First Generation College Student Guide

Starting college as a first generation student has its share of challenges. This guide is designed to help students overcome those challenges and succeed in college.

Guide for First-Generation College Students

Congratulations! You should be proud. You're the first in your family to go after a college education and that's no small feat. You have special challenges awaiting you, but if you can lean into them and leverage them, they'll be assets, not handicaps. And remember, you're not alone in your journey.

According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), around one-third of students enrolled in a college program in this country have parents who did not attend college. It's an important figure, not only because we want to see it continue to shrink (it's been declining since at least 1980) but also because an overwhelming consensus of research tells us that these students face unique challenges in accessing education, succeeding in college and finishing their degrees.

In this guide, we'll look at some of those challenges and offer solutions, plus we'll give you tips on how to prepare for school, how to pay for it and how to succeed once you're there. We'll name first-generation-exclusive scholarships, point you in the direction of non-profit organizations that want to help and give you some programs you might look for at your school choices.

Before we dive in, it's important to note that first-generation can be defined in several ways but here we will use one of the most common definitions unless otherwise noted -- students whose parents did not complete a bachelor's degree. Keep in mind you can be a first-generation student even if your sibling went to college; you're still part of the same generation.

How to Face the Challenges of Being a First Generation College Student

The numbers are quite clear on this issue. Students whose parents didn't attend or complete college attend college at a much lesser rate than students whose parents did. Figures from NCES say that 93% of students whose parents held a bachelor's degree enrolled in college and a healthy 84% of students whose parents attended some college went off to college themselves after high school. By contrast, just 72% of students whose parents didn't attend college end up in higher education. The gap starts in high school: 44% of students whose parents earned a bachelor's degree took AP classes while only 18% of first-generation students did.

But those are just numbers. What does it look like on the ground level for a first-generation student? To find out, let's take a look at some of the issues they face.

Being Ready for College as a First-Generation Student

It's a vicious cycle, but many students whose parents didn't graduate from college are at the lower end of the economic spectrum and/or in disadvantaged communities. That typically means they attend schools with less funding, a lack of qualified teachers and lower expectations. The result is often devastating -- lower SAT/ACT scores, no extracurriculars and a sense of apathy about education.

On the parents' side, there may be a deficit in linking high school curriculum and performance with college preparedness. Parents may not want to, or may not know how to, push their children to do what's necessary to continue their education after high school.

If these issues sound all too familiar, you may feel like you have to overcome the odds alone. You do not. Most of the faculty in high school wants to encourage students to attend college so reaching out to a teacher or faculty member you trust for support is a good idea. As you'll see below, there are also tons of organizations designed for students just like you. Wherever you are, they can offer support and resources for getting where you want to go.

Paying for College as a First-Generation Student

Many first-generation students struggle to find ways to foot the bill for college for many reasons. It can be difficult to navigate the financial aid process and tracking down scholarships and applying for them can be a full-time job. There's a financial disparity at work here, too. According to the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA), the parents of first-generation students had a median annual income of $41,000 while continuing generation students (those whose parents earned a degree), had a median household income of $90,000.

Without much financial support, many first-generation students find themselves working full-time to make ends meet while carrying the burden of a full college schedule. Striking that balance is exhausting and it can lead many to quit.

That's where high school and college financial aid counselors can be a tremendous help. They can help you fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), find scholarships that might apply to you and help you find a work-life balance that's sustainable.

First generation college students may also want to consider online degree options, which are typically more cost-effective than traditional university experiences and can offer a much larger amount of flexibility for working students. Even if the traditional university experience is important to you as a first generation college student, you could still consider online options for general education credits or as a way to accelerate your college experience (such as by earning online credits over summer break.)

Self-Esteem and Family Support for First-Generation College Students

Being an academic trailblazer in your family is an awesome achievement but it can sometimes feel lonely. Since family members might not understand the pressures and challenges of attending college, they may not be able to offer the support you might need to succeed.

Some first-generation students report feelings of guilt. That might look different for each student. Many struggle with a feeling that they don't belong in college, that they don't deserve it or that they may not be able to live up to the sacrifice their family is making to help them achieve this goal. Some may also feel like they've abandoned their family; this might be especially true for immigrant families where the student is the only English speaker or for students who are expected to help with a family business.

