Are You a First-Generation College Student? Navigating Higher Education as the First College Student in the Family

Meet the Experts

David Dollins Associate Vice President of Enrollment Management, Clarion University of Pennsylvania Read bio
Rachel Flaherty Director, TRiO Veterans Upward Bound Read bio
Karen Gross Higher Education Adviser and Consultant Read bio

Written by…

Kenya McCullum Read bio

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.”

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.

Angelo State University offers services to help first-generation college students make the transition from high school to higher education. As part of this program, students can participate in workshops, have their academic success monitored and get one-on-one advice from a mentor who understands the needs of this student population.

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:

“All entering college students — of any age or at any stage — face hurdles. But the hurdles of first-generation students are different,” Gross says. “Imagine having watched baseball all your life on television. Then, next thing you know, you are on the field holding a mitt, and you’re asked to be the outfielder and then make a hit when up to bat. Knowing about college is different from being at college. The initial orientation offered to new students is not enough. First-generation students can benefit from mentors (coaches) all along the way to graduation. Everything is new, and one’s family, as supportive as they may be (and some are not, sadly), can’t share wisdom on how to navigate a campus, get the provost or registrar to listen or appreciate what forms need to be completed for various on-campus activities.”

“Family members may not know the value of attending college or may apply family pressures or pressures from home on [these students],” says David Dollins, the associate vice president of enrollment management at Clarion University of Pennsylvania. “Finding that balance between family and college can be a struggle, but building your support network on your campus and tapping into the resources that colleges have can help you manage and find that balance.”

“Once at college, first-generation students may feel like their families don’t understand what they are going through or how they are feeling. They may feel like imposters or that they don’t fit in,” says Rachel Flaherty, director of the TRiO Veterans Upward Bound (VUB) program and the I’m First Initiative at Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, New York. “Many also struggle with asking for help and don’t know where to go or whom to ask for help when they need it. It is important to keep in mind that everyone’s challenges can be different and not all first-generation college students have the same story.”

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

What resources do colleges offer to help first-generation college students overcome their challenges?

Dollins: Resources include financial aid counseling, academic advisers, student life staff, support program staff and numerous other offices that are designed to help students find their way to their first degrees. The most important thing is not to suffer in silence, but rather seek out those resources and build your team of support on your campus. Professors and staff want their students to succeed and are more than willing to go out of their way to help.

Flaherty: Rochester Institute of Technology offers programs like I’m First, which works to ensure success for students who are the first in their families to attend college. We also have grant-funded and RIT-funded programs including Upward Bound, RIT’s Multicultural Center for Academic Success, the Higher Education Opportunity Program, the Collegiate Science and Technology Entry Program and the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program, which all help with supporting this population.

Gross: Almost all colleges try to support their students — first gen and non-first gen. But the number and quality of services and their accessibility and receptivity differs from campus to campus. Some campuses have robust wraparound services with staff and faculty dedicated to first-generation student success. Others have services scattered throughout the campus and the onus is on the student to find and then use the right services. Also, services can range — some cover academics and academic support (including writing centers), some offer psychological support, some offer career planning and some address medical issues (current or longer-term illness). Many services for enrolled students go underutilized for a myriad of reasons. So when looking at a campus, look for ones where support services are viewed with pride, not as a resource for the failing or weaker or lesser student. Attitude of support personnel matters.

How can the families of first-generation college students help them succeed in their studies?

Dollins: I always recommend that families gain an understanding and appreciation of what their students are trying to accomplish. Support them and encourage them. Also, they do not need to be experts on how colleges “work,” but rather champion and challenge their students to persevere through the tough times and have them reach out on campus to the offices available. A great resource for family members and parents is often the parent services office. Many colleges have support help for parents so they can be there for their students.

Flaherty: Encouraging them that the decision to go to college is a good one. It is important for families to take an interest in this experience and be there to listen to their children and check in with them. With college comes new stressors, so families should consider this and try to be sensitive to what their child is going through.

Gross: There are many ways families of first-generation students can help. Some cost money and others do not. One can send care packages if a student is living away from home. These are especially good at exam time. Families can actually visit campuses to see where their children (or spouses or parents) spend time. It is easier to picture one’s family member if one has seen the classrooms, the dining hall, the student center, the athletic facility, the laboratories. It is even easier if one has met fellow students or a faculty member or a staff member. Families should also recognize that the pathway to success is not a straight line up, and how the student does on one test or one exam or one paper is not a reflection of ultimate success. Families also should not panic over one sad phone call (unless it is evidence of real desperation). Students’ moods change quickly, and often the home family hears the worst stories and gets all the sad emotions; after such a call, students often bounce back, having gotten their feelings out. The key for families is to be supportive — “You can do this; I know you can,” is a phrase worth repeating again and again and again. And again.

What kind of community support can first-generation college students receive?

Flaherty: They can access different opportunities for personal and professional growth, such as volunteer experiences and internships. This period in life is full of new experiences, and it is important for students to integrate into the community and start finding their place. It is also important to get involved, learn to networking and start making new connections.

Gross: There are different types of community support — one’s home community and one’s campus community (depending on whether one is attending college close to or far from home). For some students, local religious venues are valuable — churches, temples, places of worship. And many pastors or religious leaders see themselves as possible role models for students. Also, there are volunteer opportunities in many communities and it is a way to begin to feel more at home: Helping others enables one to better help oneself as it adds to a sense of purpose. There are often local restaurants that have more home-style foods — they are worth visiting, if one can afford it, with other students.

What are some common misconceptions about first-generation college students?

