If you are the first 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 first-year students each year are first-generation college students[1]. The definition is a “learner 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 critical 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. This guide 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 college as a first-generation college student.

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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, professional Theater, and Las Vegas casinos. Bob 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 BobsBrainWaves.com.

What is a First Generation College Student

A first-generation college student is 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 wonder about these distinctions between various institutions and how this might impact your candidature. So, let’s dig a little deep. Every college, university, and funding organization may set its guidelines for this term. Generally, a first-generation college student comes from a family where neither of their parents/guardians gained a four-year degree. Students whose parents hold an associate degree or other certification are usually classified as first-generation students.

What are Some of the Characteristics of First Generation Students?

  • Many are from socioeconomically disadvantaged 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.
  • They 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 nationwide 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 community contributions. 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

A good part of your support structure may be missing when you don’t have a parent, sibling, or other relatives who have already gone through applying and attending a college or university. 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 like the FAFSA.
  • You cannot tour different college campuses to get a sense of how each 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 the available funding options.
  • You feel 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 a range of funding options is 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

Hundreds of scholarships are 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:

Dorrance Scholarships | Amount: $12,000

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 financial and academic support for Arizona high school graduates pursuing undergraduate degrees in Arizona public universities.

Corinne Licostie Family Foundation Scholarship | Amount: $500

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 who did not attend college. 

Odyssey Scholarships | Amount: Varies

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. 

Fontana Transport Inc. Scholars Program | Amount: $5,000

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 to help their families, community, and themselves. 

Government Programs for First Generation College Students

Federal Pell Grant Program

The United States federal government offers the Pell Grant program 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 Programs

The 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

FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is a free form that students must fill out to determine their federal government financial assistance eligibility. Read more about FAFSA.

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 understand 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, request transcripts, and ask 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 academics and ability to focus on goals. Try to give them 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, if possible. It allows them to demonstrate their unique qualities 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 alums 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 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 must also sort out housing, take A.P. examinations, and send final transcripts.

Overcoming Challenges As a First Generation Student

Here are some tips to help you deal with typical problem situations if you are a First Generation College Student (FGCS):

  • 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
    Whether professional, academic, or personal, mentors provide one-on-one relationships to FGCS that can truly make a 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 many unfamiliar situations and make decisions they may not feel confident answering. 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, take cold medicine, or get a flu shot. These centers can also refer them to nearby clinics for any care they cannot 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 are very friendly to first-generation students.

Resources for First Generation College Students

As a first-generation college student, you must 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 to 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. higher education innovation and advocacy for first-generation student success.
  • First Generation Foundation: First Generation Foundation aims 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 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 offers several resources for first-generation college students.
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