Can you define what "first-generation student" means to you? What makes them unique, aside from family history?

The term first-generation usually means that your parents don’t have a college education, but to me it’s more complex than that. The meaning should be extended to cover students who don’t have anyone living in their household who completed the US college experience. Here’s an example: even if you actually do have a parent with a college degree, that parent may not be living with you. Another example would be if your parent’s college education took place in another country, meaning their college experience. What’s most important in the definition is that the student is the first to go through the experience of considering, applying to, and attending a US college.

What makes first-generation students “unique” as compared to traditional students is that they don’t have anyone in their household who can guide them through the process or share their experiences about going to college. They also usually don’t have the same expectations set upon them that traditional students have, because the people in their family don’t usually look at college as essential to their careers or life experiences.

How does a first-generation student’s approach to education differ than their legacy counterparts?

First-generation students often go into the college experience understanding that, as the first in their family, they have a greater responsibility to lead the way. This can be a good thing and a stressful thing. It’s important to have people around you who can motivate you when you’re feeling stuck, while at the same time having the right expectations with family and friends around the time you can spend with them or working on household commitments when your main focus is education. This is especially true when there are financial struggles in the household, or if people in the household don’t understand the benefits of getting a degree.

Why is it important for first-generation students to attend college?

Many communities look to first-generation students as leaders. When there are few college students in a community, first-generation students become role models for others who live and work with them, and this sense of inspiration should never be overlooked. More tangibly, getting a college degree can break the cycle of poverty, propelling a student and their family into financial stability and growth, and they can go on to give back to their communities.

Additionally, the U.S. is a diverse place with students from rural and urban areas, from blue collar and white collar backgrounds, many from families of immigrants or who recently immigrated themselves. But many haven’t been able to dream the big dream of a college degree. It’s important that the views and experiences of all kinds of people are a part of classroom discussions, group projects, and extracurriculars. The presence of a first-generation student, for example, helps add a different kind of viewpoint that helps classes and study groups consider issues from new perspectives. Just because you are the first person in your family to get an education doesn’t mean that your experiences and family background can’t contribute to your chosen career field, solve problems, manage healthcare resources, make public policy, and more.

It's often said that first-generation students tend to be insecure about their educational path and lack the level of support that their counterparts have. Do you agree with this? If so, why do first-generation students feel less confident? What factors determine support?

I wouldn’t call them insecure. By definition, first-generation students haven’t had a lifetime of access to people who can guide them through the process. Since the language of college admissions isn’t present in their lives, the colleges themselves have to be prepared to fill in this gap, making sure first-generation students learn the language to confidently talk about admissions, financial aid, and academic needs, goals, and issues.

In what areas do first-generation students typically struggle?

Financially, they may be in a more disadvantaged position since their parents often don’t have the financial stability correlated with having a college degree. Academically, they may have trouble finding the right-fit school. What I mean by that is they might not have the resources or guidance to aim as high as their potential would really allow. This is called “under-matching.” One example would be if a first-generation student who excels academically doesn’t believe they’d be a good fit for Stanford or a Harvard -- even though these kinds of schools might be the best place for them. When nobody in your family has ever gone to college, it can be hard to see yourself going to a selective school.

In your experience, what are some key pieces of information that first-generation students are missing or learn later?

Oftentimes, these students aren’t aware of the value of a bachelor’s degree, especially in terms of how it’s more valuable than an associate degree over the course of their lifetimes. And generally, these students aren’t aware that their own experiences can be valuable to the wider world. They may see themselves as having value in terms of supporting parents or their families, but not in terms of contributing to solving world issues, which they absolutely can with the right educational path.

In terms of finances, first-generation students are often surprised by the “sticker price” of college (like when it looks like a year at a top school would cost $70,000 per year) and the application fees in the first place (which quickly add up). They aren’t aware of information about how many schools offer financial aid that can pay for college and minimize their exposure to loans, or about how you can often waive application fees simply by submitting a statement saying you cannot afford them.

One more thing I’ll mention: getting started with the college application process can seem very overwhelming. There are organizations, like the Kaplan Educational Foundation and many others, that have designed their entire programs around helping students get into the schools that are the right fit for them. And when the student gets to college, there are almost always writing centers and other tutoring facilities and services to help out when students get stuck academically.

What are the factors that lead a person to pursue an education even though no one in their family has? Where does their value for education come from?

While some families of first-generation families don’t understand the total value of pursuing education, many still know that it’s a ticket out of low-paying jobs and can lead to higher contributions to the family household. This idea can plant a seed that grows and blooms into something much bigger as first-generation students who started with small goals begin to understand just how much they can contribute to classroom discussions, careers, and the wider world.

First-generation students are more likely to delay college entry, need remedial coursework, and drop out of college. How can we help reverse this trend? When do we need to start supporting students?

