For First-Generation Students, Challenges Remain After Graduation

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Being the first in your family to attend college is a significant accomplishment, but it can also be extremely challenging. Studies have shown that first-generation college students often experience guilt over leaving their families and difficulties in adjusting to the college-going culture. They may also have less confidence in their ability to complete college and often experience financial and economic barriers — both while attending school and after graduation.

According to the Pew Research Center, first-generation college graduates are more likely to have lower incomes and less wealth than second-generation college graduates. While research shows that a college education increases one's earning potential, these economic benefits are not shared equally by all graduates.

Prevalence of First-Generation Students in College

According to the Center for First-Generation Student Success, about 56% of students enrolled in college during the 2015-16 academic year had parents who did not have a bachelor's degree. While more first-generation students have enrolled in college over the years, their persistence and graduation rates remain relatively low. For example, first-generation, low-income students have a 47% dropout rate compared to a dropout rate of 23% among continuing-generation, higher-income students.

As of the 2015-16 academic year, 28% of first-generation college students were age 30 or above. Additionally, first-generation college students have an increased tendency to come from low-income and minority backgrounds: 18% of first-generation college students were Black/African American, 25% were Hispanic/Latino, and 46% were white. In contrast, white students made up 61% of continuing-generation students.

Racial and ethnic differences in first-generation student status suggests that many first-generation college students also navigate experiences of racism in the college environment.

Most of the studies to date on the experiences of first-generation college students have focused on academic and cultural barriers to entry, as well as the challenges learners experience within the college environment. However, there is less known about how students fare after college graduation, and whether a college degree actually levels the playing field for first- generation college students compared to their continuing-generation counterparts.

Challenges for First-Generation Students

Although college is a challenge for many learners, first-generation college students often face unique academic, cultural, social, and financial challenges, both during college and after graduation.

Family Challenges

Black and Hispanic women with dependent children make up a relatively large proportion of first-generation college students. These students are more likely to experience non-academic demands on their time. They are also more likely to take fewer classes per term, increasing the average completion timeline for a degree.

Additionally, one study found that Hispanic families have a tendency to hold cultural values that put a strong emphasis on interdependence. Thus, Hispanic college students — especially first-generation learners — may feel conflicted about pursuing postsecondary educational opportunities away from home.

Academic Challenges

Because they often come from underserved communities, first-generation college students are more likely to have lower SAT scores, lower high school GPAs, and less confidence in their academic abilities. In particular, students who come from low-income backgrounds are more likely to attend underfunded schools and may receive a substandard education.

Cultural Challenges

First-generation college students may feel marginalized by campus culture and are less likely to feel as if they belong. Students of color — especially those attending predominantly white institutions — often experience racial hostility, and they are less likely to have interactions with staff, faculty, and peers who look like them and have a deep understanding of their perspective.

Financial Challenges

First-generation graduates are more likely to experience economic challenges after graduation. For example, they are more likely to incur educational debt. They also tend to have lower incomes and less access to wealth than their second-generation peers. These factors can have a negative impact on their ability to secure economic stability.

Additionally, households headed by a parent who is a college graduate are more likely to bequeath an inheritance, which can be used to fund the college education of future generations.

What Colleges Can Do to Support First-Generation Students

Colleges need to address the holistic needs of first-generation college students. Schools must understand that a combination of financial, cultural, personal, and academic barriers impact student success. Colleges and universities should also understand that improving financial and economic outcomes of graduates means equipping learners with financial resources, teaching them essential life skills, and providing information about college early on.

Some of the most widely known federal grant programs to support first-generation college students are the TRiO programs. These include seven federal grant programs that help support low-income and first-generation college students.

Programs like Talent Search focus on preparing middle school students for a high school and college education, while programs like Upward Bound are college-bridge programs that prepare high school students to graduate and attend college. Upward Bound students are provided with SAT/ACT preparation, college tours, access to college mentors, assistance with applying to college, and financial scholarships.

College-based TRiO programs also include Student Support Services (SSS). At the University of Washington, SSS provides financial aid counseling, personal counseling, and mentorship around how to prepare for a successful career after college. At Pierce College, the SSS program also provides coaching related to budgeting and financial management, which includes mentorship on credit card debt, how to pay for college, how to maximize your income, and how to generate wealth.

Comprehensive financial planning is critical to ensuring that students are equipped with the financial knowledge needed to alleviate economic barriers after graduation. Many TRiO programs also provide access to alumni networks, which can give students a sense of community after graduation.

There are also many successful institution-based programs that recognize the holistic needs of first-generation college students. For example, Northern Arizona University oversees the First Scholars program, which provides mentoring, workshops, and service learning opportunities. Students can also get assistance with building their social network and connecting to the campus community. The program also provides students with a $2,000 scholarship upon entry to help pay for college expenses.


It's important that schools understand that supporting first-generation college students isn't something that starts and ends with the college experience. Effective interventions and aid need to begin before high school and continue after graduation. First-generation college students benefit from comprehensive, wrap-around services that address their unique academic, cultural, personal, and financial challenges.

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