Student engagement through the lenses of five first-generation college freshmen

First-generation college students make up more than one-third of the California State University population, but more than 23% drop out in the first year. Yet little is known about their first-year experiences. Most institutions rely on the National Student Survey of Engagement (NSSE) to provide engagement data on first-year students in the belief that such data is linked to student success. However, there is no substantial evidence that NSSE actually predicts first year retention or captures the key dimension of student engagement. The purpose of this study was to use a narrative inquiry to explore this gap. I focus on the academic, social, and campus experiences of first-year, first-generation college students. Multiple in-depth interviews were conducted with five highly diverse students. The findings suggest that student engagement is driven not in terms of academics but social and emotional factors. These findings are not captured in NSSE, and therefore, institutions should broaden the definition of engagement and the use of qualitative studies to better measure student engagement.