First Generation College Student Guide Financial Aid, Timelines, Checklists & Encouragement for Students Who Are the First in the Family to Attend College

According to the U.S. Department of Education NCES, nearly one-third of all incoming freshman each year are first generation college students. Defined as learners coming a family where neither of their parents or guardians have obtained a bachelor’s degree, the majority of these students hail from minority households. While being a first generation college student is a proud accomplishment, students in this category often face obstacles their peers don’t experience. A UCLA report found that, within six years of matriculation, only 40 percent of these students had graduated, compared to 55 percent whose parents held a postsecondary degree. The following guide helps first generation students understand the challenges and unknowns they’ll face while also offering concrete guidance, support and resources.

How to Meet the Challenges Faced by First Generation College Students

For most first generation college students (FGCS), it’s an honor and a privilege to have the opportunity to attend college that their parents may not have had. Along with this important opportunity, challenges arise, but these students need to know they are supported by their families, communities and schools. For every challenge, there’s a solution—whether it means a heart-to-heart talk with family members or seeking help from school authorities. Learn more below about the challenges faced by FGCS and the solutions available.

Feeling guilt about having access to a form of upward mobility that parents never got to experience.
Recognize that parents want to see their children succeed and do well in life. While it may add temporary financial pressure, college is a means to a good end and better job prospects.
Lack of understanding when it comes to filling out financial documents, such as the FAFSA.
Parents of first generation students are unfamiliar with the financial documents required to gain federal funding, leaving the student to sort out the specifics. Fortunately, there are resources. Students should speak to their guidance counselor or take advantage of numerous online tutorials, including one offered by the Office of the U.S. Department of Education.
Unable to tour different college campuses to get a sense of how each one differs.
Many first generation students only apply to one school because they haven’t had the chance to tour others and get a sense of what is available to them. These days, however, that doesn’t have to be a barrier. Organizations like YouVisit and CampusTours provide virtual online tours of thousands of campuses across the country.
Students from low income families feel overwhelmed by the cost of education and don’t know about the plethora of funding options available to them.
In addition to generic scholarships, a wide variety of institutions and organizations offer grants and scholarships specifically for first-generation students. More information about these opportunities is given elsewhere in this guide.
Students worry they’ll fall through the cracks at a university and won’t know basic facets of college life.
Many colleges now recognize that first generation college students face anxiety when it comes to stepping foot on campus and provide many resources. Examples of these include Dartmouth’s First Year Student Enrichment Program and Clemson’s FIRST Program.
They don’t know where to begin in the process and aren’t confident enough to ask for help.
While students should always feel comfortable asking a guidance counselor to help with any questions they may have about the application and acceptance process, there are also myriad resources online to guide them through every step of the process. The ACT standardized test organization offers a very comprehensive, step-by-step resource to help students with every aspect of planning for and attending college.

The Importance of First Generation College Students

Who are first generation college students?

Because there is no overarching definition of first generation college students, some institutions and funding organizations may set their own guidelines as to what this term means. As a general rule, a first generation college student comes from a family where neither of their parents/guardians gained a four-year degree. In most cases, students whose parents hold an associate degree or other certification are still classified as first generation students.

What makes them so special?

As universities and colleges across the nation look for ways to create more culturally, socially, and economically diverse student bodies, first generation college students are at the top of their lists. Data has repeatedly shown the economic benefits of a college degree, illuminating the average weekly pay of a high school graduate to be $638, while peers holding a four-year degree take home $1053. 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 discussion, and become role models for their families and communities – many of whom haven’t attended college.

What are some of the hallmarks of first generation students?

In a report on freshman year challenges for first generation college students, authors Ruth A. Darling and Melissa Scandlyn Smith found numerous predominant characteristics of this student population, including:

  • Many are from socioeconomically disadvantages 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

To this list, Merrimack College also adds the following hallmarks:

  • Often feel uncomfortable on a college campus
  • 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 is it so important to support them?

