First Generation College Students

First generation college students are a unique student population that may need additional support services throughout their college career.

While more and more high school graduates are heading off to college, this wasn’t always the case. Even today, there are still a large number of high school graduates who are becoming the first in their family to do something that other graduates may take for granted: go to college.

First generation college students may need special resources in order to succeed in college and become acquainted with the rigors and expectations of collegiate academics. However, there are a wealth of resources available for first generation college students and college and university faculty, staff, and administration members to help students succeed.

Who are First Generation College Students?

First generation college students, defined simply, are students whose parents have never had any post-secondary education, including vocational or technical school. This is the definition that the United States Department of Education uses when describing first generation college students and to determine if a student is eligible for specific programs relating to this student population.

However, a first generation college student is sometimes more broadly defined as a student whose parents have not earned at least a bachelor’s degree prior to leaving college. Under this definition, which is used to determine eligibility for participation in federal TRIO programs, students whose parents had some post secondary education and then did not complete a degree are considered first generation college students, says Los Angeles Valley College’s Office of Research & Planning.

According to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), first generation college students usually come from working class families and are of all races, genders, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Additionally, the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA describes first generation college students as more likely to attend a college or university within fifty miles of home and are more likely to attend a private institution due to increased financial aid and support services. First generation college students who attend private colleges are also more likely to live on campus than their peers at larger state or research institutions.

Challenges Facing First Generation College Students

First generation college students face several challenges in adapting to all areas of college life, especially academics, financial aid, and campus culture.

When it comes to academics, first generation college students may feel that they are not adequately prepared for college coursework, or may doubt their academic abilities due to a lack of prior knowledge of academic expectations, says the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Additionally, a lack of support from a student’s family and the family’s possible lack of knowledge of the rigors of collegiate academics may effect a student’s academic performance and cause additional stress for the student.

Paying for college is also a challenge for many college students, especially for first generation college students. With the intimidating number of options for financial aid – including scholarships and grants, federal work study, federal student loans, and many private options – it is often hard to navigate important parts of the financial aid process without prior knowledge of how paying for college works. In fact, UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute reports that first generation college students are twice as likely than their peers to have major financial concerns regarding paying for college. First generation college students may find that they also have to work part or full-time in order to pay for living expenses or the cost of attendance after financial aid.

When compounded, the challenges that first generation college students face academically, financially, and with regards to family support create another problem. One challenge that UIUC describes is the difficulty of socially adapting to the campus culture in college. First generation college students may not be prepared to live with a roommate or multiple roommates, understand the jargon of college life, and find that the demands placed on them by their families and their academics make it harder to find a fit with a group of friends or organizations on campus. UIUC recommends that first generation college students make an effort to get involved on campus and become familiar with the resources that various campus departments, such as financial aid, housing, academic advising, and career development, have to offer students.

Resources for First Generation College Students

While first generation college students may feel lost or confused when trying to navigate college life, there are resources available to help students and their families understand college life.

First In the Family is a website with slideshows dedicated to various parts of college life for both high school students and college students. Slideshows deal with topics such as college prep and the college application process, financial aid, campus culture, campus jargon, and other resources.

Colleges and universities also offer resources and support services for first generation college students. Groups such as Carolina Firsts at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill and First Generation College Students at the University of Michigan allow first generation college students to be part of an organization to provide each other with support, learn success strategies from faculty and staff, and to help make friends while adjusting to college. USA Today has also profiled a living-learning community for first generation college students at the University of Cincinnati, where participating students live together and have access to academic advising and support services designed to help retain first generation college students and help them succeed.

On the professional level, the National Academic Advising Association (NACADA) is forming an interest group in order to study first generation college students and identify issues related to first generation college students and how to address them appropriately.

First generation college students face unique challenges while being trailblazers in their families. However, first generation students can still adapt to college life while utilizing various resources available to them and reap the benefits of a college education.

Editorial Staff

Noah is a PhD student in modern European history who loves to find time for travel, learning new languages, and exploring the food in her New York City neighborhood.

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