Navigating the path to higher education can be challenging, and for many students, it’s a journey undertaken for the first time in their families. A U.S. Department of Education 2017 report reveals that among high school sophomores in 2002 who later enrolled in college, a significant 24% were first-generation students. This statistic highlights the growing number of students embarking on college as the first in their families to do so. This offers valuable context on the achievement gap for first-generation college students and the need for additional support systems to help these pioneering students achieve their academic goals.

Often hailing from low-income backgrounds, first-generation students may seem similar to those who grew up in poverty but are not the inaugural college attendees in their families. What sets apart these first-generation students nationally regarding their college experiences and the support they receive? Most first-generation students attending highly or moderately selective institutions successfully graduate, in contrast to the significant majority of first-generation students enrolled in open-admission schools who do not. While the more selective schools tend to choose students who are more likely to graduate, open-admission institutions admit all who meet essential criteria. This distinction in selection criteria also applies to non-first-generation students. Notably, at highly selective schools, the family’s educational background correlates with a modest 10-percentage-point difference in graduation rates. Conversely, the graduation rate for first-generation students at open-admission schools falls below half that of non-first-generation students by a considerable margin of 23 percentage points.

Challenges Encountered by First-Generation College Students

Various challenges impact first-generation college students’ enrollment and graduation rates (FGCS). A study by the National Center for Education Statistics 2001 revealed that 54% of students with parents who completed high school enrolled in college right after graduation. In contrast, only 36% of students with parents who did not finish high school pursued college immediately. FGCS encounters obstacles such as a lack of preparedness for college, insufficient family support, and financial insecurity. Issues like racial underrepresentation, low academic self-esteem, and difficulties adjusting to college may arise during enrollment, leading to a lower college completion rate than students with at least one parent holding a four-year degree.

College readiness encompasses the academic and practical knowledge required for success in higher education. Many first-generation college students (FGCS) come from low-income backgrounds and attend underperforming PreK-12 schools. These schools often lack well-qualified teachers and suffer from inadequate funding, impacting the quality of education for FGCS. Studies show that initial SAT and ACT test-takers from first-generation backgrounds tend to have less foundational academic preparation and achieve lower scores than later-generation test-takers. SAT/ACT scores and high school GPA are critical indicators of college persistence and academic achievement.

FGCS parents often need more awareness of the importance of high school curriculum and college preparation. They may be less likely to encourage their children to excel academically or pursue advanced placement courses, influencing FGCS readiness for college. Additionally, many FGCSs need to learn about the college application process, financial aid, and the choice of a major. This group may need help differentiating between various higher education institutions, potentially selecting one that does not align with their educational objectives.

Due to their limited understanding of college expectations, FGCS parents may need help adequately preparing their children for college. As a result, FGCS often turn to high school counselors and peers for guidance, as their parents may be unable or unwilling to assist. Communication between FGCS and school personnel regarding college aspirations is less frequent than with students with college-educated parents, potentially hindering FGCS’ academic journey. While it is uncommon for high school staff to dissuade students from pursuing higher education, in cases where this occurs, FGCS must rely on self-motivation for academic success.

First-generation students may have had a different level of academic preparation or exposure to college-level coursework compared to their peers. This can lead to difficulties in writing, research, and critical thinking. Without a family history of navigating higher education, they may lack access to guidance on choosing courses, applying for financial aid, or connecting with academic resources on campus.

Throughout U.S. history, racial and ethnic disparities have been extensively documented, including within postsecondary education. Over decades, African American, Hispanic, Native American, and low-income students have consistently lagged behind White and higher-income peers in high school completion and college attendance rates. In 2008, White students made up 63% of postsecondary enrollees, a ratio significantly higher than Black, Hispanic, and Asian students. While approximately 40% of Hispanic and African American college students earn a four-year degree, over 55% of White and Asian students do so nationwide. Despite the U.S. minority population nearly doubling from 22% to 43% between 1972 and 2006, the underrepresentation of minorities in college and the disparity in graduation rates remains a persistent issue.

First Generation College Student Struggles

The cost of college can be a significant hurdle, especially for first-generation students from lower-income backgrounds. Juggling financial aid, scholarships, and work to make ends meet can be a constant source of stress. Understanding financial aid options, budgeting effectively, and managing debt can be complex tasks. With prior exposure, students may be able to navigate these financial aspects of college life.

Many first-generation students may have family responsibilities to consider, such as caring for younger siblings or helping to support their parents financially, which can be a significant burden. Balancing these obligations with academic demands can be a major challenge. Juggling coursework, studying, part-time jobs and potentially family commitments requires exceptional time management skills. Prioritizing and managing their time efficiently can be a steep learning curve, but essential for their success.

The mental well-being of first-generation students can also be significantly impacted. The constant pressure from academic challenges, financial burdens, and feelings of social isolation can lead to higher stress levels and anxiety.  These students may also have limited access to support systems. Without a strong network on campus or a family history of seeking professional help, they might struggle to find the resources needed to manage their mental health effectively.

However, it’s important to remember that students are driven by a strong desire to succeed despite these challenges. By providing suitable support systems and resources, we can empower them to thrive in college and achieve their academic goals.

How to Help

Addressing first-generation students’ challenges is essential to ensure equal opportunities for academic success and career advancement. Schools should implement college readiness programs, senior seminars, and other initiatives to help students navigate postsecondary pathways. Counselors are crucial in guiding students through college application and fostering a culture that values higher education. Providing opportunities like college tours and connections with educational professionals can be beneficial. Educators should serve as mentors by sharing their college journeys and offering support. Hosting alumni events allows students to gain insights from graduates. Family nights throughout the year can educate families about the college application process, enabling them to assist their children’s educational pursuits better.

Schools can collaborate with community organizations and businesses to offer students internships, job shadowing opportunities, and career workshops. This exposure broadens first-generation students’ career horizons and nurtures vital workforce skills. Academic support services like tutoring programs and study groups should be a priority to assist these students in their coursework. These resources help students with academic readiness different from that of their peers.

Implementing mentorship programs with current college students or recent graduates can also be advantageous. These mentors can serve as guides, offering insights on navigating higher education challenges. Schools should strive to foster a sense of community and belonging among first-generation students through student organizations, events, and activities that unite individuals with shared backgrounds. This community atmosphere can provide students with a supportive and empathetic campus environment.

Moreover, addressing financial obstacles that hinder first-generation students from accessing higher education is essential. Schools should provide resources to educate students about scholarships, grants, and other financial aid options. Educators can also offer counsel on budgeting and financial management during college.

Ways to Thrive as a First-Generation Student

Seek Support for Yourself and Your Family: Reach out to understanding peers, faculty, and administrators for guidance in navigating the academic, social, and financial challenges of college. Family backing and integration into the college community significantly boost graduation success.

Engage in Conversations About Your Journey: Connecting with fellow first-gen students can provide immense relief. Sharing experiences, stories, and support with peers facing similar situations is invaluable. Seek guidance from senior students who can serve as mentors. Student and faculty mentors are also there to assist with any queries.

Utilize College Resources: Take advantage of the various academic, financial, and mental health resources available to students. These resources are confidential and can aid in effectively addressing a wide range of issues.

Bottom Line

By breaking down these barriers, we can guarantee these students equal chances to succeed academically and pursue prosperous careers. Moreover, offering targeted support and resources tailored to their requirements can empower first-generation students to flourish in higher education.