Students of color often face an added stigma that they're in college because of affirmative action. One report that interviewed college students on this topic found that a majority of non-black students assumed that first-generation black students got into college because they were given a spot and not because they'd earned it academically, even though this is incorrect.

All these factors can lead to self-esteem issues, imposter syndrome and feelings that you don't belong. Banish those thoughts -- you earned it, you deserve it and you belong where you are. If you're struggling with this, most colleges offer free counseling and many even have resources dedicated to supporting first-generation students (we'll cover some of them below). Using them, you may find financial and emotional support and you're likely to encounter other students who are in the same boat as you.

Advantages to Being a First Generation College Student

It's not all challenges and hurdles for first-generation students; there are some advantages too. Here are just a few to think about.

  • People Are Rooting For You. Though you didn’t ask to be someone to root for, your difficult situation is acknowledged by many. High school counselors want to see you succeed and college admissions officers will be inspired by your story, especially at highly selective schools.
  • You’re Accomplishing Big Things. It might not always feel like it, but being the first in your family to attend college is a monumental achievement. You can feel proud to have gotten here.
  • You'll Be a Role Model. Being the first generation to attend and even graduate from college makes you a role model, not just to your immediate family and the next generation, but also to those in your community who can see that it's possible because of you.

How to Prepare for College as First Generation College Student

Ensuring your success in higher education requires no small amount of preparation. Searching schools, applying to them, discovering ways to pay for it, navigating the campus, finding friends and, of course, doing well in class, can feel daunting. In the sections below, we'll break down how to apply for financial aid and how to hook up with on-campus resources for first-generation students. First, though, let's look at some of the things you'll need to prepare for school, both emotionally and in a practical sense.

1
Decide on a School
2
Decide on a Major
3
Work on Time Management Skills
4
Embrace Orientation
5
Take Time for Your Health and Well-Being

What to Bring to College

A lot of first-time college students don't think about what to bring (and what not to bring) to school. With no family members to give them advice from personal knowledge, this can be even harder for first-generation students, especially ones who've never lived alone. Here are a few practical things you might want to have for your dorm room:

  • Linens. Bedsheets, towels, blankets, laundry detergent, laundry bag, pillows, clothes hangers.
  • Desk Supplies. Notebooks, stapler, printer, printer paper, index cards, sticky notes, scissors, tape, rulers, stamps, envelopes, pens, pencils.
  • Electronics. Laptop, power cords, speakers, headphones, extension cords, USB drives, surge protector.
  • Household Items. Paper towels, tissues, storage containers, coffee maker, silverware, trash bags, light bulbs, cleaning spray, can opener, water bottle, hotpot, microwave, small fridge, cutlery, dishware, dish soap, rugs, art.
  • Toiletries. Cold medicine, nail clippers, shower shoes, first-aid kit with bandages, shampoo, conditioner, floss, toothbrushes, soap and soap containers, antidiarrheal/constipation medicine.

You'll also want to bring things that remind you of home or make your new place home; things like artwork, photos, keepsakes, homemade recipes and cards from loved ones.

How to Navigate College Administration & Offices

One big challenge new students have is navigating campus. College campuses can be like mini-cities. Be prepared to walk and expect to get lost. It's a good idea to pay attention during orientation, get a map (many schools have them in their smartphone apps) and scope out the campus before you even start classes.

While each campus is different, there are some common offices and administrators at each who can help you with any issues that arise. Here are a few of them.

Housing Issues

If you have an immediate problem with your housing situation such as a roommate conflict, disruptive neighbors or issues with sharing common areas, you'll want to seek out your Resident Assistant, or RA. Every hall should have an RA and you should be introduced during orientation. If your RA isn't able to solve your issue, or you have a bigger issue, you can also try the Housing Authority office. Housing takes care of any logistical issue related to your accommodations on-campus.

