First-Generation Students
First-Generation Students
Luis Molinero /

First-generation college students, or students whose parents do not have college degrees, face unique challenges in attending college themselves. From the application process to affording college, and even graduating, first-generation students are not able to rely on their parents’ knowledge or experience. Fortunately, resources exist to help first-generation students get into and succeed in college!

Who is a first-generation college student?

Typically, first-generation students are those who are the first in their family to attend college. Often, this means that a student’s parents or grandparents never graduated with a two- or four-year degree. Sometimes the definition of first-generation student requires that a student’s sibling(s) never graduated with a degree.

Unfortunately, there is no single, agreed-upon definition of first-generation college students. Each school and organization defines this group differently; some include individuals who have one parent who graduated from college, or parents who attended college but did not graduate. One study found that, depending on how broad the definition chosen, anywhere from 22% to 77% of college students could be considered first-generation students.

The National Center for Education Statistics defines first-generation students as those whose parents do not have any experience with postsecondary education. According to their estimates, 33% of students could be classified as first-generation during the 2011–2012 academic year.

What is the difference between a first-generation college student and low-income student?

According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, around 66% of children whose parents have high school diplomas but no college experience lived in low-income households in 2015. (Low-income households are defined as having an annual income within 200% of the federal poverty level.) This indicates that first-generation students are about twice as likely as their peers with parents who have at least some college education to come from a low-income background. In data recorded in 2002, 77% of first-generation students reported household incomes of $50,000 or less, again indicating that first-generation and low-income student groups often overlap, and have done so for some time.

Knowing that these groups overlap, it is important to note that low-income students face additional challenges: In 2016 there was a 16% gap between the number of low- and high-income students who completed high school and immediately enrolled in college; the immediate college enrollment rate was 83% for high-income high school graduates, but only 67% for low-income graduates. First-generation students, then, may be less likely than their peers to enroll in college after graduating from high school.

Although the terms “first generation” and “low income” refer to different groups of students, some students will identify with both categories. For those who are interested, Student Caffé has a separate article with specific information about resources for low-income students.

What challenges do first-generation college students face?

There are three main barriers to postsecondary education that first-generation college students must face.

First, applying to college can be more difficult for first-generation students than those who have family members familiar with the postsecondary education system. Without experienced parents, siblings, or extended family members to help guide them through the college application process, these students must be reliant on guidance counselors, teachers, and mentors to help them apply.

Unfortunately, some students may not talk to mentors at school because they don’t have time during the day, don’t know that counselors and teachers are equipped to help with applications, or feel embarrassed to ask for help. Don’t let any of these reasons hold you back! Guidance counselors, teacher, principals, coaches, and other school support staff members can be valuable resources in applying for college, and you should make sure to utilize their knowledge.

Second, since first-generation and low-income students often overlap, the problem of college cost cannot be neglected. According to a recent study by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, concerns about the cost of college attendance prevented 34% of high-achieving, low-income high school seniors from applying to college at all. The cost of college can vary widely depending on your eligibility for in-state or out-of-state tuition, the type of school you’re considering, and your financial aid package. Apply to a wide variety of institutions, always apply for financial aid, and remember, any scholarships you apply for and win can help offset the cost!

Finally, first-generation college students have lower graduation rates than their peers. According to data published by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA in 2011, only 50% of first-generation students earn their degree or certificate within six years (versus 64% of students whose parents graduated from college). Even less heartening, 90% of students who identify as both low income and first generation do not graduate with a credential within six years.

Fortunately, resources and support almost always have a positive effect on student outcomes. A 2011 study conducted by Stanford University found that college students who were paired with a mentor were 10–15% more likely to continue with school the next year, and 4% more likely to graduate than students without mentors. Although the study did not specifically recruit first-generation students, participants tended to be older than traditional college students and the results can likely be applied to most underrepresented and nontraditional groups of students.

So, while there are barriers to first-generation students applying to, affording, and graduating from college, there are also plenty of resources that have been created to help them succeed.

What resources are available for first-generation students?

Getting first-generation students connected with resources can result in quite the positive outcome on their postsecondary education. The following sites are a great first stop:

  • America Needs You (ANY) is a two-year career development program for low-income, first-generation college students. Students are matched with mentors; given access to professional development workshops, career fairs, and internship opportunities; awarded a $2,000 grant; and guided through the process of transferring from a two-year to a four-year institution.
  • The First Generation Foundation provides resources and information to help first-generation students succeed. The organization’s website includes information about schools that are friendly toward first-generation students, as well as support programs and scholarship opportunities.
  • is “an online community celebrating first-generation college students” which includes video stories from other first-generation students, student blog posts, and a list of colleges who are committed to providing access and support to first-generation students.
  • ImFirst’s sister site, offers free online mentoring for students navigating the college application and financial aid processes.

