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Amid allegations that some of America's most privileged parents bought their children's way into elite schools, many students this year will be the first in their families to ever attend college. These first-generation college students are often overlooked by school administrators because they don't fit the mold of a typical degree seeker. And since they don't receive years of preparation from parents or other family members, these learners may be less prepared academically, psychologically, and socially for the rigors of higher education. This could be why only 27% of first-generation college students graduate within four years, according to a 2018 report by the Center for First-Generation Student Success.

This needs to change. At a time when high-paying jobs increasingly require a postsecondary degree, colleges should better address the needs of first-generation college students. Roughly one-third of all college students are first-generation, and many are also students of color. These degree seekers may have trouble matriculating because they are unfamiliar with the so-called "hidden curriculum" of college, which includes securing financial aid and scholarships, finding affordable housing, or networking with fellow students and alumni. On top of these school stressors, first-generation college students may have additional obligations -- such as work or caring for family members -- that prevent them from achieving their full academic potential.

Through their unique perspectives and experiences, first-generation students enhance classroom learning and campus diversity. A new study from Campus Labs also suggests that these learners show more educational commitment than their peers. Not only are first-generation college students less uncertain about their decisions to enroll, but they also show greater confidence in their ability to engage with academics and campus life. This is why BestColleges is committed to celebrating the initiative, talent, and ambition of these first-time degree seekers. Through our expert interviews featured below, we discuss how schools can better support this student population and ease their transition into college.

First Generation Student Articles

Check out these interviews from First-Generation experts! Whether administrators, support organizations, or students, these individuals shed an introspective light on the first-generation student experience.

Table of Contents 1 Dr. Michele Scott Taylor, Chief Program Officer at College Now Greater Cleveland

Table of Contents

1 Dr. Michele Scott Taylor, Chief Program Officer at College Now Greater Cleveland

First-generation students provide perspectives and insight that can produce deeper learning and knowledge. The cross section of first-gen students offers diverse, new points of view not found in more homogenous groups of students.

By Dr. Michele Scott Taylor Chief Program Officer at College Now Greater Cleveland
Learn more about Dr. Michele Scott Taylor

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

A first-generation college student is someone who attends college in a family where neither the student’s mother or father obtained a college degree. Aside from this family history, first-generation college students are unique in their understanding and approach to the college-going process -- often starting the journey late in their high school careers. First-generation college students may not have the same type of guidance and support as their peers. Many also don’t have the cultural capital that their legacy peers possess. First-gen students typically don’t have much experience dealing with the “college culture” and successfully navigating issues such college academics, roommate problems, financial aid concerns, or meal plan questions, to name a few. First-gen students may find themselves being more independent, and needing to seek more outside advice and help, than their peers. Not surprising given the history of our country, many first-generation college students are from low-income backgrounds, are racial and ethnic minorities, and are female, which gives them unique views and opinions that they can bring to their college campuses. First-generation college students bring new perspectives and voices to their classes and diversify their campuses.

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

A first-generation college student may approach education as more of an opportunity to move out of poverty with very broad ideas of potential careers. While it’s often a dream and expectation of families, the access to the information, knowledge, and resources for first-gen students are often not available. Some may approach education with a feeling of not being good enough to compete since they don’t come from backgrounds with the same college experience as their legacy peers. The relationship of first-generation students to the college culture is a complicated one, and one that may take time for first-generation students to understand.

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

First-generation college students should attend college for many reasons! First, in Ohio alone, we know that 65% of open jobs will require some form of postsecondary credential by 2020, so college is necessary for students to pursue their careers. Additionally, students with bachelor’s degrees make $1 million more over the course of their lifetime than students with just a high school diploma -- making degrees vital to sustaining livable wages that will be able to support eventual families. Beyond the practical reasons such as money and job security, the time in college provides the space and opportunity for all students to grow personally. Given our country’s changing demographics, first-generation students provide perspectives and insight that can produce deeper learning and knowledge. The cross section of first-gen students offers diverse, new points of view not found in more homogenous groups of students.

