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Online Guide for First Generation College Students

For the first in their families to go to college, it’s a new experience for everyone. There are applications, admissions, financial aid, scholarships, course loads, and so much more. This guide provides first-gen college students with the information and resources they need to get their college journeys started on the right foot.

Two female students sitting on some stairs looking at a laptop.

In most cases, first-generation college students are defined as the first individuals in their immediate family to pursue a college degree. The Center for First-Generation Student Success defines a first-generation college student as an undergraduate whose parents do not possess a four-year degree. It is important that colleges and universities, admissions committees, academic advisors, high school counselors, and related parties pay attention to the needs of first-generation college students. In many cases, they face academic, cultural, and financial challenges that other degree-seekers may not. Even if prospective first-generation students find themselves enrolled in a college or university, one in three students in this demographic will quit college within three years.

Using the information in this guide can save prospective first-generation college students time, energy, and even hard-earned money. We offer a detailed breakdown of the college journey that first-generation students endure today, from early preparation and applying to degree programs to finding scholarships and getting the most out of their time as a student.

Why Being a First-Generation College Student Matters

First-generation students may experience a number of hurdles, both internal and external, that makes pursuing and completing a college degree quite different and more difficult than many realize. In this section, we take a close look at some of the challenges that these first-time college students face and what resources are out there to help them.


First-Generation College Student Facts

  • First-generation learners more likely to attend community colleges: Nearly 25% of students with college-educated parents attend community colleges, compared to 50% of first-generation students.
  • First-generation students are more likely to be 30 years old or above: Compared to 16% of continuing-generation students, approximately 28% of first-generation learners are 30 years old or older.
  • First-generation students are less likely to be able to enroll as full-time learners: Compared to 75% of continuing-generation students, only 65% of first-generation students enroll in college full-time.
  • In 2018, first-generation students worked more outside of school: While 66% and 61% of first-generation students and continuing-generation students, respectively, held employment outside of school, first-generation learners worked almost twice as many median hours per week than continuing generation students.

Challenges of First-Generation College Students

Many people experience difficulty with paying their bills. Perhaps it’s only for a month or two while they are in transition between jobs or are dealing with a sudden medical crisis. Or perhaps the problem is longer-lasting, and they are struggling every week just to make ends meet. Regardless of the reasons why, it’s important that everyone knows where to find the resources they need if they run low on cash and need some assistance.

1 Challenge #1:
Understanding the Process

For students whose parents did not attend college, applying to school, gathering the essential application materials, and studying for standardized tests such as the ACT or SAT can be very challenging tasks.


Students in these scenarios need sufficient guidance from their high school teachers and counselors. Additionally, school counselors and prospective first-generation students need to find ways to actively involve the student’s parents or guardians in the process.

Support and Resources

College Advising CorpsThis company offers in-school and virtual services to help students from first-generation, low income, or underrepresented high schools to navigate the college admission process, financial aid, and enrollment issues.

2 Challenge #2:
Paying for College

There’s no doubt that for most students and parents college tuition is extremely expensive. Financial planning for such an undertaking is no small feat and can be even more difficult for first-generation students. While having good test scores and grades can help you obtain a notable amount of scholarship money or financial aid, it is important that first-generation students exhaust all of their options for funding their education.


First and foremost, students need to fill out the free application for federal student aid, or the “FAFSA,” which allows them to be considered for financial aid from the federal government. The FAFSA is among the most important things you can do for your education and it is totally free. It is also important to apply for as many scholarships as possible, provided you meet the required criteria.

Support and Resources

TheCollegeBoard.orgThis site offers fast facts about the FAFSA and tips for applying. Additionally, first-generation learners should talk to friends, high school counselors, teachers. Even if you find what seems like enough information online about financial preparation and paying for college, it can also be helpful to talk to your friends, teachers, and counselors in your high school to get more information in-person. This also gives you the chance to ask them questions. These contacts can be especially helpful when searching for scholarships, too, particularly local and regional sources of funding that you may easily overlook while using online searches.

3 Challenge #3:
Feeling Out-of-Place

After enrolling in a college or university, first-generation students may feel like they’re out-of-place, uncomfortable, or they don’t have the skills to handle this new academic challenge. These feelings can come from any number of sources, and can certainly be a common experience for all college students. Feelings of being out of place can be exacerbated for first-generation students who are part of minority communities. According to the League for Innovation in the College Community (League), studies have shown that non-minority students often unrightfully question whether their minority peers gained admission to colleges on their own merit–that their college admittance was based on affirmative action only rather than their academic abilities. This can exacerbate any feelings of inadequacy or lack of self-esteem that many first-generation learners may have.


While the feelings and actions of non-minority and continuing-generation college students described above is indicative of several, much larger problems in what we might call “college culture” and American society more broadly, there are ways that parents and colleges can help these students feel like they’re in the right place and remind them that they deserve it and earned it.