In every generation, leaders emerge. Students who are able to gain a postsecondary education have much

greater opportunities when it comes to better jobs, higher education, and making significant contributions to their communities. Higher education institutions recognize the importance of diversity when it comes to the next generation of leaders and highly value first generation students for their contributions to the student body.

Paying for College: First Generation College Students

Paying for college is one of the biggest obstacles for any students 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 often make the difference as to whether or not a student decides to attend college. What many first generation students don’t know is that there are myriad funding options available to them. Ranging from scholarships tailored to their individual situations to federally funded programs, first generation students shouldn’t let paying for college be a roadblock to their education. Some of the best scholarship and government programs are reviewed below.

Scholarships for First Generation Students Benjamin and Patricia Allen Scholarship

Awarded by the Iowa State University to first generation business students, this is a renewable scholarship for students who maintain at least a 3.0 GPA.

Dorrance Scholarship Program

The University of Hawaii at Hilo offers this need-based scholarship of $8,000 per year to local students who are the first in their families to attend college.

First Generation Scholarship

Coca-Cola offers this $5,000 renewable scholarship to first generation students who hold a GPA of 3.0 or higher and can provide a personal statement.

First Generations Scholars’ Program

University of Colorado at Boulder provides students with up to $2,000 per academic year, provided they take part in the First Generation Program and maintain a 2.0 GPA.

Fontana Transport Inc. Scholars Program

This organization provides scholarships to low income first generation students seeking a four-year degree. Each year the program specifies eligible degrees, so students should review the list for the year they are planning to enroll.

I’m First! Scholarship

Provided by I’m First, this $1,000 renewable scholarship is open to any graduating high school seniors who are the first in their family to attend college.

Newton H. Baker Scholarship

Provided by the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation, this $1,000 scholarship is open to Washington County students who are the first in their family to attend college and can show financial need.

Odyssey Scholarships

Created by the University of Chicago, this program provides scholarships of varied amounts to first generation students whose families make less than $90,000 per year. An additional stipend for the summer between their freshman and sophomore years is also available.

Patty & Melvin Alperin First Generation Scholarship

Provided by the Rhode Island Foundation, first generation students from Rhode Island are eligible for this $1,000 renewable scholarship.

Regents’ Scholarship

Texas A&M awards this $5,000 renewable scholarship to first generation students whose families earn less than $40,000 per year.

Government Programs Federal Pell Grant

This program offered via the U.S. Department of education is a need based grant awarded based on a student’s (or their family’s) income as reported on the FAFSA.

First Generation Matching Grant

The Florida Department of Education offers this matching program for first generation students to receive the same amount of funds they are able to contribute for their educations.

TRIO Programs

Awarded via the Office of Postsecondary Education, TRIO funding exists to support low income and first generation students in higher education.

Work Study

Federal Student Aid allows students to work part-time while in college, earning money as part of their FAFSA award package.

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5 Tips for First Generation Students for Filling out the FAFSA

Register for an FSA ID
1

The FSA ID serves as a legal signature on the FAFSA and is required when submitting. Use the FSA website to sign up for yours before the submission period opens on January 1.

Use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool
2

Provided by the Department of Education, this handy tool simplifies the application process by helping students know the type of financial information each question is asking for.

Gather Federal Tax Returns
3

The dispersal of federal funds is based on tax information from the previous year, be it from the student or their parents. The application process can’t begin without these documents, so make sure they are at the ready as soon as possible.

Don’t Miss Deadlines
4

Deadlines vary for federal and state funding, so students should use the student aid deadline calendar provided by FAFSA to make sure they don’t lose out on funding.

Review the Student Aid Report (SAR)
5

This is the document sent by FAFSA showing how much you or your family will be expected to contribute to a college education. Sometimes these numbers can seem too high, at which point students are able to submit further documentation showing they should receive more governmental funding.

Getting Ready for College : A First Generation Timeline

Senior year can feel like crunch time, with the pressures of the final two semesters of high school aligning with the demands of college admissions panels. The following timeline helps prospective college students and their families create a realistic schedule to ensure nothing falls by the wayside.