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 think that some first-generation college students feel insecure about their educational paths because they don’t have a blueprint of what the educational path can/might look like to follow like their peers do who have parents or siblings who have been through the college-going process before. While their families may support them in terms of going to college, and want them to succeed, families of first-generation college students cannot always provide the same understanding of the college process and insight into the challenges that students face. Support is determined in many ways, and just because a parent doesn’t have a college degree does not mean they don’t support their student during their college journey.

In what areas do first-generation students typically struggle?

First-generation students struggle with navigating the college culture, which, truthfully, was not designed for them. In college, first-generation students are thrust into a new environment with little to no context for what to expect and must both learn and adapt to college life quicker than their peers. Emotional struggles, for example, could stem from some first-generation students feeling like they are “imposters” or that they don’t fit in on campus. Many first-generation students also struggle with not knowing who to ask for help or where to go if they have a question. Finally, first-generation students deal with pressures from home, as well, since family members do not have the shared experiences of their students.

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

First-generation students often miss information about the college going process itself, financing a college education, and skills and techniques that are useful in navigating college, as well as academic content knowledge depending on the quality of their secondary education. They also might take more time to learn the different ways to get involved on campus -- they don’t have people telling them about the clubs or organizations they took part in while they were in college. First-generation students may be missing information about how to declare a major, or how to access professors for things such as office hours. Often it is the little, day-to-day operations of college or university life that students may not learn until months or even years of being on campus.

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?

The fact that no one in their family has pursued an education may be in and of itself a huge factor for first-generation students deciding on whether they should pursue an education themselves! Parents of first-generation students may instill the need for a college education, especially since it generally leads to a greater earning potential. The motivation and value for education that first-generation students have may come from their own desire to have opportunities that others in their family do not and may also come from their families’ encouragement to pursue education beyond their attainment level.

First-generation students may be inspired to pursue an education based on their interactions with peers and teachers. Any of their teachers may encourage them to attend college, as well as mentors and coaches who work in schools everyday, including advisors, guidance counselors, coaches, etc. Through counseling and mentoring, these caring adults may show first-generation students why pursuing a college degree is important and can set them up for a successful future.

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?

Broadly, we can provide more resources to students and families, provide high quality K12 education, make college more affordable, and redesign the collegiate experience to be more inclusive of students from diverse backgrounds, to start. Pragmatically, we can better train educators, family members, and other adults about the changing demographics and backgrounds of students -- changing the mindsets of adults who work with students. We can support first-generation students by implementing programs such as the College Now Mentoring Program, which pairs every College Now scholarship recipient with a mentor in the community who helps them through their four years of college. A mentoring program such as this gives students the advice and counsel of someone who has been through college before and can answer their questions -- serving as a cheerleader or someone to encourage them to continue even when things get tough. Mentoring programs can be implemented on many different levels, and colleges themselves can create first-generation mentoring programs that pair first-generation students with faculty or staff members who were first-generation students themselves. Creating a community for first-generation students shows them that they are not alone and that someone else has struggled through the same problems and issues they are facing now. It tends to be easier for students to talk to someone about their concerns when that person has been through the same struggles.

Colleges can design more inclusive environments for first-generation students who may be facing struggles related to finances or other outside obligations. For example, many first-generation students from low-income backgrounds may work while in school in order to pay for tuition and other fees, while other students may have to care for family members while they are in college. Colleges can offer alternative schedules for students who may have other outside obligations, so they can balance school work more effectively.

How do colleges benefit from first-generation student populations?

First-generation populations bring a diverse perspective to college campuses. They offer new thoughts and beliefs outside of what may have become the norm, and they also allow colleges to cultivate a new generation of college-going students and to create a deep appreciation in both first-generation students and their families for education. Economically, first-generation students bring federal resources such as Federal Pell Grants to help support costs charged by the institution.

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 can provide first-generation students intensive supports throughout their high school years that will ensure they are well-prepared to enter college. This can mean providing one-on-one support while applying for and choosing where to attend college. It can also mean checking in with students regularly in the summer months before they matriculate to campus.

