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.
Decide on a School
If you haven't decided on a school, the sooner you start, the better. This decision may be narrowed for you in some cases, especially if there are financial considerations or you need to stay close to home. Even so, do your research about what each school has to offer. Do they have dedicated resources or a contact person for first-generation students? Do they offer online classes that might fit into your schedule better? Do they have a program that meets your interests and career goals?
Decide on a Major
You'll want to decide on a general direction for your studies and you'll want to do it from several angles. First of all, do a little self-reflection to decide what excites you. What do you do with your free time when you have no other obligations? Give consideration to your strengths and weaknesses; if you haven't taken personality tests, they can help you get a clearer picture. Think about which classes you enjoyed and excelled in throughout high school. Can you see yourself diving into them more?
Weigh these considerations with a few practical ones. What are your career options with it? Is there job growth in the field (in other words, will there be a job for you when you graduate)? Is there room to progress and grow in the industry? What do salaries look like?
Find a balance by answering these questions honestly but lean into your passion; if you truly love something and dedicate yourself to it, the other things usually take care of themselves.
Work on Time Management Skills
College can be much more challenging than high school. And it's not just the curriculum that's harder. Your schedule will fill up with homework, deadlines, social gatherings, extracurricular activities, class schedules, school events, meetings with administration, and, for many first-generation students, a work schedule. Balancing all of this and meeting your obligations is one of the great challenges and pitfalls college students face.
This is where a bit of organization can go a long way. You'll want to start keeping a calendar and you may want to look into handy apps that can help you limit the time you spend on distractions and keep you focused.
We'll be honest -- orientation can be boring. But it's also necessary and informative. In it, you'll learn where everything is, find out how to stay safe on campus, be introduced to some of the administration and generally get acclimated to your new life. It's also a fantastic time to meet new people. Remember that however they seem on the outside, they're probably feeling just as lost, intimidated and nervous as you are, so you have something to bond over. Try to be your most outgoing and friendly self and you might start building a support group that will see you through to your graduation day.
Take Time for Your Health and Well-Being
Here's a hard truth: college is going to be overwhelming, demanding, and emotionally and physically draining at times. That's why it's important to understand and develop healthy coping techniques. These might be different for everyone -- doing yoga, going for a run, closing the books to watch a movie, meditating, listening to music, calling a friend or family member or journaling. Start now; try to identify those stress-relieving techniques that work best for you. Turn them into habits you can use in college and don't be afraid to incorporate them whenever you're feeling swamped.
Another word to the wise: don't beat up on yourself too much. Some things might fall through the cracks and that's okay. Take time to zoom out of your situation, breathe deep and practice some self-love. It'll give you a confidence boost and a healthy dose of perspective.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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
The Fontana Transport Inc. Scholars Program offers $5 ,000 to low-income, disadvantaged and first-generation students. To qualify, applicants should be graduating from high school, be accepted to a four-year university, have a GPA of 3.5 and be planning to study transportation management, math, science engineering, Spanish language/literature, architecture, psychology, environmental design or pre-med. They do not need to be a U.S. citizen. March 15 is the deadline for applications.
Florida First Generation Matching Grant Program
The Florida First Generation Matching Grant Program is for residents of the state of Florida whose parents have not earned a bachelor's degree. Applicants must fill out the FAFSA, must demonstrate financial need and must be attending a state university in the Sunshine State. Award amounts vary.
Colorado Mesa University's First Generation Scholarship
The Colorado Mesa University's First Generation Scholarship awards $1,000 to incoming freshmen whose parents don't have a bachelor's degree. Candidates must have filled out the FAFSA and need to have a 3.0 GPA.
Institute for Study Abroad (ISFA) First Generation College Student Program
The Institute for Study Abroad (ISFA) First Generation College Student Program recognizes that first-generation college students are some of the least likely to take advantage of study abroad opportunities, and provides a grant for up to $2,500 for these students to pay for airfare, visas and housing abroad. Applications for Summer/Fall programs must be in by March 1 and Spring programs must be applied for by October 1.
The Frederik Meijer First Generation Honors College Student Scholarship
The Frederik Meijer First Generation Honors College Student Scholarship is for first-generation students at Grand Valley State University in Michigan who may qualify for a full-ride scholarship if neither parent pursued a college degree. There's no additional application for this one; students just need to be first-generation, be accepted to the school and make it to the honors program.
