What to Know as a First-Generation College Student

Being the first in your family to attend college is rewarding, but comes with challenges.

By Shane LaGesse

June 21, 2023

Close up of a young woman studying in a library.

It’s common for first-generation students to feel out of place in higher education, experts say.(GETTY IMAGES)

Being the first in your family to attend higher education can be a rewarding and exciting experience.

But research shows that first-generation college students also face challenges, often related to economic and social factors, at phases of the higher education process from application to graduation. Veronica Hauad, the deputy dean of admissions and deputy director for access, affordability and inclusion at the University of Chicago in Illinois, says that these students commonly lack what experts call “social-cultural capital.”

“If you’re first gen, your parents haven’t gone to college, maybe other people in your family haven’t gone to college – you haven’t navigated this space yet. So you don’t know the new space’s rules and how to navigate that new space,” says Hauad, who was a first-generation college student.

Who Is Considered a First-Generation Student?

The definition of first generation, used to determine eligibility for the federal TRIO programs and Pell Grant, is a higher education student whose parent or parents did not earn a bachelor’s degree, according to an amendment to the Higher Education Act of 1965.

Some schools, like the University of Pennsylvania, extend the definition to those whose parents received degrees from non-U.S. institutions, among other exceptions.

Given that the definition often varies by institution, students can miss out on resources and opportunities. Evelyn Elliott, a first-generation senior and president of First Gen United at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., says she came to campus unfamiliar with the term.

“I didn’t even know what first-generation students were until I got an email from my college about it, inviting me to join the first-gen community. It’s an identity that I didn’t even realize that I could access and tap into,” Elliott says.

Applicants should verify what definition an institution uses, or ask an admissions officer if it is not clearly stated to see if they qualify for its first-generation student opportunities.

Finding the Right Institution

Students from a first-generation or low-income background tend toward community colleges, trade schools and other vocational routes. But Matt Rubinoff, creator of the national I’m First campaign to help first-generation students succeed in higher education, encourages applicants to take a thoughtfully optimistic approach to the college search and to look at four-year degrees and more selective institutions, even if they feel out of reach.

Rubinoff, who is chief strategy officer at UStrive, an online mentoring organization for high school and college students, says it’s important for first-gen students to consider financial and other constraints but not to limit their options.

“One thing we are trying to tackle head on is this misperception of what college opportunities exist for first-gen students,” he says, “especially low-income first-gen students who, because they don’t have a parent who went through the process, tend to take more of a ‘glass half-empty’ approach.”

Like their peers, first-gen students should take into account a college’s size, selectivity, location, extracurriculars, academics and cost. But that’s “really just the tip of the iceberg,” Rubinoff says.

First-generation students also need to consider additional aid and on-campus opportunities offered specifically for first-generation students. These include summer bridge programs, first-generation cohorts and faculty mentorship programs.

Rubinoff says to think “ahead of the first time you show up, ‘Is this a school that is going to be able to support and nurture me both in and out of the classroom? Not just academically, but socially and financially as well?’”

Talking directly to an institution’s admissions officer or current student can be a great way to fill in informational gaps and learn more about what programs and services that institution offers.

Financing Your Higher Education

Navigating the financial aid process is complicated for everyone, but it can be especially confusing for first-generation applicants. A study from the Pew Research Center reports that first-generation students are more likely to incur college debt, and more of it.

Applicants should fill out the FAFSA, typically due at the end of June for each academic year, which is responsible for a large portion of many applicants’ financial aid package.

Some universities also allow students to submit financial aid appeals. If students feel they did not receive enough in scholarships, grants or loans in a university’s offer, they may be able to appeal to increase their aid package. Hauad stresses the importance of asking questions throughout the entire process.

“You need things and you should ask for them, even if the outcome is not what you want, you should ask,” Hauad says. “That’s a big piece in any part of the process. You need to be proactive.”

First-generation students can also look for scholarships and aid that cover living expenses in addition to tuition and fees, as well as scholarships offered exclusively to first-gen students. Information on such scholarships can be found online through resources like UStrive and First Generation Scholars.

Elliott advises students to budget based on the financial breakdown given to them by their college, and then seek out and account for any hidden costs and fees.

“This can be asking your academic adviser if there are certain courses that have course fees. Those are often huge surprises that come up and can be $300 to $400, depending on what your major is,” she says.

Alongside academic advisers, current students of the same intended major can be a good resource for uncovering potentially hidden costs.

Elliott also recommends looking for on-campus resources such as food pantries, textbook banks and school-sponsored transportation, which can help bring down the cost of living.

Summer Bridge Programs and Other On-Campus Resources

Summer bridge programs, typically two to four weeks during the summer months, can help ease the transition to freshman year for first-gen students and families. These programs may invite students to an in-depth orientation, communicate with family members, provide academic advising and offer noncredit summer courses.

“The two colleges I’ve worked for have had those programs – you can go to Kenyon and do KEEP or STEM, you can go to UChicago and do CAAP. These are programs that are for students who historically are underrepresented at the college. You get to spend some time at that college in the summer before orientation, before move-in, and you get to learn the landscape of the school,” says Hauad.

Once on campus, opportunities to connect and aid first-generation students are available at many institutions. Mentorship programs often pair first-generation students with faculty or upperclassmen that have similar backgrounds. Student-run organizations, like First Gen United at GWU, help connect new students to a larger cohort of first-generation students across their college or campus, and host social and academic events.

“I would definitely recommend reaching out and attending events that are specifically targeted for first-gen students, if they are available,” Elliott says. “If they’re not, that’s kind of where it can become really difficult. Especially if you go to a university or college that is traditionally high income – it can be isolating, it can be difficult.”

If programs for first-generation students are not offered at an institution, Rubinoff recommends finding other affinity groups such as student organizations and clubs, and connecting with faculty members.

Experts say it’s common for first-generation students to feel out of place in higher education.

“It’s not that you’re the impostor. It’s that you didn’t have information that others did, sometimes very intentionally, systematically, and you haven’t gotten that information,” says Hauad. “And that’s where the comfort with asking questions will come in, making sure that you ask things of people – that you’re proactive.”

But for many first-gen students, especially those from lower-income backgrounds or who are geographically far from family, that feeling might also be reinforced from back home.

“Oftentimes, it’s the parents who kind of are pressuring students to commute or come back home, drop out of school, get a job and support the family,” Rubinoff says. “It’s a difficult situation, but the investment in your education and the value of a college degree and being able to have that to show for your effort beyond long term pays for itself and more.”

First-generation students who feel out of place on campus should remember that many other students are feeling the same way when they enter college, Hauad says.

“College is new to everyone. Everyone is learning something – you’re a first-gen, you’re international coming from another country, your parents went to a different college at a different time, you’re learning to navigate. You’re not the only one even if it feels that way.”

By Ailynn Infante
Ailynn Infante