While in college, educators can ensure that they are supporting first-generation students by creating support groups on campus that encourage first-generation students to share their struggles and needs. Educators can also make sure that they know who first-generation students are in their classes, and perhaps offer them additional help in office hours or outside of class. Finally, educators can work closely with other on-campus staff to make sure resources such as campus mental health services, financial aid, and general student support groups are being promoted to first-generation students so they know where to go should issues arise.

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

I have many ideas, but to start, I think training an aging faculty on how to work with diverse students is imperative and hiring more diverse faculty and staff is critical. Pairing students with faculty members for mentorship and support is also a key way to help students connect to the academic community. Creating groups for first-generation students can help them get more involved in the academic community. For example, first-generation students who are now college faculty or staff can create communities to encourage other first-generation students to pursue education and share their experiences. By seeing other first-generation students in the academic community, it can encourage more first-generation students to get involved.

What are some useful resources for first-generation students?

First-generation students should look for college access organizations like College Now Greater Cleveland. There are college access organizations across the country that provide support and guidance to students during the college application and attendance process. Colleges themselves often have offices that address specific needs of diverse populations. These resources should be shared with students and families while they are still in high school. Other organizations that provide one-on-one support are also vital to first-generation student success, as it offers students the opportunity to work personally with someone to address their concerns and issues while in college. Additionally, the Center for First Generation Student Success provides insights and materials for first-generation students.

About Dr. Michele Scott Taylor

Chief Program Officer at College Now Greater Cleveland

Dr. Michele Scott Taylor is the chief program officer at College Now Greater Cleveland and provides strategic leadership for the organization’s programmatic efforts, including school- and community-based advising programs as well as federal programs such as Talent Search, GEAR Up, and Upward Bound. Her research and practice ensures that College Now’s programming reflects best-in-class thinking and that it is on the cutting-edge of research in the college access and success field. Her previous role as coordinator of access and retention at John Carroll University focused on college access and retention.

As a senior research analyst for Cosmos Corporation, she conducted applied research, policy analysis, and evaluations for federally-funded projects typically funded by Department of Education, National Science Foundation, and Department of Justice.

Michele has spent most of her professional career in higher education administration in a myriad of student affairs and academic affairs roles. Her professional and research interests include: diversity, cultural competency development, program evaluation, organizational development and organizational learning in higher education and non-profit organizations. She received two bachelor’s degrees from the University of Akron majoring in political science, sociology, and French. She earned a master of education degree from Kent State University specializing in college student personnel as well as a Doctor of Education degree from the University of Pittsburgh with a concentration in administrative and policy studies.

Michele is also CEO and principal of Global Learning Solutions, a small consulting firm she started in an effort to provide cultural competency development, program evaluation, program and proposal development, as well as grant writing and organizational development assistance to small businesses and non-profit organizations.

In the community, Michele takes pride in serving on the board of Progressive Arts Alliance, a nonprofit that inspires students to reach their full potential by providing unique and relevant learning experiences using contemporary arts and 21st century media. She is also a proud member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., a social service organization whose purpose is to provide assistance and support through established programs in local communities throughout the world.

2 Lorna Contreras-Townsend, Students Rising Above Alum

College gives first-generation students the opportunity to create a balanced life, one with more stability, but also one with concrete life skills that will help them find solutions as they face additional challenges along their college-to-career journey.

By Lorna Contreras-Townsend Students Rising Above Alum
Learn more about Lorna Contreras-Townsend

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

I take a lot of pride in identifying as a first-generation college student. I see myself as the achievement of the American dream my parents were seeking, and feel excited about the shift I’ve created not only for myself, but for my entire family, past and future generations, and my surrounding community. My parents were challenged as immigrants, and often did not know how to access the resources available to them here in the states. They worked countless hours in physically demanding jobs, both with disabilities from very difficult pasts. Their focus always remained centered on making sure that they were setting me up for a better life; education was an ingrained value in my mindset.

