First Generation College Student Guide

ASO Staff Writers
Updated August 15, 2023
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Navigating Higher Education as the First College Student in the Family

Going to college is a monumental accomplishment for all incoming freshman, but for some students, this isn’t just a personal achievement — it’s a milestone for everyone in the household. First-generation college students can be a source of pride for a family, but being the first to get a higher education also can come with unique challenges — namely, that they cannot benefit from their parents’ college-going experience. This guide addresses some of the challenges first-generation college students face and includes information on paying for higher education, programs that help these students and what to keep in mind when applying to schools.

Are You a First-Generation College Student?

First-generation college students are considered those who don’t have immediate family members who have pursued any type of higher education. According to a 2018 report from the U.S. Department of Education, about one-third of U.S. undergraduates in 2011-12 had parents who hadn’t attended college.

In many cases, these students come from low- or middle-income families, although some higher-income families also may not have a tradition of attending college. In addition, many first-generation college students may be immigrants or part of the first generation in their families to be born in the United States. Often they have children of their own or work full time.

No matter what their background, first-generation college students can represent hope and promise for an entire family for generations to come.

“Being a first-generation college student is cause for celebration. It creates opportunity not just for the enrolled student, but for his or her family as well. It is the best strategy for lifting a generation,” says Karen Gross, education consultant and former president of Southern Vermont College in Burlington, Vermont. “One interesting way it helps intergenerationally is that children of college graduates are more likely to progress to and graduate from college than their peers. So by entering college at whatever age or stage, a first-generation student is helping their children and their children’s children.”

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Fast Facts About First-Generation College Students

About 20 percent of all undergraduate students in colleges and universities around the United States were first-generation college students in 2015. (Source: The New York Times)

A study by the Online Journal of Workforce Education and Development found that 48.5 percent of Hispanic or Latin-American students, 45 percent of black or African-American students, 35.6 percent of Native Americans or Alaska native students, 32.2 percent of Asian students and 28 percent of white students were the first in their families to attend college. (Source: Online Journal of Workforce Education and Development)

Senator Elizabeth Warren, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and former First Lady Michelle Obama were first-generation college students. (Source: Washington Post)

89 percent of
first-generation college students that come from low-income households leave college after six years without completing their degrees. (Source: The First Generation Foundation)

The amount of first-generation college students attending Ivy League schools is less than 20 percent. Specifically, in 2015, 11 percent of Dartmouth students, 12 percent of Princeton students, 14 percent of Yale students, 16 percent of Cornell students and 17 percent of Brown students were the first in their families to attend college. (Source: The New York Times)

First-generation college students are most likely to begin their higher education at a community colleges and then transfer to four-year schools. (Source: Online Journal of Workforce Education and Development)

Online Journal of Workforce Education and Development. (Source: The First Generation Foundation)

Many first-generation college students face academic, professional, financial and psychological challenges. (Source: Washington Post)

More first-generation college students are enrolled in public four-year colleges and universities (1.7 million), while 623,000 of these students attend private schools. (Source: The New York Times)

First-generation college students are less likely to take advantage of support resources available on campus to help them succeed than those who are not. (Source: The First Generation Foundation)

2018 Spotlight: 15 Programs for First-Generation Students

When first-generation college students begin their higher education journeys, they may feel like outsiders compared to students who have heard about their family members’ college experiences. However, these students are not alone, and oftentimes they can find support through the colleges or universities they attend. The following are examples of some programs that cater to first-generation college students by providing the tools and camaraderie they need to be successful in their degree programs.

Applying to College

For those who grew up with parents who have been to college, navigating the college application process can be easier because they may receive firsthand advice at home. For first-generation college students without that same level of support in their household, this process can be trickier.

This doesn’t mean that these students can’t get valuable advice to help them with their college applications. In addition to the help they may get from their high school guidance counselors, students can obtain useful information from college fairs as well as college-bound programs that provide mentoring services and assistance with admissions and financial aid applications.

In addition, as these hopeful college students apply to schools, they should keep in mind that their experiences on campus will be much different than those of students with college-educated family members. First-generation college students face some unique challenges, including the following:

Expert Q & A

Hopeful first-generation college students will have many questions about what they can expect when they embark on a journey of higher education. We interviewed the following experts about some of the issues these students face:

David Dollins, associate vice president of enrollment management at Clarion University of Pennsylvania

Rachel Flaherty, director of the TRiO Veterans Upward Bound (VUB) program and the I’m First Initiative at Rochester Institute of Technology

Karen Gross, education consultant and former president of Southern Vermont College

Financial Aid for First-Generation Students

Like other students, first-generation college students may be able to receive financial aid to help defray the costs of their education. In fact, there are scholarships and grants available that are geared specifically toward first-generation college students, which may be provided by specific schools, private companies or nonprofit organizations. This section provides information on some of these financial aid opportunities.



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