Some colleges and universities have campus-specific programs to help support first-generation students, including Clemson UniversityDartmouth CollegeMassachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the University of Iowa, and Vanderbilt University. Additionally, this article lists other schools with programs in place to assist first-generation students. If you’re interested in attending a particular institution, check their website for similar programs.

Who can I go to for help with applying to college?

As a first-generation student, your parents may not have enough knowledge of the college admissions process to assist you with your applications. Instead, look to other adults around you. At your high school, you’ll find that your guidance counselor is a great resource to turn to for help with applying to college, as are your teachers, sports coaches, or other trusted adults in your life. Any of these people should be happy to help you or direct you to someone who can. There is no reason to feel embarrassed or scared to ask for help!

How do I apply for financial aid to help pay for college?

First, you should calculate your out-of-pocket costs and what you can afford before financial aid is factored in. Doing this will help you figure out how much financial aid you really need, and will also help you know exactly how much you can expect to spend.

Next, you should apply for federal financial aidTo receive federal aid, students must fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). You will need information from your parents, including the number of people living in your household, their income, and household expenses. Using these factors, the FAFSA calculates an Expected Family Contribution (EFC), for how much money your family is expected to put toward your education.

You should first fill out the FAFSA during October of your senior year of high school, and it must be updated and resubmitted every year of college thereafter. If your parents aren’t able to help you with the FAFSA, find the information you need and fill it out yourself or ask another trusted adult to help you. Once you’ve completed the FAFSA, you become eligible for federal aid. Types of federal aid include grants (which do not have to be repaid), work-study (in which you work a job for a stipend), and loans (which have to be repaid with interest).

After applying for federal aid, look into state financial aid. This type of aid is typically offered to residents who plan on attending an in-state institution. Often, the FAFSA serves as the application for this type of aid, but you may be required to submit a state-specific application as well. Check the Student Caffé blog for information about financial aid opportunities in many states.

Regardless of how much federal or state aid you qualify for, ask an admissions officer about institutional financial aid. Schools often give both need-based and merit-based aid to students, which can supplement federal and state aid. You may or may not be required to fill out an additional application, like the CSS Profile, to be eligible.

Lastly, investigate private financial aid. Private aid comes from organizations, employers, and banks— essentially anywhere besides the state or federal government. Private aid includes private scholarships, which are available for students in almost any situation and don’t require repayment, and private loans, which should only be taken out as a last resort; interest rates are typically higher than those of federal loans and they offer fewer protections for students. You can begin applying for private scholarships well before you enter college, and can continue to apply throughout your educational career.

Are special scholarships available for first-generation students?

Yes, there are private scholarships available specifically for first-generation students, but they are primarily for students who are residents of specific states or counties. A web search for scholarships specific to your area will bring up many relevant results to look into and pursue.

Don’t limit yourself to scholarships that cater only to first-generation students or students from certain geographic areas, though. As long as you meet eligibility criteria (having a certain GPA, being a member of a particular extracurricular activity, pursuing volunteer work, etc.) you can apply for any scholarship that you can find.

If my parents didn’t go to college, why should I consider it?

A college degree can have a significant impact on how much money you will be able to make in the future. The Condition of Education 2016 found that of young adults aged 25–34, those who earned a bachelor’s degree had a median income of about $50,000, which was 66% higher than median incomes of those who only completed high school ($30,000).

Additionally, a college degree opens up many more job opportunities, helps you meet different groups of people, and gives you an opportunity for independence. There are many benefits to going to college!

How can I make sure I succeed once I’m in college?

First, understand that you belong in college just as much as anyone else. You worked hard to get there!

Once you’re on campus, familiarize yourself with the resources that are available and take advantage of them. Your campus may offer a math center, a writing center, free tutoring, counseling services, and student groups (e.g., a support group specifically for first-generation students). Most colleges also have career centers and a large network of alumni who are happy to help should you have a question about finding a job or internship.

The people on campus are also excellent resources. Build a relationship with your professors, advisors, and teaching assistants. You don’t have to be struggling in a class to make an appointment or stop by office hours to chat. Once you have an established relationship, it’ll be easier to ask for help if you do start to struggle to keep up.

Your resident assistant, floormates, and classmates all bring something to the table, too. If you need a friend or just want to eat dinner with someone familiar, start with these acquaintances. A support system on campus, as well as adequate facilities and helpful professors, will help you be successful in college.

How can I relate to students who have more advantages than I do?

You will encounter lots of new people and situations while in college. Some of your classmates will have parents who went to college, or be in a higher income bracket than your family, but some students are going to be more similar to you. Remember that statistics and numbers don’t define a person. If you immediately treat someone differently because they have a different family situation or upbringing than you, you will miss out great people and experiences, as will they. Instead, realize that other students went through their own struggles just like you did, even if the struggles themselves were different. Your success will be determined by your own behavior!

Page last updated: 07/2018