Summer Before Senior Year

Senior year is filled with extra responsibilities as students focus on finishing strong while also looking ahead to college. First generation students may also have additional responsibilities relating to family and work. The summer is a great time to do some college planning by researching schools, taking virtual tours and visiting when possible. It’s also a great time to take a career quiz – such as the one provided by Washington’s Workforce Training & Education Coordinating Board – to get a sense of possible majors.

August: Create a Map

First generation college students often only apply to one school, but by using online resources, they can tour a variety of schools and find multiple options that suit their needs. Because many students in this category are eligible to receive a college application fee waiver, it’s never been easier. Create a calendar showing when applications are due, and start thinking about when to start writing essays, requesting transcripts, and asking teachers to write recommendations.

September: Essays

Essays provide first generation students the opportunity to tell admission panels why they are special. In a sea of similar answers, students in this group can really 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. Try to review prompts as soon as they’re posted online and spend a few weeks crafting a thoughtful outline before setting hands to keyboard.

October: Take the ACT or SAT

College entrance exams are required for the vast majority of schools, and lots of first generation students may be eligible to apply for and receive fee waivers for both the SAT and ACT exams. Students that are strong in vocabulary and writing typically elect to take the SAT, while those who favor analytical and scientific reasoning take the ACT. Students can take the exams up to three times before an admissions professional raises an eyebrow, so consider taking one in the junior year to get a sense of areas for improvement.

November: Ask for and gather recommendations

Recommendations allow outside parties to speak to the strength and character of a student, and first generation students can use these to their advantage. Think of teachers who know you both for your dedication to your academics and your ability to focus on goals. Try to provide referees with the recommendation form at least one month before they are due, as most will be writing letters for multiple students.

December: Send Applications

Early decision applications must be submitted by December, but students planning to submit during the regular application period typically sent theirs between January and March. Students should take note of any rolling admissions schools because decisions are made as applications are received and places may fill up quickly.

January: Complete the FAFSA

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid can be completed anytime after January 1 and relies on financial information about the student’s family if they are a dependent, or their own if they are an independent adult. Many first generation students qualify for both Pell Grants and work-study funding, providing money that doesn’t have to be repaid. Lots of schools award federal aid on a first come, first-served basis, so it’s in a student’s best interest to fill this out as early as possible.

February: Interviews

Not all schools require interviews, but first generation students should take advantage of this step of the process if possible, as it allows them to demonstrate the unique qualities they will bring to the institution. Some are conducted on campus, although students further afield may interview with an alumnus in their area.

March: Pick A School

Most schools send out all acceptance letters by April, save for those with rolling admissions. Whether electing to gather all acceptance letters before making a decision or judging them individually as they arrive, some of the biggest things to consider during this process are cost versus awarded aid, location, options for study, and alumni success rates.

April: Review Financial Aid

Regardless of whether a student is first generation or not, learning how much funding is available is often a huge deciding factor for which school to attend. 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. Some students may decide to take out loans, while others may consider a school with cheaper tuition or one that provided more institutional funding.

May: Tie Up Loose Ends

Even after sending in a formal acceptance, there is still work to do. First generation students are more likely to work during college, be it via work-study or an outside job. 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 also need to sort out housing, take AP examinations, and send final transcripts.

FGCS College Checklist

Senior year

Find schools that value and support first generation college students

Seek support when it comes to studying for and taking the ACT or SAT

Write your college essay, then ask trusted advisors to read it and provide comments for improvement

Locate teachers who can write insightful letters of recommendation

Make sure you’re ready to fill out the FAFSA on January 1

Finish strong: get all of your documents in on time and ace your final exams during senior year

Review acceptance letters, think about financial aid, and commit to a school

Freshman year of college

Work during the summer to save money for college

Get to know your academic advisor and trust them for guidance

Join academic or social clubs based around your interests to build a support system

Join a first generation college student group, such as the one offered at Brown University

Remember: you are meant to be there. You’ve worked hard, made the grades, and been accepted. Feel empowered as a college student. Know that hard times may come, but friends and academic staff will be there to support you.

