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.

Meet the Expert
Arelis Benítez

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Arelis Benítez is a practical theologian and doctoral student at Vanderbilt University. She is a first-generation daughter of Mexican immigrant parents and a recipient of the Posse Foundation scholarship which facilitated her entrance to academic education.  

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.

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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.

1Challenge #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.

Solution

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

Parent Toolkit: What First-Generation Students’ Families Should Do Before ApplyingThis site provides a detailed checklist for parents and students as they begin the college application process.

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.

2Challenge #2:  
Paying for College

3Challenge #3:
Feeling Out-of-Place

4Challenge #4:
Guilt

5Challenge #5:
Usage of On-Campus Resources

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.

1

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.

2

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.

3

Organization

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.

4

A good work-life balance

It is easy to get burned out in school, so it is important that you balance leisure time and relaxation with your academic work.

5

Being responsible with time and energy

In order to get the most out of your academic experience, you need to get enough rest, give yourself enough time to complete assignments, and are otherwise responsible outside of the classroom. It can certainly be necessary to spend late nights studying while you’re in school, but sleep is one of the most essential things for a healthy mind and body.

Checklist and Timeline for First-Generation College Students

Keeping track of everything you need to do to prepare for college, as well as the essentials for when you arrive, is no small task. Consider the following timeline as a guide. Your own timeline may end up looking quite different than this, but this illustrates a general flow of events and a checklist to help you keep track of essential components of the process.

Prior to Senior Year of High School

  • Focus on grades
    Your grades are an important part of your college application. It is essential that you keep up with your academics throughout the duration of high school, not just the last couple of years.
  • Make time for extracurriculars
    College admissions committees are also interested in activities, groups, and projects you participate in outside of the classroom. While these can be time-consuming, it is important that you make space for extracurricular activities, especially if they relate in some way to your intended college major or future career.
  • Advanced-placement courses
    If you are academically prepared and have the opportunity to do so, completing advanced-placement courses while in high school can better prepare you for college-level studies and make your applications more attractive to college admissions committees.
  • Meet regularly with advisors and guidance counselors
    It is easy to become short-sighted while completing high school requirements. Regular meetings with your advisors or guidance counselors can ensure that you keep your eyes on the prize and adequately prepare for college applications, standardized tests, and more.
  • Prepare for the SAT or ACT
    Many colleges and universities today still require standardized test scores as part of your application. It can be helpful to begin studying for these exams during your sophomore or junior year of high school to make sure you have enough time to prepare.

Senior Year of High School

  • September
    As you enter your senior year, you will need to take some serious steps in preparation for college applications. While it is an exciting time to enter your last year of high school, there are a few things to keep in mind. One of the first things you should do, probably in September of that year, is register for the SAT or ACT exams. Additionally, it can be beneficial to meet with guidance counselors to make sure you are on track to graduate by double-checking your high school’s graduation requirements. You may also want to ask a few teachers to write you letters of recommendation for your college applications. The more time you can give them the better.
  • October
    Early in their senior years, many students make plans to visit college campuses as they finalize a list of schools that plan to apply to. Depending on when you registered, you may be taking the ACT or SAT in October. It is also wise to complete and submit to your FAFSA to ensure you are considered for federal funding. This is also a good time to request copies of your academic transcripts from your high school so you have them in hand sooner than later. For students who want to apply to college during the “early decision” or “early action” application timeline, you will likely need to submit everything during October, although timelines may vary among schools.
  • November
    During this month, many high school students begin to prepare their written materials for all of their school applications. You should also research local, regional, and national scholarships that might help you obtain free money to help fund your education. Additionally, at this early stage in the application process, it may be smart to tidy up your social media accounts and consider what information you’ve posted that is visible to the public.
  • December/January
    Submit your applications to your schools, if you have not done so already. If you plan on taking a year off between high school and college, now is a good time to consider “gap year” options.
  • February
    Continue to apply for scholarships and keep an eye out for any acceptance letters that might be coming your way.

