Here we use 50 years of data to explore the demographics and field of study of FG students in US colleges and universities. Whereas the number of White FG students has been declining since the 1990’s, the number of FG students of color has been increasing. In 2019, Black, Latinx, and Indigenous undergraduates were two times more likely to be FG than non-FG; and the majority (60%) of FG undergraduates identified as female (given a binary female/male gender option). At the graduate level across all fields of study, the proportion of FG-status students earning doctoral degrees has steadily declined from >70% in 1970 to ~40% in 2019. Yet in 2019, only ~10% of geoscience undergraduates and PhDs were FG status, making FG students underrepresented within the geosciences. The question is why?

Despite more of the US population earning a college degree over the past decades, the percentage of college educated minorities has lagged behind due to historically discriminatory systems. Thus, the barriers faced by STEM students of color rooted in their race/gender identities are compounded by their FG status. As we aim to make a meaningful impact in recruitment and retention of underrepresented groups in the geosciences, we must consider the intersection of FG with other marginalized identities. With a rapidly changing world, the geosciences will need to keep up with the increasing demand for geoscientists and cannot afford to ignore the large and diverse potential of the FG workforce. It is thus imperative for the geosciences to overcome its failure of recruiting and supporting FG students as compared to other fields.