Resources Helping FGCS Prepare for Success

A report by the Pell Institute found that only 11 percent of economically disadvantaged first generation college students attained a degree, while only 25 percent of first generation students without financial constraints graduated. These figures stand in stark contrast when compared to non-first generation students, who graduated at rates of 24 and 54 percent respectively for the same study.

Although first generation students are nearly always hard-working, goal-oriented individuals, they often find themselves out of their depths when it comes to college. Through either not having the same access to college preparation courses or being unaware of support systems available to help keep them on track, many of these students find themselves falling behind in their first year and feeling alone in their pursuit.

Below are some of the common obstacles first generation students face in their freshman year – and beyond. Hover over the obstacles to learn the ways to smash through them on the way to the finish line.

Navigating freshman orientation

Welcome week activities often divide incoming students into smaller groups, allowing them to acclimate to campus with the help of student leaders. 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 peers

Lots of 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 balance or achieving 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 the pressures of college 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

Be it professional, academic, or personal, mentors provide one-on-one relationships to FGCS that can truly make the 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

Lots of 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 depleted from so many new and unknown experiences

Burnout is a huge issue for FGCS as they are encountering so many unfamiliar situations and making decisions they may not feel confident to answer. Students who find themselves overwhelmed should take advantage of their school’s recreational facilities or art therapy programs to refocus.

Not knowing where to receive proper health care on campus

All schools should have a medical center where basic medical care is provided. Students can receive a check up, pick up cold medicine, or get a flu shot. These centers can also refer them to nearby clinics for any care they aren’t able to 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 on all the support programs and services available throughout campus. Get to know a student services worker within your first few weeks on campus and consult them anytime you need guidance.

More Resources for First Generation Students

Looking for more resources to help make the transition to college, and your subsequent time in school, easier? Look no further than the resources below.

America Needs You

Based in New York, this nonprofit helps economically disadvantaged FGCS reach their potential through mentor programs and career development.

College Spring

CS provides SAT tutoring and mentorship to low income students, including those who are the first in their families to attend college.

First Generation Foundation

FGF works with first generation students, connecting them to higher education institutions that are invested in serving this group of learners.

First Generation Students

This organization provides a wealth of resources to help first generation students navigate all aspects of college, ranging from planning for higher education to finding a job after school.

FirstGen Fellows

This program is a collaboration of multiple social, civil, and immigration rights organizations and is focused on helping first generation college students who are interested in the field of social justice.

First in the Family

Students who want to gain insider knowledge can use First in the Family to hear first-hand stories from FGCS who have found success in higher education.

Go College! Now

This educational film tells the story of first generation college students, both sharing their difficult paths while also showing that it can be done.

I’m First!

Created in 2013, this organization helps students find schools focused on serving first generation stories, shares success stories of FGCS graduates, and provides a range of helpful resources.

Regional Organizations Supporting FGCS

This website provides a comprehensive list of local nonprofits providing support for this population of students.

The Posse Foundation

This organization provide leadership development and college access to students traditionally not found on college campuses en masse, including first generation students. The group partners with schools to award four-year full rides.

Advice from First Generation College Students

Justin Lioi
Bruce Harpham
B.A. in History and Political Science (Honours) from University of Toronto, M.A. in History from Western University, M.I.S. from University of Toronto

Seek out supportive peers who share your goals. I had an excellent experience as a student journalist working on several campus newspapers and leading the History Student Association. If you are concerned about papers or academic performance, take advantage of office hours to ask questions. The vast majority of students fail to ask questions and seek assistance to improve their studies.

