The Repository @ St. Cloud State

Open Access Knowledge and Scholarship

Date of Award


Culminating Project Type




Degree Name

Higher Education Administration: Ed.D.


Educational Administration and Higher Education


School of Education

First Advisor

Dr. Rachel Friedensen

Second Advisor

Dr. Jennifer Jones

Third Advisor

Dr. Emeke Ikegwuonu

Fourth Advisor

Dr. Karen Johnson

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License.

Keywords and Subject Headings

first generation student, institutional fit, institutional fit for first generation students, policy and practice in higher education


The purpose of this interpretive phenomenological study is to better understand what the concept of institutional fit means to first-generation college students so that higher education institutions can be better informed about the services and programs necessary to help first-generation students be more successful in their higher education endeavors. The research question that guided this study was: What constitutes the essence of good institutional fit for first-generation students attending a small, midwestern institution of higher education? Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 11 first-generation students. There were four main themes or commonalities that resonated throughout the interviews as these 11 students deciphered what having good institutional fit meant to them: having the academic and financial resources they need to succeed; the university having their major program of study and faculty that were approachable; having an environment that was comfortable, safe, and inclusive; being on a campus and in a community where they felt they could engage, and finally, having a sense of belonging and/or a social support network. Having expectations that aligned well with the reality of transition to college life around the themes that were important to them was how they defined what institutional fit meant to them. Based on these findings, higher education needs to put aside the deficit approach to first-generation students and instead look at the strengths of these students and the successes they are having in the post-secondary environment and build on these successes to create more diverse, inclusive, and empowering learning environments for first-generation students.


I learned a lot during the process of working on this project and completing my doctoral degree. First and foremost: family is everything. I could have never done this without my mom who was always there to help me with my boys whether it was chauffeuring them to sports and other school/church events or having them sleep over on the weekend. It was truly her graciousness and willingness to help whenever she could that allowed me to stay on track with my goals and timeline. To my boys, Lleyton and Logan, thank you for your patience and understanding when you had to hear “I can’t; I have homework I have to finish.” To my partner Heath, who has been in it with me the whole time, and who lightened up the mood and laughed and made fun of me when he knew I was procrastinating some type of writing/homework. Thank goodness he had a time-consuming hobby of his own. To my co-workers at MRU, thank you for your endless support throughout my Ed.D process; you will never truly know how important your support and grace was to me. To SCSU Cohort 12 who was in it with me all the way; our group chats were always good for a laugh and a little extra motivation and encouragement when needed. And to my brother, John, who passed away very suddenly on November 19, 2021, two days after I defended my dissertation proposal. I knew I had two choices at that point: to take a break and get lost in my grief, or to keep plugging away the way I knew he would want me to, and so I kept plugging away. You are never far from my thoughts and life is forever changed with you not in it, but I thank you for giving me the strength to keep working towards my goals and the ability to laugh at myself when things get tough. Lastly, to all of the first-generation students in higher education, especially to those who volunteered to be a part of this project; you are strong and exceedingly bright, and I challenge you to continue to lend your voice to change in higher education so that more first-generation students not only have access to a post-secondary education, but also have the supports necessary to help them achieve success!

I would also like to thank the faculty and staff in the St. Cloud State Higher Education Administration program for developing a graduate program that makes it possible for full-time working parents to continue their education. Above all, I need to thank my committee and especially my advisor, Dr. Friedensen, for all their guidance throughout my dissertation process!



To view the content in your browser, please download Adobe Reader or, alternately,
you may Download the file to your hard drive.

NOTE: The latest versions of Adobe Reader do not support viewing PDF files within Firefox on Mac OS and if you are using a modern (Intel) Mac, there is no official plugin for viewing PDF files within the browser window.