What is a First-Generation College Student?

A first-generation college student is generally the first person in an immediate family to go to college. However, the definition can change depending on who you’re asking! But being classified as a first-generation college student can come with quite a few perks and things you need to know as you head off to your first semester of college.

A first generation student sitting at a desk using a tablet.

What is a First-Generation College Student?

The definition of a “first-generation college student” seems like an easy one on the surface: It is the first person in an immediate family to go to college. But some questions arise that can make pinning down this definition tough.

  • What if the parent did go to and graduate from college, but he is no longer involved in the family?
  • What if the parent went to some college but didn’t graduate?
  • Does some community college count?
  • Does an associate’s degree count?
  • What if the parent is also currently in college but hasn’t graduated yet?
  • What if the parent did graduate from college but the school wasn’t in the United States?

When utilizing first-generation college student resources, it’s important to understand exactly how the organization defines it. No matter your definition, though, one fact is clear:

Those who are the first in their family to attend college can find themselves overwhelmed with their options. The college application process can be so complex, and this is true of second-generation college students, too.

And, the process has changed so much in the past decades, that going to college can be unrecognizable to many parents who hold a degree. So don’t feel out of place if you feel overwhelmed by what’s ahead of you – we’ve put together a list of tips and resources to help you navigate these waters and give insight into some amazing resources for first-generation college students.

Applying to College as a First-Generation Student

As a first-generation college student, it’s important to know where to start. Consider talking to other relatives who attended college recently, guidance counselors, and teachers for assistance. You might also want to reach out to a professional college counselor who can assist during the entire process.

In addition, students can utilize College Raptor’s free resources. Each of these tools are designed to help simplify applying for and attending college and show you your most affordable options.

  1. College Match
    • By inputting your information, goals, wants, and needs, you can discover colleges that match you and your aspirations. You will be able to see how you stack up against other applicants so you can improve your application.
  2. Scholarship Search Tool
    • There are thousands and thousands of scholarships available to students, and the Scholarship Search tool allows students and their families to easily navigate what’s available.
  3. Financial Aid Offer Comparison Tool
    • There is no standardized format for financial aid offers, and comparing offers between schools can be difficult. Our resource translates the data so it is easier to understand.
  4. Major Search Tool
    • Choosing the right major is essential, and students and their families can browse thousands of majors, their related careers, and the top schools for a particular program.
  5. Career Finder
    • For those interested in a particular career, our Career Finder helps students learn more about job responsibilities, average salaries, and expected job growth.
  6. Rankings
    • Every year, College Raptor releases its top school lists that includes best schools in the country, best colleges by state, Hidden Gems, and more.

Programs for First-Generation College Students

There are also several programs available in the United States for First-Generation college students. Before applying for these, though, make sure you understand their definition! Here are a few to get you started:

America Needs You

America Needs You (ANY) is available in four states: New York, New Jersey, California, and Illinois. This organization and its network of over 2,500 students, professionals, and alumni are dedicated to helping first-generation students who are both low-income and high-achieving.

If your application is accepted, you can receive support in several different ways, from professional grants to one-on-one mentorship. You will also be able to attend career development workshops and get internship and transfer support.

Educational Opportunity Programs

Educational Opportunity Programs (EOP) can be very intense, but they’re a way for students to make the jump from high school to college. The programs’ summer schedule is designed to get students up to speed in certain subjects so they’re fully prepared for college curriculum. EOP coursework can be rigorous, but many students point to these experiences as making a difference in college and beyond.

Summer Bridge Programs

Summer bridge programs are another way for first-generation students to better prepare for college. Generally hosted by the college, they can last 2 to 4 weeks during the summer and cover everything from an in-deptderstand h orientation to academic advising. These programs can help students feel less isolated, better unwhat’s expected of them during college, and understand the resources available to them for the next four years.

Paying for College

Understanding how to pay for college can be overwhelming to someone who understands the process, let alone a first-generation college student! But there are avenues available to students:


Every student, regardless of income or whether or not they’re the first student to attend college, should complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The application makes you eligible for federal loans and you could receive the Pell Grant if you meet the income requirements.