Freshman Year of College

  • As mentioned earlier, it can be highly beneficial for you to join any first-generation student groups at your school. Additionally, you may be able to participate in special orientation events either during the summer before your freshman year or shortly after you arrive.
  • Seek out academic support resources on campus before your semester becomes hectic. This will give you a chance to consider all of your options before you are under the stress of writing papers and studying for exams.
  • Try not to overload yourself with coursework and extracurricular activities during your first semester. You may need to enroll in a certain number of credits to be considered a full-time student, if that is your goal. It will be helpful, however, if you carve out enough time for your academics and social life during this first year.
  • Undergraduate degree plans usually allow students several credits to take elective courses. Do not be afraid to take a class in an unfamiliar area. You may be surprised at how much you enjoy it and what you learn.
  • Students from all walks of life experience stress and self-doubt in school. Despite the unfortunate stigma that still surrounds psychological counseling or other types of counseling services, do not hesitate to locate a professional on campus to talk through any academic or personal troubles you may be having. These professionals are readily available for a reason and you should take advantage of their services at any time, without hesitation. Your appointments with psychological services are completely confidential and private, and there’s no shame in getting a little help when you need it.

How Colleges Support First-Generation Students

With a recent increase in awareness of the needs of first-generation students, many colleges and universities today are taking extra steps to ensure these students get the support they need to succeed. In this section, we take a look at some of the characteristics of those schools that go the extra mile to support first-generation learners.

10 Ways Schools Can Help Their First-Generation Students

1

Involve the family

Schools with workshops that educate parents and guardians of first-generation students, for example, show that they want this kind of support to be a team effort.

2

Provide ways for first-generation students to connect with other students and programs

First-generation student-friendly schools provide easy access to a variety of resources, such as mentorship programs with older students.

3

Presence in high schools

It is important that first-generation students understand that there are options out there for them. Colleges and universities that invest in reaching out to prospective college students at the high school level shows great initiative.

4

Summer bridge programs

These programs are designed to help students acclimate to college life by giving them an opportunity to meet faculty members, learn more about support services at the school, and interact with other first-generation students.

5

Tailored orientations

Some schools go the extra mile by including orientation programs, workshops, or meetings that cater to the needs of first-generation students.

6

Designated school employees or office

Be on the lookout for schools that have stand-alone programs or branches of existing offices, such as an office of multicultural learning and diversity, that provide special services for first-generation learners.

7

Explicit written support, online and hardcopy materials

Keep an eye out for schools that are vocal about their support for first-generation students, and make these special resources known in-person, in school literature and on their website.

8

Living-learning communities

 Some schools offer on-campus housing options that allow new students with the same academic goals, backgrounds, or interests to live in the same residence halls.

9

Field- or major-specific groups for underrepresented students

Colleges and universities may offer academic achievement and mentorship services that benefit underrepresented students in specific fields. These groups can include academic support, mentorship, in advising opportunities.

10

Scholarship opportunities

First-generation-friendly schools likely have at least one scholarship program that’s reserved for this demographic.

School Spotlights: 5 Schools Focusing on First-Generation Students

1

University of California – Berkeley

The office of undergraduate admissions features a first-generation students resources page. The site includes over a dozen links to the school’s mentorship services, student life options, community resources, and academic achievement initiatives.

2

University of Iowa

Provided by the Center for Diversity and Enrichment, the university features a variety of first-generation student support services, including campus outreach programs, a dedicated student group for first-generation students, and its Upward Bound program for low-income and first-generation learners.

3

Brown University

Brown operates an Undocumented, First-Generation College, and Low-Income Student Center. The center offers programs and services, including the class dissonance series, which increases the visibility of students of working class backgrounds and fosters community building. It also offers a year-long community enrichment program for first-generation college and low-income students.

4

The Catholic University of America

CUA provides a variety of on-campus and off-campus resources. First-generation students can take advantage of group therapy and individual therapy sessions, disability and support services, and student organizations. Student membership groups on campus include a chapter of a nonprofit organization that sponsors women’s education in low-income areas, first-year experience groups, and freshman retreat programs.

5

Kenyon College

Kenyon’s internal resources and programs for first-generation learners include pre-orientation summer meetings for underrepresented students, annual dinners for faculty and staff and first-generation students, and a recognition ceremony for these students’ achievements throughout the academic year.

Scholarships for First-Generation College Students

1

Institute for Study Abroad: First-Generation College Student Scholarship

This achievement-based award provides financial, academic, and professional support for first-generation students who want to study abroad.

2

First-Generation Matching Grant Program

Undergraduate students residing in Florida can apply for this need-based award. Designated for first-generation students, your school determines the application procedures, deadlines, and award amount.

