The Effect of Generational Status on College Adjustment and Psychological Well-Being among South Asian American College Students-By Munni Deb, Ph.D. and Elizabeth Altmaier, Ph.D

University of Iowa, Department of Psychological and Quantitative Foundations


This study examines whether there is a difference between first-generation South Asian American college students and continuing-generation South Asian American college students in their college adjustment and their psychological well-being. Despite being the third largest Asian subgroup, South Asians continue to be underrepresented within educational and psychological literature. This study found that first-generation students were more likely to live and work off campus, have lower household incomes, and spend fewer hours per week participating in co-curricular activities than continuing-generation students. First-generation students also demonstrated lower levels of social and academic adjustment as well as personal growth. International students may be first generation or continuing generation, but will have some of the college adjustment problems considered in this study. Educators and psychologists can use insights gained from studying generational differences to form strategies to help international students successfully navigate college adjustment.


College education is recognized as a means to upward economic and social mobility. Although the transition from high school to college is challenging for many college students, first-generation college students are especially disadvantaged because of demographic characteristics, pre-college experiences, knowledge of the institution of college, levels and quality of social support, and various other factors. These academic, social and cultural factors have been found to significantly impact these students’ college-going experience and psychological well-being. This study focused on first-generation South Asian students, students whose parents had no college experience either within the United States or another country.

Compared to continuing-generation students, first-generation students are disadvantaged (Pike & Kuh, 2005; Mehta et al., 2011). They are more likely to live and work off campus, thus missing out on social life and extracurricular activities available on campus. In addition, they report spending less time studying and have lower grade point averages than their continuing-generation peers. Choy (2001) documented that regardless of demographic characteristic, including race and ethnicity, first-generation students are twice more likely to drop out of college before degree completion compared to students whose parents had college experience.

This differential may be partly explained by the Social Capital Theory (SCT; Pascarella, Pierson, Wolniak, & Terenzini, 2004). Social capital is the knowledge, skills and attitudes that exists and are shared or transferred within relationships. A common source of social capital for many students are parents. For this reason, students who are continuing-generation may learn from their parents the skills and attitudes necessary for college success. In contrast, first-generation students lack parental social capital for academic challenges which may impact their college going experience. For example, they may not be familiar with resources available on campus.

Social Capital Theory may also help explain how and why international students, whose credentials suggest a high likelihood of academic success, may still fail. If these students cannot find necessary knowledge or information from their parents or close friends, who are in another country and thus unfamiliar with the students’ college experience, they suffer. If they are also alienated from sources at their own institution, or they do not feel able to ask for help, they will not know necessary information.

In general, studies that examined the experience of Asian American students in the United States have omitted students from countries defined as South Asian. Therefore, the purpose of the present study was to investigate differences between first-generation and continuing-generation South Asian American college students in their adjustment to college and in their psychological well-being. In this study, data was gathered concerning demographic characteristics previously identified through research to be potentially influential to the college experience.


Participants. The research participants were 100 first- and continuing-generation South Asian American students enrolled at two Midwestern four-year universities in the United States. To be eligible to participate, students met the following criteria:

Had parents who were born in South Asia (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, or Sri Lanka)

Self-identified as South Asians living in the United States

Were between 18 and 22 years of age

Were enrolled in 9 or more credit hours.

Measures. Three measures were used in this study: a demographic questionnaire, the Student Adaptation to College Questionnaire (SACQ; Baker & Siryk, 1999), and the Scales of Psychological Well-Being (SWB; Ryff, 1989).

The SACQ is a 67 item self-report measure covering adjustment to college. Each item is a statement to which the participant responds along a 9 point scale ranging from 1 “applies very closely to me” to 9 “doesn’t apply to me at all.” A higher score indicates better adjustment on academic, social, personal-emotional, and institutional commitment domains. The SACQ is scored by converting raw scores into T-scores with a mean of 50 and a standard deviation of 10.

The SWB is a 84 item self-report measure of aspects of well-being: autonomy, environmental mastery, personal growth, positive relationships with others, purpose in life, and self-acceptance. Each item is a statement to which the participant responds along a 6 point scale ranging from 1 “strongly disagree” to 6 “strongly agree.” Higher scores reflect greater well-being; scores are reported as item averages, thus ranging from 1 to 6.

Procedures. Recruitment of participants was conducted using methods approved by the Institutional Review Board of the University of Iowa. Subject recruitment and data collection were conducted using several methods, including a recruitment email sent to course instructors and various campus organizations. The study was administered online using Qualtrics and contained an introduction page, the informed consent document, the three measures, and a debriefing page.


Of the 100 students who participated, 75% were continuing-generation, 74% were female, 72% lived off campus, and 64% were employed. Students’ college status (e.g., freshmen, sophomore) was evenly distributed across all years. The majority of students reported a high school grade point average in the A range (63%) and a college grade point average in the B range (55%).

Demographic characteristics were compared between first- and continuing-generation students. There were statistically significant differences in the following areas: first-generation students were more likely to live off campus, live at home with parents, work off campus, have a lower family income, and report fewer hours participating in extracurricular activities.