In addition, most colleges use the FAFSA when determining their financial aid packages. Failing to complete yours could take you out of the running for these grants and scholarships.


Almost every state in the United States has grants designed to help their residents and students afford college. Understanding the availability in your state can help you create a game plan for your financial future. You might even be eligible for a free ride!

For example, Florida has the First Generation Matching Grant Program (FGMG), a need-based program. Awards and application procedures depend on the participating school.

3. Scholarships

In addition to awards that are specifically for first-generation college students, you are not limited to applying only these awards. You can apply for any open scholarship as long as you meet all the eligibility requirements.

Pro tip: Big-dollar scholarships that are open to all students tend to be far more competitive, with thousands of students applying for one award. This can reduce your chances of winning. By keeping an eye out for awards designed for first-generation college students, you could find it easier to win!

Here are a few scholarships and resources to start your search:

    • Choose Your Future Scholarship Fund. Students graduating high school in Chicago with a minimum 2.5 GPA and an ACT score of 21 are eligible to apply to the Choose Your Future Scholarship Fund. Preference is given to first-generation students, although it is open to all students. It is renewable.
    • IFSA First-Generation Scholarship. This particular scholarship from the Institute for Study Abroad is for first-generation college students and minority students who are interested in studying abroad. Recipients can receive up to $10,000 to cover costs.
    • Patty and Melvin Alperin First Generation Scholarship. This award is for Rhode Island students who are going to a two-year or four-year school and demonstrate financial need. It awards up to $1,500
    • College Raptor Scholarship Search Tool. Our Scholarship Search Tool is a database that helps first-generation college students find awards they qualify for.
    • And more

Tips for First-generation Students

Applying to college as a first-generation student doesn’t have to feel like a monumental or impossible task. Here are a few tips to help you through the process:

  1. Talk to your guidance counselor
    • Your high school’s guidance counselor or college advisor can help you navigate the college application process. They can notify you of important deadlines and help you get your ducks in a row.
  2. Reach out to colleges
    • If you have any questions about college resources, be sure to reach out to the school in question. Even after you start attending, you can contact various departments on campus if you ever have a concern or question about resources that will help you succeed or adapt to your new environment.
  3. Attend college fairs
    • College fairs can be a great way to get introduced to schools in your local area. You generally won’t have to travel far, and every school in attendance will have a representative who can answer your questions.
  4. Use College Raptor resources
    • College Raptor has a wealth of resources that assist with the college application and planning processes. Get a handle on your finances and more with us.
  5. Work with a professional college counselor
    • There are professional college counselors and advisors who can be hired to walk the students through the next steps. They could help increase a student’s acceptance chances, too!
  6. Contact free resources
    • Several free resources and organizations including Summer Search and Minds Matter help first-generation college students create a foundation for success.

Interesting Stats

Here are a few interesting stats to know about first-generation college students:

  • First-generation students make up almost 24% of the undergraduate population.
  • They are more likely to enroll in two-year schools when compared to their peers (48% vs 32%).
  • They are also more likely to enroll in online courses and distance learning options when compared to their peers (8% vs 5%).
  • First-generation students are less likely to complete a college degree in a six-year time frame compared to peers (50% vs 64%).
  • They are more likely to go to college part-time rather than full-time when compared to their peers (48% vs 38%).
  • 1/3 of first-generation students are 30 years of age or older

Entering college as a first-generation student can be a daunting experience – but there are people on your side. By leveraging free and paid resources, working with your guidance counselor, and talking to your future college, you can get on track for success.

With thousands of colleges in the United States, finding the right school can also feel impossible! Not sure where to start? Our College Match tool takes your preferences, needs, and wants into account to help you find the right college for you. And it’s completely free!

One thought on “What is a First-Generation College Student?”

  1. Reyna says:

    Anyone that graduated from college first with their family was considered “First Generation” was my understanding. Well, that was way before that the term became so popular with the young crowd.

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