First Generation College Student Guide

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Table of Contents: First Generation College Student Guide
1. Addressing Challenges Faced by First Generation College Students
2. First Generation College Student Guide to Paying for College
3. Getting Ready for College: A First Generation Students Guide
4. Advice From First Generation College Grads
5. Resources for First Generation College Students

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.

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

  • Guilt About Having More Opportunities Than Parents

    First gen students may feel guilty about being more privileged than their parents. Counselors can guide them to regard the opportunity to attend college as a source of family pride. Getting a college education does not make first generation students better than their parents. Rather, a college degree is a testimony to their parents’ ability to give their children a promising future.

  • Inability to Tour College Campuses

    Financial constraints or work schedules can prevent first generation students from visiting campuses. Fortunately, many colleges and universities offer virtual campus tours that students can take any time. Admissions personnel can answer questions unique to first gen applicants.

  • Trouble Completing Financial Aid Documents

    Many colleges employ admissions specialists to help incoming freshmen, including first generation college students, complete financial aid requirements. Admissions counselors update students on financial aid application deadlines and required information.

  • Overwhelmed by the Cost of Education

    Many students allow high education costs to deter them from pursuing a degree. First generation college students can apply for a variety of scholarships and grants to help fund their education. Most schools have a financial aid office where students can direct any financial aid-related inquiries.

  • Fear of Falling Through the Cracks

    Many first generation college students are not familiar with the many academic and financial resources available to them. These learners can often fall through the cracks, especially in large universities. Reaching out to peers, teachers, counselors, and other school personnel builds a support network that can help first gen students stay on track to graduation.

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.

  • ISFA First Generation College Student Program

    Who Can Apply: 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.

    Amount: $2,500

    Explore Here

  • Education Dynamics

    Who Can Apply: 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.
    Amount: $10,000

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  • Imagine Dragons Origins Scholarship

    Who Can Apply: 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.

    Amount: $2,500

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  • Regents' Scholars Program

    Who Can Apply: 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.

    Amount: $6,000

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Other Types of Financial Aid

  • Grants

    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.

    Explore Here

  • Loans

    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.

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  • Work Study

    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.

    Explore Here

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.

Months Leading into Senior Year
High school students in their senior year are focused on finishing strong while also looking ahead to college. First generation students may have additional responsibilities relating to family and work. Students can use the summer to research schools, take virtual tours, and visit campuses when possible. Learners can also take career quizzes to get a sense of possible majors.
August: Create a Map
First generation college students often only apply to one school. However, online resources allow students to tour many schools and find multiple options that suit their needs. Many first gen students can receive a college application fee waiver. Learners can create a calendar listing application deadlines. They can also begin thinking about writing essays, requesting transcripts, and asking teachers to write recommendations.
September: Write and Compile Essays
First generation students can use essays to tell their story. Applicants can stand out by discussing the struggles they have overcome and the hard work they have invested to be the first in their family to attend college. Students should review prompts early and spend a few weeks crafting a thoughtful outline before completing essays.
October: Submit the FAFSA

The FAFSA determines students’ eligibility for financial aid. Learners can complete the FAFSA any time after October 1. Students include financial information about their family or themselves if they qualify as an independent adult. Many first generation students qualify for both Pell Grants and work-study funding.

Students should complete the FAFSA as early as possible since many schools award federal aid on a first-come, first-served basis.

October: Take Entrance Exams

Most schools require college entrance exams like the SAT or ACT. Many first generation students may qualify for fee waivers for both of these exams. Students with strong vocabulary and writing typically take the SAT, while those who favor analytical and scientific reasoning take the ACT.

Students can usually take the exams up to three times before raising any concerns with admissions panels. Learners should consider taking entrance exams once in their junior year to get a sense of improvement areas.

November: Request and Gather Recommendations
First generation students can ask for recommendations from teachers or coaches that speak to their strength and character. Students should provide their recommenders with the recommendation form at least one month before the deadline, as many teachers and coaches write letters for multiple students.
December: Submit Applications
Students must submit early-decision applications by December. The regular application period typically runs from January through March. Students should pay attention to any rolling admissions schools. These schools make decisions as they receive applications, and spots may fill up quickly.
February: Entrance Interviews
Not all schools require interviews. However, first generation college students should take advantage of this step when possible as it allows them to demonstrate their unique qualities. Some schools conduct entrance interviews on campus, although students in other locations may interview with a nearby alumnus.
March: Choose a School
Most schools send all acceptance letters by April, save for those with rolling admissions. As students begin receiving acceptance letters, they should consider factors such as location, alumni success rates, and program cost versus awarded aid.
April: Review and Accept Financial Aid
All students, not just first-gen college students, should learn how much funding is available to them. Students’ acceptance letters provide information on available federal aid and internal scholarships. Learners should then add any external scholarships or grants to this amount to see how much money they must pay each academic year. Some students may decide to take out loans, while others may consider a more affordable school.
May: Final Steps
After submitting formal acceptance, students can complete a few more steps. For example, they may need to find a job, take AP exams, determine where they will live, or send final transcripts.

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Advice From First Generation College Grads

Portrait of Bruce Harpham

Bruce Harpham

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.”

Portrait of Amanda Basse

Amanda Basse

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

  • America Needs You This organization provides mentorship opportunities for first generation college students with the goal of improving graduation rates and enhancing employment options after graduation.
  • Center for First-Generation Student Success 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.
  • First Generation Foundation 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.
  • First in the Family 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.
  • I'm First 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.

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