Academic Issues

If you're struggling academically, there are a number of places you can go to get help. After all, you're not alone -- most college students struggle at some point. If it's just with one class, don't be afraid to approach your professor and see where you're coming up short. He or she might be able to help you understand the subject more or make accommodations to help you catch up. Most professors offer office hours, don't be afraid to take advantage of those especially if you're struggling with a class.

The office of academic advising should have assigned you an academic advisor when you enrolled, also. Your academic advisor will help you determine whether you need to drop a class or two (and help you do the paperwork), point you to tutoring services (these are free at many campuses) and work out a new plan for your academic success.

Health Issues

With all the activity, stress and, well, different germs that college life brings, you're bound to have some health issues. When you do, visit your campus' Office of Student Health. There, you can get diagnosis and medicine for common illnesses and find connections for mental health counseling that can help with homesickness, drug and alcohol abuse and relationship issues. You'll be able to find information on safe sex and get screened for sexually transmitted diseases, which can be a huge pitfall for new college students.

Safety Issues

If you’ve been the victim of a crime, try to seek help. If you choose to report it, the people at campus safety offices are trained professionals who can help you understand your rights, address your concerns, investigate a crime, and assist you with getting justice.

You can go to campus safety about something like a busted streetlight that's making your walk home too dark, a key card door that's letting anyone in or suspicious behavior from fellow students or faculty. If you've been the victim of a crime, it's important to report it, even if it's difficult. The people at these offices are trained professionals who can help you understand your rights, address your concerns, investigate a crime, and assist you with getting justice.

Financial Aid for First Generation College Students

You'll find opportunities for financial aid from a wide range of places including the federal government, your state, your college and even non-profit organizations. The first place to start your financial aid journey is with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This application will help determine what grants and loans you may be eligible for. There are a few kinds of financial aid you should be aware of as an undergraduate student:

  • Grants. Grants are a form of financial aid that you don't need to pay back. They can be used to pay for school and they're often the biggest chunk of money you'll get. Most are need-based, meaning the amount you're awarded is based solely on your level of financial need. If you're a dependent, this is determined by your parents' income. A few types of federal grants include Pell Grants, Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grants, Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG), and Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants.
  • Loans. A loan is a fund you can use for college but will need to pay back, typically after graduation. There are several kinds of federal loans:
      • Direct Subsidized Loans are need-based and often offer low interest rates.
      • Direct Unsubsidized Loans are not need-based and must be paid back, typically during school. If they're not paid, interest will continue to accrue.
      • Direct PLUS Loans are for parents of undergraduate students and are designed to cover things that financial aid doesn't. They are not need-based; your parents will need to qualify based on a credit check.
      • Direct Consolidation Loans let you take all of your student loans and combine them into one payment, sometimes at a lower combined interest rate.
  • Work-Study Programs. Work-study programs let you work part-time in exchange for money for school. Often these jobs are on-campus and you may even be able to arrange for one that's in your field, giving you valuable hands-on experience.

How to Fill Out the FAFSA

Okay, so the FAFSA can look a little intimidating. There are over 100 questions and they ask for all sorts of financial information that can be a hassle to gather. It can be tempting to skip it. Don't do it; this little application could be worth thousands and even tens of thousands of dollars over the course of your college career. This is one area where first-generation students tend to not take advantage. In fact, the NCES reported in 2010 that students whose parents had only a high school diploma or under received $2,000 less in federal aid than those whose parents held a bachelor's degree.

Don't leave that $2,000 on the table. Fill out the FAFSA as soon as you can. Here are some tips to help you get through it.

Talk to Your Parents About Finances

This can be an awkward conversation but it's one that can save massive headaches down the road. You'll want to sit down with your parent(s) and ask them:

  • How much do you think you can afford to pay each year for school?
  • Will your income change much (up or down) over the next 4-6 years?
  • How much do you expect me (the student) to share in college expenses?
  • Is there a 529 savings account (these are state accounts designed specifically for college savings)?

The answers to these questions will help everyone understand what it's going to take to pay for school. It might mean finding a more affordable college or it might mean finding creative ways to pay, but it'll give you a clearer picture as you fill out the FAFSA.