The Cynthia E. Morgan Memorial Scholarship Fund
The Cynthia E. Morgan Memorial Scholarship Fund awards $1,000 to high school students in Maryland who will be the first in their immediate family to attend college. This scholarship is designed for students who are interested in a medical-related field. Applicants must submit an application and an essay by February 25.
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.
Run by the nonprofit organization Strive for College, I'm First offers encouragement, inspiration and guidance specifically for first-generation college students. There are forums where you can talk to fellow students in your situation (or soon-to-be situation), college search tools designed exclusively for first-gen students and even free one-on-one mentoring to answer questions about college and help with the entire admissions process.
Designed for both low-income and first-generation students, College Greenlight is a one-stop-shop for finding the perfect fit for college, tracking down scholarships that might work for you and navigating the transition between high school and college.
America Needs You
America Needs You is a non-profit dedicated to helping first-generation college students make it to graduation and find meaningful employment afterwards. They do this by creating a network of fellows, pairing students with mentor coaches, running educational workshops and providing internship opportunities.
There may be opportunities to thrive by connecting with local organizations as well. For example, First Graduate provides mentoring, college guidance, academic support services, career counseling and family engagement for first-generation high school and college students in the San Francisco area.
First Generation Foundation
Founded by first-gen students who are now graduated professionals, the First Generation Foundation provides financial support, tutors, mentors, guides and links to colleges that are friendly and welcoming to first-generation students.
The Center for First-Generation Student Success
The Center for First-Generation Student Success is designed to empower institutions of higher learning to cater to the needs of first-gen students. However, the organization created the First Forward Award, a designation for schools that have shown a dedication to helping students like you. Checking out their list might help you find a school that'll be a great fit.
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
K-State's Office of First-generation Students runs an office exclusively designed to help first-gen students succeed. Through it, students can join an on-campus first-gen student organization, connect with leadership opportunities, get a mentor, hang out in a dedicated first-gen student lounge and attend events like welcome weeks and celebration days.
University of Cincinnati
The University of Cincinnati's Gen-1 is a program where first-gen college students live together, learn together and give back to the community together. This structured environment gives first-generation students the chance to learn time/resource management, engage in unique study abroad opportunities, find networking opportunities and participate in internships that can lead to careers in their field. Since the Gen-1 program was initiated, 6-year graduation rates for first-gen students have risen to 76%, which is an astounding achievement -- the national average is 11%.
University of California - Berkeley
A generous 41% of students in the University of California system are the first in their families to attend college and the school offers plenty of resources to help them succeed like the University of California - Berkeley FirstGen program. There's the First-generation Mentor Program in the engineering school, expert tutoring for all students, specifically tailored career services and leadership opportunities.
Duke University's LIFE Program offers resources for first-generation college students, primarily through local partnerships and a thriving student group. The LIFE student group provides a sense of identity, hosts events, provides community space and advocates for this demographic to make Duke as inclusive as possible.
University of Michigan
The University of Michigan's First Generation helps first-generation students connect to resources and one another, offering the Are You First? Symposium, counseling services and the First-Generation College Students@Michigan. The latter was one of the first student-led organizations of its kind and it continues to thrive today, offering networking, friendship and events for first-gen students.
University of Southern California
The University of Southern California offers a variety of programs for first-generation students including well-being programs for mental health, the First-Generation College Student Summit, the Sophomore Seminar: Pathways to Career Success for First-Generation College Students course and the First Generation College Student Parent Program, which helps bring parents into the fold to aid in students' success.
|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
For a full year, incoming, first-generation students at Marymount Manhattan College participate in the First Generation Mentor Program, which pairs them with faculty and staff mentors. Mentees and mentors meet at least once a month to talk about concerns and struggles with adjusting to college life, provide support and attend workshops that cover academic success, professional development and mental and physical wellness.
1st Generation Camels Mentoring Program at Campbell University
Any new student who is first-generation at Campbell University in North Carolina can participate in the 1st Generation Camels Mentoring Program, . Through it, incoming students get to meet with faculty, staff and alumni who were first-gen students themselves. Aside from meeting four times a semester to talk, mentors and mentees go to welcome receptions, cookouts and stress relief events.
Kenyon Educational Enrichment Program (KEEP)
First-generation students and students of color can take advantage of this selective mentorship program at Kenyon College in Ohio. In the summer before starting classes, students are paired with a mentor and given a $1,000 stipend to attend two 2.5-week bridge programs designed to help them make the transition to school. Candidates must be in good academic standing, have a passion for social justice and show leadership potential.