What is a First Generation College Student - And How to Succeed As One

Posted On Mar 23, 2022 |

What Is A First Generation College Student?

While the definition or what is considered as a first generation college student may vary between schools or college admissions officers, according to the Higher Education Act, which determines eligibility for federal aid programs such as Pell Grants, a student is considered a first generation student if neither parent graduated from college or holds a degree.

However, if the student only lives with 1 parent, then the student is a first generation student if that parent does not hold a college degree.  However, not all schools follow or use this definition when determining whether to consider a student as first generation or not. Sometimes, they require that the student be the first person in the family to attend college or university. This means that no parent or siblings attended college regardless of whether any of them graduated or hold a degree. They at times also consider the educational background of close relatives such as whether any brothers or sisters of the applicant have graduated to consider the student as a first generation student.  

On the other hand, some schools consider an applicant as a first-gen student even if one parent had completed a four-year college degree, but outside of the United States.  

Usually, the applicant won't see any checkbox or any outright declaration of whether he or she is a first generation student in the application form. The college admissions officer uses the FAFSA or student information to determine whether the applicant is a first generation applicant.  

To be on the safe side, and to be sure, it is best for the applicant to check with the college admissions office on what their criteria are to be considered a first generation college student prior to applying.

What Are the Challenges of Being First Generation Students?

It is common for first generation students to face more challenges and difficulties both in trying to get into college and when they are in college.

A More Difficult College Application Process?

Being the first in their immediate family to apply for college, prospective first-gen college students are at a disadvantage when it comes to having their immediate family share their experience in getting into college. Having parents or close relatives share their experience and knowledge in getting into college is a huge advantage, since not all information is readily available. These include things such as getting financial aid, what to look for in a college or the college campus, what information and requirements to prepare, how to prepare for college entrance examinations, how to write college essays, and more. First generation college applicants need to do more legwork on their own to find all this information and act on them since they cannot rely on their parents and relatives to guide them, and it may be easy to get overwhelmed. There are also certain nuances to the college application process which a first-timer with no guidance may find difficult to grasp.

Another possible disadvantage for first-generation college applicants is that it is possible they come from a low-income background or a minority with no college-going tradition. Their parents may not know how important and how much of an advantage going to college and getting a degree is. This may lead them to be less focused or determined to get into college.

Challenges in School for First-Gen Students

In college, one possible challenge for first-gen students is the pressure on them to excel in college and prove that whatever financial sacrifices their parents made to get them into college will be worth it. The burden may be on them to prove that going to college is the right decision.

Furthermore, since they are the first in their family to attend college, they have no one to consult with or guide them especially when faced with challenges and difficulties in college, such as in dealing with teachers, coursework, trying to fit in, and more. Having a parent or close relative that has gone through college life and having that person be able to share tips and experiences is an advantage which the first-generation student does not have.

Possible Financial Difficulties Due to Family Background

Finally, in terms of finances towards going to college, first-gen students may be at an initial disadvantage since most first generation college students are the first in their family to attend college because they come from low-income families or their parents may not have had sufficient income or financial support back then to attend college or get a four-year college degree. Or, the parents of the first-gen student may not have sufficient income to have paid for any of the student's siblings' college education, hence the first-generation student is the first in his immediate family to attend college. In addition to this, the first generation college student applicant may be at a disadvantage financially since he has no one to ask about where to get additional funding or student financial aid to pay for the cost of college.

 Usually, families that have someone gone through the college application process or have a college-educated parent are more familiar with how to get financial aid like grants and scholarships and even how to manage student loans. This means it would be easier for these non-first generation college applicants to know the process and where to find financial aid, unlike the first-gen college applicant, who would likely be the first in the family to be applying for college. Parents of first generation college applicants would not likely have listened to any seminars or or have any information on getting student financial aid and processing or completing requirements such as the FAFSA.

Where can First Generation College Students Get Support?

What is more important is that there are a lot of people and sources of support available for first generation college students, despite the possible challenges or disadvantages they may face.

One encouraging trend right now is that college admissions officers look at the background, circumstances or the situation of the applicant when considering whether to accept the college applicant or not. So first generation college applicants who may have less accomplishments and achievements compared to other applicants from more privileged backgrounds may still be considered for acceptance even at colleges where the acceptance standards are higher.

Colleges and Universities Provide Support for First-generation Students

One recommendation for first generation college students is to use all the available resources of the college they are attending or plan to attend and find out what the school provides in terms of support for first-gen students.

