Diversity and Inclusion in Law School and Higher Education

Fostering First-Generation Student Success in Law School

Document Type

Law Review Article

Publication Date



diverse campus environment, student attrition, first-generation college students


This Article addresses how law schools can better support first-generation (“first-gen”) students, typically defined as those for whom neither parent has a bachelor’s degree. We survey first-gen programming in U.S. law schools, the broad goal of which is to retain students and help them to thrive, thereby increasing their educational and career achievement. We link this goal to extensive research on the growing challenge of upward mobility. In addition, we synthesize the vast empirical research about first-gen students, most of it about undergraduates, with a view to identifying beneficial interventions. We also summarize what quantitative data, collected by the Law School Survey of Student Engagement (LSSSE) and the National Association of Law Placement (NALP), reveal about the first-gen student population.

The first-gen project has been made more salient by the Supreme Court’s 2023 ruling in Students for Fair Admissions vs. Harvard, which held unconstitutional the use of race as a basis for affirmative action in higher education admissions. The first-gen category provides an alternative basis for assisting many students of color, while also supporting socioeconomically disadvantaged white students. Indeed, these programs may foster cross-racial collaboration and coalition building as students from a wide range of races and ethnicities gain an appreciation for the shared struggle for upward mobility they face. Importantly, these students may carry an orientation to see common ground beyond the educational setting and into the wider world, thus helping bridge the growing cultural and ideological divides polarizing our nation.

Lastly, we offer insights from a seminar Pruitt teaches at UC Davis. The course, created for first-gen students, draws on scholarly literature, memoir, and fiction to explore the first-gen experience. The seminar is an invitation for students to tell their own first-gen stories, drawing on those narratives as sources of empowerment. We reveal some of the challenges, pitfalls, and successes of this course, and we discuss other curricular offerings that could foster a sense of belonging—and success—for first-gen law students. Ultimately, we call for more empirical research into the experiences of first-gen students in U.S. law schools.