This research paper describes the development of a scale to measure how first-generation college students use engineering as a tool for making a difference in their community and world or personal agency. Personal agency is a capability that every individual holds; it is described by Bandura as an individual’s beliefs about their capabilities to exercise control over events that affect their lives through purposeful and reflective actions. Agentic actions allow students to explore, maneuver and impact their environment for the achievement of a goal or set of goals. This study identifies how cognitive processes of forethought, intention, reactivity, and reflection shape a students’ agentic behavior and together influence first-generation college students’ goal of making a difference in their community through their engineering degree.

Data for this study came from a large-scale survey of 3,711 first-year engineering students. First, the personal agency scale was tested for validity evidence using a split-half sampling technique. Exploratory factor analysis was conducted on one half, and confirmatory factor analysis was conducted on the other half. The exploratory and confirmatory factor analysis showed that the scale to measure personal agency is valid and reliable for the first-generation college student population.

The results of this work situate first-generation college students in engineering as active contributors to their environment. This study is an initial step in examining how first-generation college students are active producers of their own lives and not passive recipients of their life’s circumstances. Personal agency can be used as a lens to understand how underrepresented students in engineering are empowered to act upon their world to (re)shape it. This theoretical framing and measurement support asset-based approaches to understanding a community of students who are often deficit theorized.


personal agency, first-generation college students, social cognitive theory, factor analysis

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Verdín, D., & Godwin, A. (2019, June), Board 51: An Initial Step Toward Measuring First-Generation College Students’ Personal Agency: A Scale Validation Paper presented at 2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Tampa, Florida. https://peer.asee.org/32367