What is a First-Generation College Student?

Being a first-generation college student means that you are the first person in your immediate family to attend college. In other words, neither of your parents has a college degree.

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

What It Means to Be a First-Generation College Student

Being a first-generation college student is a great accomplishment and a matter of great pride for the whole family. Parents who did not get to pursue higher education work hard to ensure that the next generation does not miss out on this opportunity. They understand that graduating from college will open the door to many other opportunities and a better quality of life for their children. It represents progress not just for their children but for future generations as well.

Of course, a lot of questions come with being a first-generation college student. Unlike students whose parents have attended college, there may not be anyone to guide or advise them. First-generation college student struggles are unique. After all, they are exploring uncharted territory within their family.

So, who can they go to for help with the college application process? Or with the hundreds of other decisions involved? Are there any special resources for first-gen students?

If you are a first-generation college student, you’ll find useful tips and resources here to help you navigate the U.S. college system. But first, it’s important to address the issue of college costs, which is often the first hurdle first-gen students face.

Understanding College Costs & FAFSA

Most people who decide not to go to college do so because they don’t think they can afford it. A look at the cost of tuition at different college websites can be intimidating. Then there’s the cost of food, living expenses, textbooks, and other miscellaneous expenses and that can add up to an amount that would deter most families.

However, if you’ve already checked out tuition costs and are reconsidering your decision to go to college, here’s something you should know.

The cost of tuition that’s published on a school’s website is called the ‘sticker price’. But, the “sticker price” is not necessarily what you would actually have to pay to attend that college. What you will actually pay is the ‘net price’, which is much lower than the published sticker price. The net price is calculated as the cost of attendance (sticker price) less any scholarship money you’ve won and the financial aid you’ve been awarded.

The net price is much lower than the sticker price. The federal government offers various forms of financial aid for college students. Some forms such as grants and scholarships are free of cost. Other forms such as federal student loans must be paid back with interest.

If you are planning on attending college as a first-generation student, one way to ease the financial burden on your family is by filing the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). This is a form you must submit every year in order to avail of any type of federal government financial aid toward college.

First-Generation College Student Scholarships

There are several first-generation college student scholarships that are established especially for this particular demographic. There’s no limit to the number of scholarships you can apply to and no limit to the amount of money you can win. And the best part – this is free money to help pay for college that you don’t need to pay back.

We’ve put together a few to help you get started:

1. 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.

The Choose Your Future Scholarship Fund was established by an anonymous donor who passionately believes that financial constraints should not be a reason why someone is denied the opportunity to fulfill their potential.  What’s great about this scholarship is that you’ll get preference for renewing your scholarship every year you’re in college provided you remain in good academic standing.

2. The Cynthia E. Morgan Memorial Scholarship Fund

This is a first-generation student scholarship for students who are juniors or seniors in high school or are attending college, a trade school, or similar in Maryland. The applicant must also be pursuing something in the medical field and be planning to continue their education within the state. Winners are awarded $1,000.

3. IFSA Diversity Scholarship

The IFSA First-Generation Scholarship is an achievement-based award. The goal of this scholarship program is to give first-generation college students the opportunity to benefit from the life-changing experience of studying abroad. Award recipients can get up to $2,500 to help cover the costs of travel, visas, and accommodation abroad.

In addition to monetary aid, the IFSA also offers significant academic and pre-professional support to prepare award recipients for this amazing experience. You will need to submit an essay as part of your scholarship application.

You can find several more first-generation college student scholarships here.

Important note: You are not limited to applying only to first-generation student scholarships. You can apply for any open scholarship as long as you meet all the eligibility requirements. However, 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.

On the other hand, scholarships that are meant for first-generation students tend to have far fewer applications. This gives you a better chance of winning. A good strategy would be to apply to both types as long as you have the time.

First-Generation Student Struggles

Being a first generation student comes with its own unique challenges. Some of the more common first generation student struggles include:

  • Lack of preparedness
  • No one to turn to for advice or guidance
  • Financial issues and challenges
  • Difficulty adjusting to college life
  • Higher student loan debt
  • Lack of family support

None of these challenges come as a surprise. Parents who have gone to college are in a better position to offer first-hand advice and insight. They can offer valuable help with every aspect, from writing compelling applications to navigating college life. First-generation students lose out on this insight and support.

Fortunately, there are plenty of resources that are intended to support first-generation students and help them overcome inherent challenges and succeed in college life.

One great place to find inspiration and tips is the YouTube channel “I’m First”. This channel was created with the goal of inspiring first-generation students to keep going and attend college. Sometimes first-generation students quit before completing their degree. Usually, it’s because they don’t have an example to show them how to deal with stress or expectations.

If you find yourself in this situation, check out the YouTube channel above. Students from all over the world send videos to this channel explaining what they went through and give tips to first-generation students who are in a similar position.

More Resources for First-Generation College Students

If you need help, you’ll find these first-generation college student resources very helpful.

1. Your High School Advisor

Your college as well as your high school if you haven’t graduated yet have several resources available to first-generation college students. Check-in with your guidance counselor or the school’s financial aid department, advisers, or support programs to see what is available to you.

2. America Needs You

America Needs You or 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 will receive support in a number of 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.

3. Re-Imagining The First Year

Re-Imagining The First Year was established by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities in 2016. It offers several programs and resources to first-generation students, as well as students of color or low-income households. They work to improve college retention rates, student success, and student experience.

Currently, 44 institutions participate including Cleveland State University, Cal Poly State University, Salisbury University, and the University of Central Florida.

4. First-Gen Futures 

First-Gen Futures is another organization committed to easing the path to college for first-generation students. Volunteers who have experienced similar struggles offer support in a number of different ways and all of it without charging any fees. They offer personalized feedback to help improve college applications, online SAT/ACT workshops that cover useful tips, strategies, and recommended practice materials. Those who need extra help can avail of one-on-one tutoring as well as personal mentorship.

Stats for First-Generation College Students

Did you know that…

  • 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

Inspiring Future Generations As a First-Generation Student

Being able to send a child to college represents hope for the family. It also serves as a guide for family members in younger generations. The younger ones will look up to that family member who did go to college. They will also want to follow their steps. It is a non-stop chain that sets a standard, one that demonstrates that going to college is a smart decision.

Younger siblings and cousins will want to follow the same path and will fight harder to get there. Besides, they’ll have someone to go to for advice. They’ll be able to find alternatives to pay for it, such as start working a little earlier or getting good grades in school to be able to apply for scholarships later on.

Are you a first-generation college student? If so, use our college match tool to find the best colleges for you, and see what kind of financial aid they might offer!

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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