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First Generation College
Bob Litt

What is it?
College Students Challenges
First Generation College Students
 First Generation College Students
Overcoming Challenges
friendly to first generation students
first generation college student

First Generation College Student

If you are the first one in your family to attend a college or university, you are demographically known as a First Generation College. And you are not alone. The National Center for Education Statistics (part of the U.S. Department of Education) says that nearly one-third of all incoming freshmen each year are first generation college students. The definition is a “learner coming from a family where neither of their parents or guardians has obtained a bachelor’s degree.” The majority of these students hail from minority households. 

For most First Generation College Students, it’s an honor and a privilege to have the opportunity to attend college, one that their parents may not have had. Along with this important opportunity, challenges arise. But for every challenge, there is a solution. First generation colleges should know that they are supported by their families, communities, and schools. In this guide, we will walk you through all aspects of being a first generation college student, including challenges, solutions, planning, tips & tricks, scholarships, and all resources students need to navigate through college as a first generation college student.


Meet the Author – Bob Litt


Bob himself was a first-generation college student

Bob Litt, the author of this article, has had a 40-year career working in New York’s financial industry, Federal government contracting, the professional Theater, and Las Vegas casinos. Bob himself was a first-generation college student with firsthand experience and has helped numerous other first generation college students in his community. Bob now accepts consulting work as a technical writer and corporate training developer. He is also an author, screenwriter, and blogger. Explore his website at


What is a First Generation College Student

A First Generation College Student is a student from a family in which no one has graduated with a college degree. Many universities consider students the first generation only if their parents or legal guardians have not attended a 4-year college degree. 

You might be wondering about these distinctions between various institutions and how this might impact your candidature. So, let’s dig a little deep. Every college and university and funding organizations may set their guidelines as to what this term means. As a general rule, a first generation college student comes from a family where neither of their parents/guardians gained a four-year degree. In most cases, students whose parents hold an associate degree, or other certification, are still classified as first generation students.

What are Some of the Characteristics of First Generation Students?

  • Many are from socioeconomically disadvantages families
  • Racial and ethnic minority students make up large percentages of FGS applicants
  • Females are the majority
  • Their college entrance exam scores are typically lower than the national average
  • They lack support from friends and family
  • Often feel uncomfortable on a college campus
  • Aren’t as likely to seek support from their professors or peers
  • Don’t get involved in campus initiatives
  • Attend part-time while working, often commuting rather than living in dorms
  • They don’t connect with peers who aren’t first generation students

Why are First Generation College Students so special?

Universities and colleges across the nation are looking for ways to create more culturally, socially, and economically diverse student bodies. First generation college students are at the top of their lists. First generation college students typically represent learners who are focused, driven, and motivated to go against the grain – even in the face of uncertainty. They diversify campuses, provide unique voices and opinions in the discussion, and become role models for their families and communities – many of whom haven’t attended college.

Why is it so Important for Colleges and Universities to Support Them?

In every generation, leaders emerge. Students who can gain a post-secondary education have greater opportunities for better jobs, higher education, and significant contributions to their communities. Higher education institutions recognize the importance of diversity in the next generation of leaders and highly value first generation students for their contributions to the student body.


First Generation College Students Challenges

When you don’t have a parent, sibling, or other relatives who have already gone through applying and attending a college or university, a good part of your support structure may be missing. You might feel that you have to do it all on your own, and there is certainly a lot to do:

  • You may not know where to begin the application process and don’t feel confident enough to ask for help.
  • You may not understand how to fill out financial documents, such as the FAFSA.
  • You are unable to tour different college campuses to get a sense of how each one differs.
  • You may worry that you will fall through the cracks at a university and won’t know college life basics.
  • You may feel guilty about having access to a form of upward mobility that your parents never got to experience.
  • If you are from a low-income family, you may feel overwhelmed by education costs and don’t know about the available range of funding options.
  • You are feeling guilty about putting your family under financial pressure to give you this opportunity.


Paying for College: First Generation College Students

Paying for college is one of the biggest obstacles for any student bound for college, but these challenges are often further intensified for first generation students. Whether from a low-income family or simply unaware of the different types of scholarships and federal funding available, navigating this part of the application process can make the difference between whether or not a student decides to attend college. Many first-generation students don’t know that there is a range of funding options available to them. Ranging from scholarships tailored to their situations to federally funded programs, first generation students shouldn’t let paying for college be a roadblock to their education. 

