First Generation College Student Guide

By Emma Yenko

Published on September 21, 2021

First Generation College Student Guide

AffordableCollegesOnline.org is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

Are you ready to find your fit?

The National Center for Education Statistics defines a first generation college student as an undergraduate enrollee whose parents do not have a bachelor's degree. Many first gen college students come from low-income families and belong to underrepresented ethnic or racial groups.

First generation college students often attend community college, live at home, enroll part time, and receive little to no financial support from their parents. Often academically underprepared for the demands of postsecondary education, these students are more likely to perform poorly or drop out.

Schools offer a variety of support programs for first gen students, including financial aid options, mentoring opportunities, and academic counseling. Several nonprofits address the unique needs and challenges of first generation college enrollees by offering networking opportunities, financial aid for study-abroad programs, and career development guidance.

AccreditedSchoolsOnline.org is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

Featured Online Programs

Find a program that meets your affordability, flexibility, and education needs through an accredited, online school.

Addressing Challenges Faced by First Generation College Students

Nearly one-third of first generation college students drop out of their program within three years. Students with college-educated parents have a drop-out rate of just 14%. The section below addresses some of the reasons behind this reality, including difficulties first gen enrollees often encounter.

Eight Common Obstacles for First Generation Students

  1. Navigating freshman orientation
  2. Feeling alone or unknown by peers
  3. Maintaining balance or achieving good emotional and mental health
  4. Feeling the absence of an older adult providing guidance
  5. Falling behind in academics
  6. Feeling depleted from so many new and unknown experiences
  7. Not knowing where to receive proper healthcare on campus
  8. Worrying about finding like-minded people
  9. Not knowing where on campus to find a particular service

Meeting the Challenges

How School Officials and Counselors Can Help

First generation college students need a safe space to address issues that are particular to their situation. Counselors and school administrators can help create this space through social gatherings exclusively for first gen students and their parents. One-on-one counseling sessions throughout the academic year can also help first gen students.

Additionally, school officials can tap alumni who were first gen college students themselves to form or join a mentoring program.

First Generation College Student Guide to Paying for College

See below for scholarships that specifically aim to ease the financial cost of a college education for first gen students. These programs comprise only a small portion of financial aid opportunities for first generation enrollees.

Colleges and universities often administer their own financial aid packages, as do several local, state, and federal agencies. Students should always apply for scholarships and grants first, since these funds do not require repayment.

Scholarships for First Generation College Students

See below for scholarships that specifically aim to ease the financial cost of a college education for first gen students. These programs comprise only a small portion of financial aid opportunities for first generation enrollees.

Colleges and universities often administer their own financial aid packages, as do several local, state, and federal agencies. Students should always apply for scholarships and grants first, since these funds do not require repayment.

Scholarships for First Generation College Students
Scholarship Amount Who Can Apply

ISFA First Generation College Student Program

$2,500 First generation college students must submit financial documents, a resume, and a 500-word essay describing their experience as the first in their family to go to college. The essay should focus on how the student intends to apply the lessons they have learned as first generation college students and how a study-abroad opportunity can help them reach their educational and career objectives.

Education Dynamics

$10,000 This organization welcomes applications from minority students who are first generation college students. Applicants must be currently enrolled in an associate or bachelor's program at an accredited institution. The program also accepts applications from first generation minority students enrolled in a certificate program. Applicants must submit an essay on the topic indicated in the application form.

Imagine Dragons Origins Scholarship

$2,500 This program accepts applications from first generation, refugee, or immigrant students. Applicants must submit an essay containing 200-1,000 words describing the educational challenges they faced as immigrant, refugee, or first generation students in America and how facing these challenges impacted their plans. The program is open to applicants pursuing a degree at any level.

Regents' Scholars Program

$6,000 First gen college students admitted to the following institutions can apply: Texas A&M University at College Station, McAllen Higher Education Center, Engineering Academy at Blinn Bryan, and the Engineering Academy at Galveston. Applicants must show a verifiable gross family income of less than $40,000 per year. Recipients must enroll full time, make satisfactory progress in their program each academic year, and continue to demonstrate financial need.

Other Types of Financial Aid

Federal programs such as the Pell Grant and TRIO specifically serve students from low-income families and first generation college enrollees. These and other federal grant programs accept applications from students with demonstrable financial need pursuing their first undergraduate or professional degree. Recipients do not repay any amount they receive from these grants. Enrollees who need loans to help finance their college education should consider borrowing from the federal government rather than private loan companies. Federal subsidized and unsubsidized loan programs typically offer lower interest rates than private loans. Additionally, federal loan programs usually allow students to defer payment under certain conditions. Federally funded work-study programs allow college students to earn additional money without the income affecting their federal aid eligibility. Most work-study programs are on-campus jobs, but some nonprofits and community organizations participate in federal work-study programs. Whenever possible, students should look for work-study jobs that align with their program.

Getting Ready for College: A First Generation Students Guide

Being college-ready requires preparation, perseverance, and patience. The following sections show how the road to college begins well in advance of submitting an application.

Advice From First Generation College Grads

BA in history and political science from University of Toronto, MA in history from Western University, MIS 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. Most students fail to ask questions and seek assistance to improve their studies."

BS in international business from University of Rhode Island

"The road was long and hard, but worth it. I completed the entire process alone, from SAT sign-ups to moving myself in. It was overwhelming and stressful, and at the time, I did not 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 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."

Resources for First Generation College Students

This organization provides mentorship opportunities for first generation college students with the goal of improving graduation rates and enhancing employment options after graduation. This organization provides a variety of practice-based resources and professional development opportunities for higher education practitioners focused on the academic requirements and career goals of first generation college students. This foundation connects first gen college students to various resources, financial aid programs, and career development opportunities available at colleges, universities, and several nonprofits across the country. This website targets high school students facing a myriad of challenges enroute to a college education. The site includes planning checklists, informative videos, and practical advice from students who have faced and overcome the same challenges. A Strive for College initiative, this online community serves the needs of first gen college students. Visitors can watch videos and read the blogs of successful first gen graduates across the country. They can also learn about colleges and universities with extensive support services and resources for first gen college students.

With an undergraduate degree in communications and a master's in education, Emma finds writing for the education vertical to be the perfect niche.

Related articles that may interest you

AffordableCollegesOnline.org is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

Do this for you

Explore your possibilities- find schools with programs you’re interested in and clear a path for your future.