Support and Resources

First-generation college students highly benefit from meetings with counselors, participating in student organizations, working in on-campus work-study positions, and making new friends. While easier said than done, it is important for first-generation college students to build outside social circles and rely less on their families for that type of support, according to League.

4 Challenge #4:

Sometimes first-generation college students leave behind their families to attend school and feel guilty for it. In many cases, they are an integral part of how that family functions on a daily basis and may even contribute significantly in a financial way. This is especially true for immigrant families where the student may be the only English speaker in the family. Additionally, the student may come from a family where there is an expected kind of “intergenerational continuity” for work roles, religious aspects of life, and more.


Feelings of guilt are quite common among first-generation students. Students may be putting pressure on themselves or receiving pressure or guilt from home. While it is easier said than done, they need professional support and valuable resources to deal with these challenging experiences.

Support and Resources

Should you feel overwhelmed about leaving your family or experience guilt for pursuing opportunities in college, be sure to contact the psychological counseling services on campus to get help in dealing with these feelings. Additionally, one of the best ways for first-generation students to get beyond feelings of guilt, loneliness, or homesickness is for them to more fully integrate into campus life. Be sure to consider all of the social opportunities and student groups available to you on campus. These are designed to help you, not only because they provide a break from academics but because they offer valuable social opportunities that can improve your overall enjoyment of college.

5 Challenge #5:
Usage of On-Campus Resources

According to FacultyFocus.com, first-generation college students are statistically much less likely to use on-campus resources such as advising and academic support services. In fact, continuing generation students are twice as likely to use on-campus resources than first-generation students. Disparities among the use of on-campus resources may be related to first-generation students’ inability to access resources because of outside commitments, including part-time jobs. There could also be a general lack of visibility of these resources for first-generation learners.


Colleges and universities need to make sure that all students, especially first-generation students, are aware of the on-campus resources available to them. Additionally, institutions need to be sensitive to the fact that many students work jobs during the day while they are not attending class. With this in mind, hours of operation can be extended to meet the demands of the busy student lifestyle. Additionally, institutions should provide better training for faculty and staff members, as they are the ones most frequently interacting with students. Faculty and staff can direct first-generation students to the resources on campus that will help them get the most of their education, support them emotionally and academically, and improve their quality of life.

Support and Resources

Upon learning of your acceptance to school, you should reach out to the admissions office to learn about available resources before you even get to campus. These types of support services can hide under a wide variety of categories, including titles such as student life, support program staff, academic advising, financial aid counseling, student activities, various on-campus committees, and more. If applicable, students can also check with their RA in their dorms for more resources, as well as the library, first-generation student centers, multicultural affairs offices, and parent and family programs. Your school may offer online resources that provide helpful tips for first-generation students and their parents on how to take advantage of on-campus resources, many of which are universally helpful for all college-level learners.

Why It’s Important for First-Generation College Students to Succeed

Linda Banks-Santilli, who has written about being a former first-generation college student, is now professor. She highlights the challenges of first-generation students both from her own perspective and from her students’ experiences today. She writes that first-generation students may decide to go to college because it is a way of bringing honor to their families. She points out that 69% of first-generation learners see college as a way to meet the requirements for their preferred profession as well as to help their families financially. For comparison, only 39% of continuing-generation students picture their prospective degree in this light.

  • Many first-generation degree-seekers see college as an opportunity toward better careers with upward mobility and higher earning potential. In this way, degree-holders can have an opportunity to break cycles of poverty that may have been part of their family’s history.
  • Additionally, a degree and a successful career may position graduates to make contributions to their communities and help others pursue college-level studies.
  • A successful college experience as a first-generation student can also help them develop a newfound sense of independence and individual self-worth.

How First-Generation College Students Can Ensure Their Own Success

Earning a college degree is hard to work for just about everyone who steps foot on a campus. Your success in college is, in part, related to your access to resources and what you do with them, as well as how prepared you are to take on college-level studies. Here are some things to keep in mind to give yourself the best chance for success in your program.

5 Traits of a Successful First-Gen College Student

As we’ve seen from the information above, the experience of first-generation college students can be more trying and difficult than other college-level learners. There are both physical and mental preparations and precautions you can take to ensure that you are giving yourself a chance to do your best school work, acclimate to college life, and practice self-care.


Preparedness ahead of time

Saying “I’ll figure it out when I get there” is not the best approach to starting your college experience. Do your best to take advantage of online resources and talk with advisors and other students before you begin school. Consider the links at the end of this guide for some good online information and starting points.


Sharpen relevant skills in advance

While it is important to enjoy any leisure time you may have before entering school, you will find it helpful to engage in some writing and reading activities before you head to school. It can also be helpful to exercise these basic skills during summer semesters if you have time off.



It is essential for all college students to be organized. Consider keeping a hard copy planner with you to ensure that you keep track of all of your academic deadlines, appointments, and social obligations. Digital planners can also be useful but be sure to save and back-up all of your data regularly.