First Generation College Student Scholarships

There are hundreds of scholarships available to all college students and dozens for those meeting specific criteria. And there are several just for first generation applicants. Here are a few first generation college student scholarships:

List of First Generation College Student Scholarships

Jacqui and Bennet Dorrance established the Dorrance Merit Scholarship at the Arizona Community Foundation. The Dorrance Scholarship for first generation students is a need-based award for providing financial and academic support for Arizona high school graduates pursuing undergraduate degrees in Arizona public universities.

Amount: $12,000 && Deadline: Feb 2023

The Corinne Licostie Family Foundation Scholarship is for high school seniors and college students who have demonstrated academic excellence, leadership qualities, community service, and/or outstanding personal achievements. Special consideration is given to students with demonstrated financial need and parents that did not attend college. 

Amount: $500 &&Deadline: April 2023

The Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota administers several scholarships to first-year and transfer students to reward academic success, achievements, talents, community contributions and demonstrated leadership. Some of these scholarships are for first generation college students. You can get a full list of scholarships on the Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota Scholarships page.

Amount: Varies based on the scholarshi && Deadline: Varies based on the scholarship

The Odyssey Scholarship program at The University of Chicago provides enhanced academic, social, and career support to students from lower-income families or the first in their families to attend college. These scholarships are selected based on financial needs and family circumstances. 

Amount: Varies && Deadline: Varies

Fontana Transport Inc provides a scholarship for first generation high school seniors who are underrepresented, need financial assistance, and are passionate about furthering their education as a means to help out their family, community, and themselves. 

Amount: $5,000 && Deadline: April 2023

Government programs for First Generation College Students

Federal Pell Grant ProgramThe federal government of the United States offers the Pell Grant program that is administered through the U.S. Department of Education. This financial assistance program, unlike a loan, does not have to be repaid, except under certain circumstances. The process for applying is through FAFSA.

Federal TRIO ProgramsThe federal government of the United States offers a financial assistance program to students through the Office of Postsecondary Education for low income and first generation students in higher education

FAFSA for First Generation College Students

FAFSA is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid that students need to fill out to get any federal government’s financial assistance. 

Top 5 Tips for First Generation Students for Filling Out the FAFSA

1. Register for an FSA ID The FSA ID serves as a legal signature on the FAFSA and is required when submitting. Use the FSA website to sign up for yours before the submission period opens on October 1

2. Use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool Provided by the Department of Education, this handy tool simplifies the application process by helping students know the type of financial information each question is asking for. 

3. Gather Federal Tax Returns The dispersal of federal funds is based on tax information from the previous year, whether from the student or their parents. The application process can’t begin without these documents, so make sure they are ready as soon as possible.

4. Don’t Miss Deadlines – Deadlines vary for federal and state funding, so students should use FAFSA’s student aid deadline calendar to make sure they don’t lose funding.

5. Review the Student Aid Report (SAR) This is the document sent by FAFSA showing how much you or your family will be expected to contribute to a college education. Sometimes these numbers can seem too high, at which point students can submit further documentation showing they should receive more governmental funding.


Getting Ready for College: A First-Generation Timeline

Applying to college is a process, so students must complete all the necessary steps along the way. To help first-generation students know what these steps entail, we developed this timeline so you can know what to expect and schedule for college preparation:

  • Right After Senior Year :The summer is a great time to do some college planning by researching schools, taking virtual tours, and visiting when possible. 
  • August: Create a Calendar: Create a calendar showing when applications are due, start thinking about when to start writing essays, requesting transcripts, and asking teachers to write recommendations.
  • September: Write and Edit Your Essays: Students in this group can stand out by talking about the struggles they’ve overcome and the hard work they’ve put in to be the first in their family to attend college. 
  • October: Submit the FAFSA®: The Free Application for Federal Student Aid determines a student’s eligibility for financial aid and can be completed any time after October 1. Students should fill out the FAFSA as early as possible since many schools award federal aid on a first-come, first-serve basis.
  • October: Take Entrance Exams: College entrance exams, like the SAT or ACT, are required for most schools, and many first-generation students may be eligible to apply for and receive fee waivers for both the SAT and ACT exams. 
  • November: Request and Gather Recommendations: Think of teachers who know you both for your dedication to your academics and your ability to focus on goals. Try to provide them with the recommendation form at least one month before they are due, as most will be writing letters for multiple students.
  • December: Submit Your Applications: Early decision applications must be submitted by December, but students planning to submit during the regular application period typically send theirs between January and March. 
  • February: Entrance Interviews: Not all schools require interviews, but first-generation students should take advantage of this step of the process if possible. It allows them to demonstrate the unique qualities they will bring to the institution. 
  • March: Select a School: Most schools send out all acceptance letters by April. During this process, some of the most important things to consider are final costs (after awarded aid), location, study options, and alumni success rates.
  • April: Review and Accept Financial Aid: Your acceptance letter provides information on available federal aid and internal scholarships. Students should then add any other external scholarships or grants to this amount to see how much money they’ll need to pay each academic year. 
  • May: Final Steps: Even after sending in a formal acceptance, there is still work to do. First generation students are more likely to work during college, be it via work-study or outside. Getting a leg up on the competition in the summer months helps ensure you won’t have to worry about finding a job in the midst of starting classes. Students also need to sort out housing, take A.P. examinations, and send final transcripts.