Before committing or even applying to a school, they should find out about the cost of attendance for that school and make sure they know everything there is to know about that college or university, such as campus life, curriculum, available student financial aid, support for first-generation students and so on. For possible scholarships and other financial aid, the student should make sure they know whether all costs will be covered as some end up dropping out because they miscalculated or did not have complete information and eventually their finances were short and prevented them from completing a four-year college course. Also, the applicant should try finding out if the college or university that he or she is applying to provides any bridge program, support or financial aid package for first generation students.  

First-gen students should also find out if any colleges offer Educational Opportunity Programs (EOP) and then take advantage of them. EOPs are usually offered in the summer between high school and college and they provide exposure or a sort of bootcamp towards college curriculum. For example, EOPs may teach advanced mathematics which may not have been offered by the high school that the student graduated from. EOPs are typically available to in-state students at public colleges, and eligibility is based on family income and demonstrated student interest.  

Once a first generation college student gets into college, he or she should then make sure to find out if the school offers any programs to help first-generation students. They should look for possible mentors or peers that can help them get more integrated with college life in the campus and generally help guide them throughout college. They shouldn't be afraid to seek out professors or staff or any seniors and connect and consult with them. Also, some schools have clubs or organizations that are for first-generation college students. The key here is the more information and connections they get while in school, the easier it will be to overcome any first-gen student difficulties in school and the less likely they will be to drop out.

Some Organizations That Provide Support for First Generation College Students

Another source of support that first generation college applicants or students can look at are groups, organizations or programs outside school that provide support for first-gen students.

One notable website that provides a lot of information and other things like programs and services for first generation college students is the Center for First-Generation Student Success. An initiative of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) and The Suder Foundation, the center's vision is "Driving higher education innovation and advocacy for first-generation student success". And their website "serves as a home for Center updates and announcements, an outlet for sharing cutting edge research and current media conversations, opportunities for engagement through conferences and events, and access to a bevy of programs and services intended to improve first-generation initiatives across higher education."  

Other examples include America Needs You (ANY), Minds Matter, and Summer Search which provide mentoring, career development and financial guidance and initiatives to help break barriers or obstacles for success for underprivileged students, such as coming from low-income families. This includes help for first-gen students towards getting into and graduating college. They also provide guidance and support for members after graduation towards getting jobs and professional growth, something that may also be a challenge for a first-generation college graduate.  

One more notable example of an organization or project that supports first-gen students is Re-Imagining the First Year (RFY), which is under the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) and supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Strada Education Network. This project aims to ensure success for all students, especially those underserved by higher education such as low-income, minority or first-generation students. Participants receive extensive support through national meetings, expert webinars, individual consultation, and online resources and tools. Scholarships are also tied into this program.  

Lastly, first-gen students can look at the Youtube channel of "I'm First", which collects testimonials from first-generation students aimed at inspiring first-gen students to complete their degree.  

These examples show that there are many resources available for first-generation students as long as they are willing to look. It is important to know and access these resources which lessen or even remove any possible disadvantages the first-gen student may have.

Getting Financial Aid for First Generation College Students

While there are multiple sources of support available for the first generation student, the most important thing that the first-generation student must make sure of is that he or she has enough money to graduate from college. The cost of attendance towards completing a four-year course and getting a degree is sometimes difficult for the first-gen student to fully grasp and account for, unlike other students who can seek advice from parents or other relatives as to what they need to account for in terms of total cost of attending and completing college.

This is where student financial aid such as grants and scholarships come in. It is important for the first-gen student and their parents to make sure they have complete information and as much resources as they can get with regards to obtaining grants and scholarships so that they can reduce or even remove the financial burden of college costs and make sure they can get their degree.

List of First Generation Scholarships

Hive College Buzz's Pocket Guide to College Success and Essential Scholarship Cheat Sheet provide tools and tips for first-generation college applicants to help them win multiple scholarships. There is other information, resources and services available on the website that cover everything about getting into college and getting the financial aid to help the student get that coveted degree.

Categories: college admissions

About the Author

Christen is the founder of Hive Education. She is passionate about helping families navigate the college application and admissions processes. She helps students set goals to work towards their own debt-free degrees with her personalized scholarship searches, scholarship courses, and by sharing her scholarship strategies that won her over $900,000 in for her own college education. With four years of experience in higher education, two years working with teens in inner city high schools in New Orleans, and starting her first college consulting company during a pandemic in 2020 she strives to make college accessible for everyone, especially for first generation, low income, and minority students. In her spare time she loves to share her love for books with her daughters. You can find her on Facebook.

And don't forget to follow us on socials for latest updates.

As Seen On