Gather Your Documents

To make it easier to motor through the application, gather all your documents ahead of time. If you're a dependent, you'll also need your parents' documents and numbers, like these:

  • Your FSA ID (you'll create this on the FAFSA site; it'll help you resume the application and see your status after submitting).
  • Your SSN (and your parents').
    • If you're not a U.S. citizen and you don't have an SSN, you'll be asked to provide an alien registration number in your application.
  • Your (and your parents') driver's license numbers.
  • Federal tax information or returns from the previous year (for you and/or your parents). See the section below on this.
    • For a U.S. tax return, this will be an IRS 1040, 1040A or 1040EZ form (include all W-2s as well).
    • For a foreign tax return (or for a tax return from one of the U.S. territories), include everything.
  • Records of your (and your parents') current bank account balances.
  • Records of your (and your parents') untaxed income (such as child support, interest income and veterans noneducation benefits).

You'll also have to give FAFSA the name of a minimum of one target school in order to submit the application so knowing this in advance is helpful.

IRS Data Retrieval Tool is Your Friend

The IRS data retrieval tool can make the FAFSA infinitely easier. Using it, you can add in some personal information about you and your parents and it will automatically fill in large portions of tax return information automatically.

Getting Help Filling Out the FAFSA

Even with tips and helpful advice, the FAFSA isn't always clear-cut, especially if you have special circumstances. The Federal Student Aid website has a thorough help center with answers to questions and explanations for questions. And, there are ways to find a real live person to help. You can call (1-800-4FED-AID), email (studentaid@ed.gov) and even do a live chat.

Scholarships for First Generation Students

Scholarships are available from all sorts of sources and there are many that are designed exclusively (or give special consideration to) students who will be the first in the families to go to college. To give you an idea of what you might look for, here are a handful of scholarships from sources like corporations, nonprofits and universities.

Fontana Transport Inc. Scholars Program
Florida First Generation Matching Grant Program
Colorado Mesa University's First Generation Scholarship
Institute for Study Abroad (ISFA) First Generation College Student Program
The Frederik Meijer First Generation Honors College Student Scholarship
The Cynthia E. Morgan Memorial Scholarship Fund

Resources for First Generation College Students

There are plenty of resources out there for first-generation students including organizations that are ready to stand by you as you make this momentous, challenging journey. Below we'll detail some national, non-profit organizations and offer a few examples of college-specific programs to give you an idea of what you might find at your school.

Organizations for First Generation College Students

Several non-profit organizations are out there to help you navigate higher education as a first-gen student. Here are a few of the biggest and most helpful.

I'm First
College Greenlight
America Needs You
First Graduate
First Generation Foundation
The Center for First-Generation Student Success

College-Specific Programs & Organizations

In addition to national and local organizations that support first-gen students, you may also find dedicated support services at your school. Here are a few examples.

Kansas State University
University of Cincinnati
University of California - Berkeley
Duke University
University of Michigan
University of Southern California

School Name Location In-State Tuition & Fees First-Gen Program
Kansas State University Manhattan, KS $10,440 Office of First-generation Students offers mentorship, student lounge, welcome weeks
The University of Cincinnati Cincinnati, OH $11,660 Gen-1 offers living, learning community exclusively for first-gen students
University of California - Berkeley Berkeley, CA $14,250 FirstGen offers mentoring, tutoring and careers services
Duke University Durham, NC $58,031 LIFE program offers local partnerships, community space and first-gen events
University of Michigan Ann Arbor, MI $15,558 First-Generation College Students@Michigan, one of the first on its kind
The University of Southern California Los Angeles, CA $58,195 First-generation resources include parent programs, student summits, mental health awareness


Peer Mentoring Programs for First-Generation College Students

As a first-generation student, the college adjustment process can be intimidating and lonely. Thankfully, you're not alone on campus. Many universities offer chances for first-gen students to support one another through peer mentoring programs or connect to faculty and staff who can help them thrive during the transition. Check with your schools to see if they offer anything like the programs below.

Marymount Manhattan College First-Generation Mentor Program
1st Generation Camels Mentoring Program at Campbell University
Kenyon Educational Enrichment Program (KEEP)