I am a proud graduate of Saint Mary’s College, having received a BA in politics and later a master’s degree in counseling psychology. This was all made possible by the amazing support of programs like Students Rising Above, as well as my network of supporters, including my parents, who believed in my future and success.

And now, full circle, I am doing just that for other first-generation college students as the director of student programs for Students Rising Above. The challenges I lived shaped me to become an advocate for others and have enabled me to have an impact, empowering students from various diverse backgrounds to achieve all they set their minds to. And at the root of it all, I know that those future generations, including my own children, won’t have to face the same challenges. They will have the capacity to achieve the social capital that often felt distant for me growing up. I work everyday with a smile on my face and gratitude in my heart, because I know that my story is one shared with those I serve and together, we’re going to make a difference in this world, one step at a time.

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

In every single student I work with through Students Rising Above, I see opportunity. They see opportunity in themselves. They want more and need more. With that being said, they work hard. They feel responsible for elevating their family and often, that responsibility can take a toll on the students. With the weight of the world on their shoulders, first-generation students often need someone to let them know that their challenges along the way are not a reflection of failure or disappointment. This idea of questioning can be identified as Imposter Syndrome -- do I belong here? am I doing the right thing? It is often a moment in time they are having, a bump along the road, and with some reframing and refocus, they can get right back to that path towards success. First-generation students are some of the most resilient individuals on these college campuses. They are resourceful and when they feel like one door has closed, they find another way to navigate around the barrier.

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

When our students head off to college, it is often the first time they are leaving their immediate communities, giving themselves the space and capacity to explore the world available to them. Taking that big step of attending a university means they leave home and integrate themselves into a microcosm of people. They learn from others with different upbringings. They bond with those who share them. They see themselves as an independent, separate from challenges that they may have at home. They also start to see themselves as more capable of changing their future, much more in control as they begin to make decisions that help grow their social and economic capital.

College gives first-generation students the opportunity to create a balanced life, one with more stability, but also one with concrete life skills that will help them find solutions as they face additional challenges along their college-to-career journey.

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?

First-generation college students frequently come from under-resourced school districts, but they have the determination to compete with their more affluent peers. They may lack the level of academic preparation, but they are also up for the challenge. That being said, there are many times when a 4.0 high school grad heads off to college where they then are presented with courses and a format that is beyond their knowledge. We do our best to coach students to take advantage of additional resources, including tutoring services, office hours with professors, peer study groups, etc. Sometimes it takes a few months, but they can usually get into the groove.

Frequently our students are also choosing majors based on a limited understanding of the vast number of career paths they can choose from. For example, a student may say they want to be a doctor, because they want to “help people in their community.” Academically, they may not be posed to take on or enjoy what a pre-med course load looks like, but they won’t know that until they explore it themselves. And once they get to college, they can explore and understand alternate ways of going into a field of interest that may engage more of their learning and set them up for success.

Frequently, these students may also start in remedial courses, failing their writing and math classes, because of a lack of foundational knowledge in those subjects or begin to see themselves as inferior in the world of college academics due to Imposter Syndrome. If they can hang tight, access their resources, network, and put in strong efforts to push ahead, then they’ll find their stride.

In what areas do first-generation students typically struggle?

We find the number one challenge among our students is letting go of family, as they often have a sense of responsibility to always be present at home. They’re often the anchor / rock in their family. It’s hard for them to leave and they return home frequently to help, which can often lead to losing focus on their academic responsibilities.

Additionally, our students are often told by family that they need to be monetarily contributing and may not have a frame of reference on how to navigate financial matters.

Lastly, their personal identity. As mentioned above, Imposter Syndrome involves self-questioning (do I fit in here?, do I belong?, why should I stay?) and can be a strong, real barrier for our students, who are all working hard to stay focused, committed, and become the first in their family to graduate from college.

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

Some of the largest challenges that we see with our students are often centered around financial aid and money management. Lack of frame of reference on 1) what needs to be done to obtain financial assistance and 2) how to advocate for themselves.

