What Is a First-Generation College Student?

What Is a First-Generation College Student?

July 1, 2020

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The definition of a first-generation college student remains debatable. Often, high school counselors and college admissions officers disagree on what types of students fit the term. What if one of the student's parents has a college degree? What if it's an associate degree? What if the college-educated parent isn't actively involved in the student's life?

The broadest definition of a first-generation college student (FGCS) is someone whose family lacks a college-going tradition. Many FGCS come from low-income families who have had minimal exposure to higher education.

Even though enrollment rates for first-generation college students have risen, graduation rates for this group remain low.

According to the Center for First-Generation Student Success, over half of college students can be considered first generation — meaning neither of their parents holds a bachelor's degree.

Although enrollment rates have increased for FGCS, graduation rates remain low. Becoming a first-generation college graduate often means defying the odds. Research shows that FGCS are more likely to be older Black or Hispanic women who have dependent children and hail from low-income communities.

These days, more high schools, colleges, and organizations are paying attention to the needs of first-gen students. FGCS who tap into their school's resources and programs have a better chance of graduating and entering the workforce with a bachelor's degree.

A young college student smiles at the camera while clutching a small stack of books to his chest.

What Does "First-Generation College Student" Mean?

Using data from a 2002 study of 7,300 students, researchers found that the number of students defined as "first generation" could vary from 22-77% of the sample size. This likely holds true for campuses nationwide, with many students potentially being considered FGCS.

According to the Higher Education Act, which determines eligibility for federal aid programs, a student is considered an FGCS if neither parent holds a bachelor's degree; however, this rule only applies to parents who regularly live with the student.

Meanwhile, schools and educational associations often rely on other definitions of FGCS. Colleges can identify first-generation students (per their respective definitions) on the Common Application, which asks for parents' education history.

“Whether used as code for ‘low income’ or ‘underprivileged’ … the label [first-generation] comes with assumptions: that the student’s parents have little or no experience navigating the academic, financial, and cultural barriers to higher education …”. Source: — Rochelle Sharpe, The New York Times

Whatever the formula used to designate first-gen students, the term, as journalist Rochelle Sharpe points out, serves as "code for 'low income' or 'underprivileged.'" First-gen students are assumed to have parents with "little or no experience navigating the academic, financial, and cultural barriers to higher education, including an application process that stymies even the most savvy parent."

FGCS are at a disadvantage to peers whose parents attended college. And it's not just about family income: Aspiring first-gen college students should seek out academic guidance and resources in addition to financial aid.

3 Key Tips for First-Generation College Students

Many FGCS lack the same family and financial support that helps students from high-income families complete college. What's more, first-gen students often have less confidence in their abilities to succeed, even when they boast the same level of high school preparation and achievement as their non-FGCS peers.

Family members with degrees not only help students imagine themselves in college but can also provide practical know-how on entrance exams, applications, and deadlines.

Applying to college is a complex process, but the application hurdles disguise the fact that getting into college is entirely doable for many FGCS. In reality, most schools admit a majority of applicants.

Many colleges aim to admit more first-generation, low-income, and minority students, bettering the educational odds for disadvantaged groups. Indeed, higher education as a whole is taking greater account of adversity when admitting students and placing a stronger emphasis on diversifying campuses.

Here are three ways FGCS can improve their chances of succeeding in college and fulfilling their academic goals.

1. Leverage Free Resources

School counselors can help students articulate their career interests, guide course schedules to match college aspirations, and keep students ahead of the curve on things like entrance exams, applications, and financial aid.

Many first-generation students, however, attend high schools where counselors are overstretched or unaware of new programs and opportunities that can benefit underprivileged students.

A crop of organizations, such as Minds Matter and Summer Search, work to address the gap in quality counseling by mentoring students from under-resourced schools. An explicit goal of this mentorship is to encourage first-gen and low-income students to apply to a broader range of colleges.

2. Take Advantage of Educational Opportunity Programs

College is a real option for many graduating high school seniors, but those who are low-income, Black, and/or Hispanic are far less likely to pursue higher education. Educational Opportunity Programs (EOPs), which are offered by many colleges, can help bridge the gap between high school and college for low-income and first-generation students.

EOPs can help prepare first-generation students for the rigors of college coursework.

In the summer between high school and college, EOPs prepare students for the challenge of college coursework. Many students from underfunded high schools lack exposure to the rigorous curriculum, particularly advanced math, that can raise their chances of enrolling at a four-year college.

These academic bootcamps are impactful even for FGCS leaving high school with good grades and strong SAT/ACT scores. Succeeding in college requires that students understand the course expectations and feel empowered to meet them.

EOPs are typically available to in-state students at public colleges, and eligibility is based on family income and demonstrated student interest.

3. Learn the Campus's Unspoken Rules

It's not just academics that can stymie first-gen students — there are also unspoken campus rules that dictate how students can interact with professors and take advantage of different opportunities. Students who don't come from college-going families are less likely to be familiar with these expectations.

Introductory courses to academia's unwritten rules teach first-gen students how to effectively utilize the college network.

FGCS often miss opportunities they otherwise might have pursued had they known how to advocate for themselves and cultivate relationships. Some top schools, including the University of Notre Dame, Vanderbilt University, and Brown University, are addressing this gap with special courses. Georgetown University, for example, offers an experimental, one-credit course called Mastering the Hidden Curriculum.

Introductory courses to academia's unwritten rules teach first-gen students how to effectively utilize the college network. More than just etiquette lessons, course creators say, these classes interrogate cultural capital, empower students against impostor syndrome (a common affliction among new college students, particularly first-gen students), and champion degree completion by examining the economic benefit of graduating.

A young student with uses her laptop while sitting next to her backpack on the steps of a campus building.

The Critical Step for First-Gens? Apply to College

Despite the overwhelming evidence that college pays off, just a small percentage of low-income students — far fewer than those from middle- and high-income families — attend college. And very few low-income students get as far as applying.

In the early 1990s, when academic success rates were even more tightly tied to race and family income, researchers found that differences in enrollment rates were "eliminated among those students who ha[d] taken the college entrance examinations and completed an application for admission, the two steps necessary to attend a four-year college."

The public and private high schools offering the best resources encourage all of their students to apply to college. Many students at well-funded high schools are pushed to attend college by their counselors, teachers, and parents.

Unfortunately, parents of underprivileged students often lack awareness of the social and economic benefits of college.

By contrast, parents of underprivileged students often lack awareness of the social and economic benefits of college. Because these parents are less likely to attend information sessions about financial aid, they may not realize the numerous options available to students from low-income families, such as full-ride Pell Grants.

Taking the leap and applying to college is key, but keep in mind that much of the economic value of college hinges on graduating. Improving attendance rates and graduation rates of FGCS are separate but interrelated goals that must be addressed at the K-12 and college levels.

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