It’s important to get these students into the coursework that interests them as soon as they’re ready. When students aren’t excited about education, they’re less likely to pursue it! Part of addressing this is having colleges and universities make clear to students that it is in their best interest to prove they don’t need remediation. Entrance exams are not always an indication of student skill sets, so if there are alternative criteria or proof points demonstrating student competencies in key areas, students and schools should pursue them together.

High school-level preparation is, of course, critical to developing the skills needed to avoid remedial courses and succeed in college. The earlier we expose students to a wide range of reading and writing exercises, critical thinking skills, and a minimum of pre-calculus level math, the earlier they’ll develop those skills. For students whose high schools are not equipped to help them really develop these competencies, it helps when colleges and universities are very clear about what they expect and can help students establish a solid timeline for remediation.

How do colleges benefit from first-generation student populations?

First-generation students are driven. They bring with them grit and commitment, great maturity and a sense of hope, and an internal compass that’s led them forward. As we try to solve economic and social problems, we need these people at the table if we’re going to succeed. I see first-generation students as a source of a full range of talent and experience that wouldn’t be available to a school that only accepted students who come from families with multiple generations of college education.

How can educators ensure that they are supporting the first-generation student population before they get to college? How can educators support them in college?

Educators at the college level should look outside of the usual sources of students they are used to recruiting from. They need to inform first-generation students that they value them and their experiences, which may fall outside of the usual volunteer work and extracurricular activities that make up the traditional college application. First-generation students are more likely to have non-volunteer work and life experiences to share, such as running a household at a young age, being leaders in religious services, or working hard to make ends meet. Educators should also reach out to high schools, parents, and community leaders so that they too understand that these kinds of life experiences are valued. Educators can also help prospective first-generation students get to campus, with summer programs or specialized campus orientations, to show them they can thrive in this new environment.

Once first-generation students are in college, educators can help them feel comfortable on campus or in their learning environments, let them know it’s okay and totally normal to ask for help, connect them to students like them who have done well, and point out educational and other support resources.

Do you have any ideas about how to get first-generation students more involved in the academic community?

Some first-generation students may not feel comfortable asking for mentorship, seeking help exploring majors, or inquiring about different activities. Making sure that these students know there is a community in academia that values them and supports them can help lower barriers to their involvement. Some practical ways to do this include offering workshops, helping them build relationships with the people that support them academically (like librarians), and connecting them to research or internship opportunities and encouraging them to apply.

What are some useful resources for first-generation students?

Many first-generation students start their higher education journeys at local community colleges, as they’re generally cheaper to attend, plus they understand the challenges facing students who don’t go the direct high-school-to-four-year-college route. Other first-generation students find themselves in a situation where, because they didn’t understand the college admissions process, they ended up at a school that isn’t the right fit for them. For both groups, college transfer is often the best path to their educational goals. At the Kaplan Educational Foundation, we’ve put together downloadable resources for students navigating the college transfer process, including documents for planning your timeline for transferring, reducing the costs of applying, putting together a financial aid checklist, and tracking the schools you’re applying to. I encourage any student, parent, or advisor to download these for free at yourguidetocollegetransfer.org.

I’d also recommend becoming familiar with the Common App and CSS Profile as early as possible to help you navigate the college admissions and financial aid processes. Trying to get a handle on them in the middle of application deadlines can be difficult, so it’s always best to get a head start. Good luck!

Nancy Lee Sanchez

Executive Director at the Kaplan Educational Foundation

Nancy Lee Sanchez is executive director for the Kaplan Educational Foundation. As the founding director for academic advisement and student development, Sanchez was responsible for the design and implementation of the Kaplan Leadership Program model. Sanchez has over 19 years of expertise providing greater access to higher education, improving the college experience, and supporting leadership among low-income, underrepresented, and non-traditional students through collaborative partnerships and services that directly target factors affecting degree-attainment gaps. As a leader in transfer education, she has been featured as an expert in media including PBS NewsHour, MarketWatch, Sirius XM, and more, and as a featured speaker in conferences focused on diversity, access, and success in college attainment. Her work has been recognized by the National Institute for the Study of Transfer Students, receiving their 2018 Catalyst Award, and City & State, receiving their Corporate Social Responsibility Award. She is the author of the Your Guide to College Transfer book series.

Sanchez’s own educational journey started at Kingsborough Community College, where she earned her associate degree in early childhood education. She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in education from Long Island University and a master’s in sociology from Brooklyn College. As a 2014 National Hispanic Executive Leadership Fellow, Sanchez completed Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government’s Executive Leadership Program and the Leadership Development Program at the Center for Creative Leadership. Born in Las Piedras, Puerto Rico, Sanchez currently resides in Brooklyn.