Justin Lioi
Amanda Basse
B.S. in International Business from University of Rhode Island

The road was long and hard, but worth it. I completed the entire process, from SAT sign-ups to moving myself in, alone. It was overwhelming and stressful and at the time I didn’t know of any programs to help with the process. My high school guidance counselor discouraged me from aiming too high. My tip is to find a college access program like Higher Edge to have someone to guide you through the process, and to believe in you along the way. The biggest surprise about the application process was searching and applying for financial aid opportunities. I feel the process was designed for people who had all their ducks in a row, for families who have financial statements and for applicants whose parents are involved.

Spotlight on FGCS Programs

Carnegie Mellon University
  • Location: Pittsburgh, PA
  • Program: First Generation College Students
  • How it Helps: CMU goes above and beyond for its FGCS population, providing summer academies to help students strengthen their math and science skills, a special off-campus orientation, summer initiatives, and a variety of academic support services.
Northern Arizona University
  • Location: Flagstaff, AZ
  • Program: First Generation
  • How it Helps: NAU’s Nizhoni Academy provides pre-college prep for first generation Native American students, while the school’s freshman orientation program – Successful Transition and Academic Readiness (STAR) – ensures no student falls through the cracks. The program also partners with a variety of other organizations to ensure FGCS receive all-around support.
University of Nebraska
  • Location: Lincoln, NE
  • Program: First Generation Students
  • How it Helps: The University of Nebraska provides a range of services, including specialized career planning programs, the Office of Academic Success and Intercultural Services, numerous student groups and learning communities, and a special first-year program.
University of California
  • Location: San Francisco, CA
  • Program: First Generation to College (FG2C) Student Organization
  • How it Helps: This group, comprised entirely of first generation students, exists to provide a space where these learners can connect, find support, receive mentoring, and learn about all of the services available to them.

How School Officials and Counselors Can Help FGCS

Studies have shown that even first generation students who begin their college careers at the same academic levels as their peers may still struggle to find success. Rather than focusing solely on providing academic support, school officials and counselors should instead consider numerous factors related to emotional and mental wellbeing, and access to support networks. Ways to do this include:

Find ways to involve family.

Although some FGCS may not want their families to be involved or the family may not be able to do so, other students will greatly benefit from programs with this goal. Because many FGCS feel guilt over the opportunities they’ve been given, finding ways to include them can help lessen this burden.

Provide concrete and specific programs to acclimate students.

FGCS may have spent hours poring over your academic website, but that doesn’t mean they fully know what happens when they reach campus. Colleges with intensive FGCS programs or clubs have the highest retention rates for this student population due to the importance they place on individualized care.

Involve others.

The learning curve for FGCS has historically been steep, as these students don’t really begin understanding all that goes into being accepted to and attending college until their senior year of high school. Consider partnering with local middle and high schools to create programs that provide college awareness.

Provide mentoring opportunities.

Whether it’s connecting incoming FGCS with upperclassmen with similar experiences or creating first-year experience classes led by previous FGCS faculty, find ways to introduce freshmen to others who have walked their road and found success.

Advice from an Expert for First Time College Students

Sourabh Ahuja, co-founder and CEO of Schoold, a private education technology company that empowers students to make informed decisions, discusses first generation college students.

What makes first generation college students so special, and what are some of their hallmarks?

In recent years, first generation college students across the U.S. have started to build awareness and community around their unique identity, challenges, and the positive impact they are having on their colleges and the world. At Ivy League and public colleges alike, student-led affinity groups and events, like the first annual Inter-Ivy First Generation Student Network Conference held at Brown University last year. Through these communities, first generation students are strengthening their support for each other and their chances for success, as well as breaking down the barriers to college admission and success for future generations.

How can first generation college students best overcome the unique challenges they face?

Traditionally, first-generation college applicants have overcome these challenges by taking advantage of resources at their school and within their community. Most high schools have at least one college counselor and some offer free workshops on application and essay prep; others even host SAT classes or clubs to give students free or low cost ways to prepare for the tests. Unfortunately, and despite their best efforts, most public high schools just don’t have enough college counselors or resources to help the millions of students, first generation or not, who need help preparing for college.