Overcoming Challenges

Here are some tips to help you deal with typical problem situations:

  • Navigating Freshman Orientation: Welcome week activities often divide incoming students into smaller groups, allowing them to acclimate to campus with student leaders’ help. Some schools also provide pre-orientation for FGCS, allowing them to gain their bearings before their entire entering class sets foot on campus.
  • Feeling Alone or Unknown by Your Peers: Many schools are starting to recognize that first generation students need more support and are acting on that knowledge. Students should research prospective schools to see if they offer FGCS clubs, such as the Promising Futures Program at Chapman University.
  • Maintaining Good Emotional and Mental Health: Most, if not all, colleges provide counselors and psychologists free of charge to students. These judgment-free professionals help FGCS sort through college pressures and any emotions they may feel about being the first in their family to gain a degree.
  • Feeling the Absence of an Older Adult Providing Guidance: Be it professional, academic, or personal; mentors provide one-on-one relationships to FGCS that can truly make the difference in whether they succeed or fail. Students can ask a teacher, an internship supervisor, or an older friend in the community to keep an eye on them and ensure they stay above water.
  • Falling Behind in Academics: Many schools offer study centers and test prep programs for students, such as those offered at Georgia State University. Offerings may include a writing center, tutoring lab, or math assistance program.
  • Feeling Overwhelmed by so Many New and Unknown Experiences: Burnout is a huge issue for FGCS as they encounter so many unfamiliar situations and make decisions; they may not feel confident to answer. Students who find themselves overwhelmed should take advantage of their school’s recreational facilities or art therapy programs to refocus.
  • Not Knowing Where to Get Proper Health Care on Campus: All schools should have a medical center where basic medical care is provided. Students can receive a check-up, pick up cold medicine, or get a flu shot. These centers can also refer them to nearby clinics for any care they aren’t able to provide.
  • Worrying About Finding Likeminded People: Today’s college campuses have myriad social, academic, Panhellenic, and professional clubs available for students. Whether your interest is Pokémon or Physics, minority issues or math, chances are there’s a student group representing your interests.
  • Not Knowing Where on Campus to Find a Particular Service: The student services office is often the best friend of the FGCS, and professionals in this department are well-versed in all the support programs and services available throughout campus. Please get to know a student services worker within your first few weeks on campus and consult them anytime you need guidance.

Colleges that offer First Generation College Student Programs

There are a lot of universities that offer college degrees, and many colleges and universities offer programs that are first generation student-friendly. But not all these programs are the same. Here is a list of colleges and universities that very friendly to first generation students.


Resources for First Generation College Students

As a first generation college student, you need to review all available resources to help you get through college. Imagine the day of graduation and how proud your family will be to see you finish college for the first time in the family. Here are some resources that will help you as a first generation college student.

  • Center for First Generation Student Success: Center for First Generation Student Success aims to acknowledge the intersectional experiences of first-generation college students. Its vision is to drive higher education innovation and advocacy for first-generation student success.
  • First Generation Foundation: First Generation Foundation’s goal is to encourage first generation college students to pursue academically rigorous post-secondary educational experiences. They provide easy access to information and resources for students who are the first in their families to attend college.
  • FirstGen Fellows: FirstGEN is a ten-week summer program for undergraduate students who are the first in their immediate families to attend an institution of higher education and who are passionate about pursuing careers in social justice. In this summer program, first generation students can network with other first generation students and build a network of fellow first generation students.
  • I Am First!: I Am First is a community of first generation students. I Am First was created by the nonprofit Center for Student Opportunity in 2013 to provide students who lack a family history of higher education with inspiration, information, and support on the road to and through college.
  • Go College! Now: Go College! Now is a community of the first generation and low-income graduates in the U.S. Go College! Now provides an award-winning documentary that tells inspiring stories about four high school students. This organization also provides several resources for first generation college students.


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