Table 1 presents means and standard deviations for study measures. Visual inspection reveals that continuing-generation students scored higher on all measures than first-generation students with the exception of the Autonomy subscale of the SPWB. A multivariate analysis of variance compared first- to continuing-generation students on the 4 subscales of the SACQ. The F test was significant, F (4, 95) =2.90, p = .03. Analyses of variance for each subscale revealed that this effect was primarily due to large differences on Social Adjustment. Therefore, the data reveal that first-generation students reported less success coping with social-emotional demands of college than continuing-generation students. A multivariate analysis of variance compared first- to continuing-generation students on the 6 subscales of the SPWB. The overall F test was non-significant, revealing statistically insignificant differences on the subscales.


Consistent with previous research, this study found that first-generation students were more likely to live off campus, live at home with parents, work off campus, have a lower family income, and report fewer hours participating in extracurricular activities than their continuing-generation peers. Although living at home reduces the expense of college, it comes at the price of removing students from successful integration into the college environment. Living at home may also come with household responsibilities and family obligations that influence lower participation in campus activities.

The significant difference in the Social Adjustment subscale of the SACQ between first- and continuing-generation students suggests the difficulty first-generation students have in coping with the interpersonal challenges of a college environment. These challenges can range from making new friends, to speaking up in a class discussion, to visiting a professor during his or her office hours. If a first-generation student is lonely, or socially distressed, or sees less hope for a satisfying future in the college, it makes sense that he or she will drop out. These challenges seem also likely for international students, in that they are not only coping with a new environment, they are also separated from support from their families and friends.

Wang and Castaneda-Sound (2008) argued that regardless of generational status, ethnic minority students generally find college to be challenging. Much research exists to document these difficulties. Interestingly, this research stands in contrast to the “model minority” myth that Asian American students are considered to be high academic achievers and well-adjusted psychologically. An international student typically is of a different minority, racial or ethnic status than other students in the college. Thus, difficulties of being first generation may be compounded by minority status.

This study has several limitations. It studied students at only one point in time, and thus we do not have data on their eventual college graduation. It also consisted of participants who agreed to complete the on-line survey, and may have missed students who chose not to be included for various reasons.

The Social Capital Theory would suggest several applications. First, international students, especially those who are first generation, could benefit from services that enhance their personal, social, and academic adjustment. These might be offered in ways that allow access: online, in a location away from campus, and with older peer mentors. Second, professional development for faculty might emphasize the importance of connection with all international students, especially students of color and those who are first generation. It is important that all academic institutions be aware of the challenges associated with college transition and aim to improve the college experience among nontraditional students by developing and implementing culturally appropriate instructional strategies, programs, and services.


Baker, R. W., & Siryk, B. (1999). SACQ: Student Adaptation to College Questionnaire: Manual. Los Angeles, CA: Western Psychological Services.

Choy, S. P. (2001). Students whose parents did not go to college: Postsecondary access, persistence, and attainment. In U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics (Ed.), The condition of education 2001 (pp. xviii-xliii). Washington, DC: Government Printing Office. Retrieved from

Mehta, S. S., Newbold, J. J., & O’Rourke, M. A. (2011). Why do first-generation students fail? College Student Journal, 45, 20-35. Retrieved from

Pascarella, E. T., Pierson, C. T., Wolniak, G. C., & Terenzini, P. T. (2004). First-generation college students: Additional evidence on college experiences and outcomes. Journal of Higher Education, 75, 249-284. doi: 10.1353/jhe.2004.0016

Pike, G. R., & Kuh, G. D. (2005). First- and second-generation college students: A comparison of their engagement and intellectual development. Journal of Higher Education, 76, 276-300. doi: 10.1353/jhe.2005.0021

Ryff, C. D. (1989). Happiness is everything, or is it? Explorations on the meaning of psychological well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57, 1069-1081. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.57.6.1069

Wang, C. D., & Castañeda-Sound, C. (2008). The role of generational status, self-esteem, academic self-efficacy, and perceived social support in college students’ psychological well-being. Journal of College Counseling, 11, 101-118. doi: 10.1002/j.2161-1882.2008.tb00028.x

Table 1

Study Measure Means and Standard Deviations

Measure Overall Mean (SD) FGCS Mean (SD) CGCS Mean (SD)
Full scale 48.21(10.67)
AA* 49.58(10.06) 46.32(10.22) 50.67(9.84)
SA* 50.08(10.65) 46.24(9.13) 51.36(10.86)
PEA* 44.58(11.36) 42.88(10.96) 45.15(11.51)
ATT* 50.25(9.50) 49.04(8.92) 50.65(9.71)
Autonomy 4.17(.83) 4.27(.81) 4.14(.84)
EA* 4.09(.89) 4.00(.78) 4.12(.92)
PG* 4.87(.66) 4.67(.58) 4.94(.68)
PR* 4.74(.81) 4.70(.80) 4.75(.82)
PIL* 4.55(.84) 4.33(.78) 4.63(.85)
SA* 4.21(.99) 4.13(.96) 4.23(1.01)


*SACQ Academic Adjustment (AA), Social Adjustment (SA), Personal-Emotional Adjustment (PEA), Attachment (ATT); SPWB Environmental Mastery (EA), Personal Growth (PG), Positive Relations with Others (PR), Purpose in Life (PIL), Self-Acceptance (SA)