3

Cynthia E. Morgan Memorial Scholarship

Established in 2005, this first-generation student award is for learner’s residing in Maryland. Applicants should be a junior or senior in high school and interested in pursuing a degree in the medical field.

4

Mission Graduates Colleges Connect

Reserved for first-generation students in California, this program offers financial aid, academic and test preparation, career guidance in alumni support, and other support services throughout the duration of the receipt’s four-year degree program.

5

First-Generation Civil Rights Fellowship

Current or aspiring college students can apply, provided they are first-generation learners and interested in pursuing careers that affect positive change for social justice.

6

Walmart Foundation First-Generation Scholarship

This award is for students planning on attending a historically black college, have financial need,  and are first-generation students.

7

Miranda Scholarship

Reserved for first-generation college students majoring in music, dance, or theater, this award requires applicants to possess a 2.5 or higher GPA and participate in a live audition/interview.

8

Red Thread Foundation for Women Scholarship

First-generation learners from underrepresented groups who need financial assistance can apply. Applicants should plan on pursuing a full-time undergraduate degree majoring in one of several concentrations, including architecture, math, science, transportation management, environmental design, psychology, or Spanish.

9

Atkins Educational Foundation Pathway to Success Scholarship

Reserved for students whose parents, grandparents, and siblings did not attend college, this award is for Florida residents applying to four-year public universities in the state.

10

Fontana Transport Inc. Scholars Program

This award is for women who are foreign students, first-generation Americans, or immigrants who are first-generation college degree-seekers.

Expert Interview: Insight for First-Generation College Students

Arelis Benítez

Arelis Benítez is a practical theologian and doctoral student at Vanderbilt University. She is a first-generation daughter of Mexican immigrant parents and a recipient of the Posse Foundation scholarship which facilitated her entrance to academic education.  

Provided you were given some options to pursue resources, services, or programs that were designed to support first-generation students, can you offer a personal anecdote on how they helped you by increasing your quality of life on-campus/in school or allowed you to work at your fullest potential?

At the time that I entered college, I cannot remember any programs that offered support for first-gen students. If they were there, not once did anyone make mention. The resources that I took advantage of were geared towards the first-year experience, mostly addressing academic support and homesickness. Utilizing the resources available, the focus was to ensure my academic success, which was important but only a small fraction of what I needed. I remember visiting the Academic Support and Enrichment office and explaining that I had a very difficult time with the in-class writing exams due to what I perceived was a language barrier. I explained that it took me longer to understand the question and write the exam within the time frame offered. In response, a letter was sent to my professors which allowed them to extend my writing time by 30 minutes. While this was helpful, in retrospect, I realize that I was not experiencing a language barrier—it was impostor syndrome. Deeper than my fear of knowing significantly less than everyone in the room, was the fear that I would fail my parents and not succeed in college. I carried anticipatory guilt up until commencement because I wondered about their disappointment if I were unable to complete my degree.   

What are some things you wish you knew about on-campus resources for first-gen college students before you arrived at school?

What advice do you have for prospective first-generation college students who are in high school and getting ready to apply for colleges? 

Any advice in terms of seeking scholarships or funding for first-generation learners?

In recent years, many popular and academic sources have documented a kind of “first-generation student guilt,” mainly in relation to leaving their families members behind or breaking familial expectations for intergenerational continuity for family businesses and more. What would you say to first-gen students who are struggling with these types of emotions, or kind of negative feelings about their college endeavors? 

Resources and Tools for First-Generation College Students

Center for First-Generation Student SuccessThis organization strives to support students of this demographic through various programs and services, research and policies, and engagement initiatives.

College Advising CorpsThis organization focuses on helping first-generation college students, low-income students, and underrepresented high school learners with the college financial aid, enrollment, and admissions processes.

College Board BlogThis blog features a variety of current and short articles on college life, academic preparedness, acclimating to college life, standardized test scores, and more.

Collegiate Parent TimelineHere is the Collegiate Parent’s take on the most beneficial planning timeline for prospective college students in high school.

FirstInTheFamily.orgProspective first-generation college students can take advantage of a variety of useful resources on the site, including planning checklist, general tips, resources, and inspirational stories.

I’mFirst.orgThis organization highlights the personal stories of first-generation college students and provides a variety of supporting online resources.

Nine Tips for First-Generation College Students in Their First SemesterProvided by the College of St. Scholastica, this list offers some quick, actionable advice.

Psychology TodayThis is another short reference guide with 22 tips for first-year college students.