Dollins: Common misconceptions are that first-generation college students cannot be as successful as their peers with family members who have graduated from college. Or that first-generation students are not as academically prepared. Quite the contrary. First-generation students are often the best and brightest on any given college campuses. They are National Merit Finalists, Fulbright Scholars, honors students and successful Ph.D. graduates. At Clarion, we have hundreds of first-generation students that are scholarship recipients, student athletes and leaders on-campus and in their classrooms.

Flaherty: It is a common misconception that first-generation college students all have the same needs. As a population, first-generation college students all come from different cultural backgrounds, different socioeconomic statuses, different family systems … they have different majors and different motivations. It is important not to assume that because a student is first generation, they will exhibit the same traits. When advising this population, it is important to look at the whole picture and understand the different complexities.

Gross: Sadly, a common misperception about first-generation students is that they are not “as smart” as other students. People mistake first-generation students’ behaviors, lack of classroom participation and academic struggles as a sign of their not being up to par. People on campuses forget that there are many learned skills with which non-first-gen students come to campus. These non-first-gen students may have attended quality high schools, academic summer programs, tutoring and coaching on the side. They may have had robust discussions over family dinners, or family dinners may have been hard when both parents or one parent is working. Let me be abundantly clear: A longer adjustment time to college and college-level work is not a sign of a lack of capacity. It is often an expression of a lack of experience and comfort levels. To be able to learn and settle in, one needs to find one’s way. That is not easy, and others misinterpret this adjustment process. Sad, but true.

What advice would you give to first-generation college students?

Dollins: Reach out to your admissions office to learn about the resources available, including scholarships. Take advantage of visits to campus and orientation sessions to get connected to your campus departments that will be there to help support you and your family during your two or four years of college. Do not be afraid to ask for help. Your professors and the campus want to see you succeed and graduate!

Flaherty: That it is not an accident that you were accepted into college, and you have every right to be there and be successful. Also, reach out to programs, advisers and professors. All of these people are here for you and want to see you succeed.

Gross: I could write a whole book about advice for first-generation students. But, here are five pieces of advice that I hope will help:

  • Recognize that you are not alone; many first-gen students are thinking about and struggling with the same issues you are confronting.

  • You should be proud that you have taken an enormous risk in furthering your education, and while it may not be easy, it speaks volumes that you have enrolled in college. Pat yourself on the back and keep patting yourself — you are helping yourself,

  • Don’t be too quick to judge fellow students, professors or others you encounter. Give people a chance. They may come from different backgrounds and cultures and religions, but there is value in difference and often remarkable similarities if one is open to that possibility.

  • Don’t become isolated, staying out of the fray, engaging only with folks from your past and burying your face in your phone or computer. Sticking out one’s neck isn’t easy or comfortable, but it can yield remarkable benefits. Try it — even in short bursts. The rewards should outweigh the fears.

  • And, finally, don’t be afraid to ask questions. There are no stupid questions. Ask people for help. Ask for support. Ask for guidance. Asking is good and is not a sign of weakness. In fact, asking is a sign of strength. Don’t think it’s all or only up to you to make it through college. A quality institution also has a responsibility to its students, so if you are struggling, don’t be scared to make them aware of what is troubling and even suggest needed changes.

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.

Grants

Scholarships

  • American Dream Fellowship Competition

    Elmhurst College provides awards for first-generation college students, including one full four-year scholarship, to the winner of this scholarship competition.

  • Dorrance Scholarship

    Available to high school seniors in Arizona who are first-generation students and plan to attend Arizona State University-Tempe, Northern Arizona University-Flagstaff or University of Arizona-Tucson.

  • Odyssey Scholarship

    The University of Chicago offers this need-based scholarship to provide academic, social and career support to lower-income families or those who are first in their families to attend college.

  • Benjamin and Patricia Allen Scholarship

    Iowa State University offers this scholarship to full-time college students who maintain a 3.0 grade point average, with preference being given to first-generation students.

  • First Generation Scholarship

    First-generation college students attending Colorado Mesa University can receive $1,000 per year from this scholarship.

  • Fontana Transport Inc. Scholars Program

    Provided to high school seniors who plan to study architecture, engineering, environmental design, math, pre-med, psychology, science, Spanish language or literature or transportation management in college.

  • Cynthia E. Morgan Memorial Scholarship

    This scholarship is for first-generation Maryland students who are planning to enter a medical-related field.

  • First-Generation Scholarship

    San Jose State University offers this scholarship, which has no GPA requirement, for students enrolled at least half time.

  • First-Generation Scholarship Program

    The University of Southern California provides this scholarship for first-generation college students who have secured unpaid summer internships, in order to support this workplace experience that complements their coursework.

Additional Resources

This report by Kathleen Cushman with Next Generation Press includes anecdotes and advice from first-generation college students.

EducationQuest Foundation provides guidance to the parents of first-generation college students.

This USACollegeChat podcast discusses the schools that provide services for first-generation college students.

This series of videos provides a look at experiences from several first-generation college students.

Organization that helps connect first-generation college students to schools and resources.

This TEDx Talks video provides insights from an educator about better including first-generation students in the campus community.

This PBS segment addresses the challenges of first-generation college students at top schools.

Provides inspiration for prospective first-generation college students from those who have had this experience.

Former First Lady Michelle Obama discusses her experience as a first-generation college student in this video.

Since its founding in 2013, I’m First! has provided information and services for first-generation college students.

This Law School Toolbox Podcast provides a look at what it’s like to be a first-generation college student attending law school.

These videos feature the stories of first-generation college students who attended University of Washington Bothell.