Frequently, first-generation students are thought to be unprepared academically, but in my opinion, their drive for academic success is so strong that they quickly adapt to educational challenges. Yes, they may come from schools that are under-resourced, but they do what they have to get the job done. At some of the top universities across the U.S., first-generation students are thriving academically and they are resourceful in finding support to improve their writing skills, seek out tutoring support, attend office hours with their professors, etc. They work hard to keep up, and it pays off.

Workforce Development: In the founding years of Students Rising Above, we identified that many of our students were heading back home unsure of how to use their degrees they had worked so hard to complete. Students Rising Above provides meaningful internship and professional development opportunities that are helping propel our students into a more diverse workforce. Together, with our community, we are helping today’s youth find tomorrow’s meaningful and sustainable careers.

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?

Pride: They ARE the difference. They are 100% responsible for their own lives and the paths they pave. No one can take that away from them once they realize how in control they are. I truly believe that our students at Students Rising Above are special -- they have an ingrained sense of success. Yes, some of our students come from families who encourage education, but the majority do not have that push at home.

When we interview these young adults, we’ll often ask “When did you know college was your answer?” and we frequently hear “I just did one day!” They sure did -- when they realized they could break the cycle of poverty by setting higher expectations for themselves. When they realized that obtaining a college degree meant opening the door to a workforce that felt far away from them. Suddenly that world feels much more within their reach. Networking, connecting to internships and volunteer opportunities, establishing relationships with their peers and their professors -- all of it is setting themselves up for success!

First-generation students are more likely to delay college entry, need remedial coursework, and dropout of college. How can we help reverse this trend? When do we need to start supporting students? How do colleges benefit from first-generation student populations?

There is a richness in a first-generation student’s ability to navigate their college success journey. These students become role models for others. They show a presence on campus that motivates those around them. They ask intuitive questions in the classrooms, engage in their communities and see value in giving back. They challenge the conversations on campuses and bring in ideas that cause change. These students become leaders on their college campuses and are action-oriented.

For example, one of our SRA students, who first presented as a shy and reserved young girl, confused about what decisions to make about her journey, has now become a voice for others on her campus. She went off to college and blossomed, creating much-needed student initiatives for financial literacy on her campus. She saw a need among her peers to understand financial aid as it relates to long-term success, especially first-generation and DACA students. She started creating systems on her campus to fill this need, and that literature and model is now being implemented in other partner universities. It’s this type of innovative thinking that is creating positive change for generations to come.

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?

A college-going culture early on in a child’s life will elevate their entire thinking around higher education. The more excited a community can be in infusing that knowledge and the confidence for these students to be game changers in their communities, the more the students are going to soak in that encouragement and understand the importance of setting themselves up for success with higher education. We aren't going to change the world, they are! We are empowering them to do so, giving them the vision for a better future.

Throughout the college-to-career journey, mentorship and advising provides a funnel towards new experiences, adventures, and ideas. This support system offers a network of opportunities, such as informational interviews, job shadowing, internships and much more.

Be a mentor to a young adult who craves a better tomorrow! Share your journey, including the ups and downs we all face as we figure out our careers. Let them know they are not alone; connect them to like-minded individuals who can inspire them.

Encourage them to get involved on their campus with organizations that align with their values and potential careers. Help them create a resume and cover letter, teach them the importance of thank you notes. Help them understand how to balance their finances, what it means to have a credit card, and not to be afraid of money management. These are just examples of small gestures we can all share that create BIG differences in a first-generation student's life!

Do you have any ideas about how to get first-generation students more involved in the academic community? What are some useful resources for first-generation students?

Network, network, network! Leverage as many networking opportunities as possible through career centers and career fairs, as well as local networking opportunities such as business associations, community clubs, volunteering, and more. Every person you encounter provides another opportunity. You never know who you are saying hello to and how that person could impact your life!

Learn from your professors: get to know those who are infusing your brain with knowledge.

Leverage your peers: be curious about them, their backgrounds, their visions for the future. Everyone is a learning opportunity.

Additionally, take advantage of self-care resources: mental health support on campus, mindfulness courses, taking a break in your campus lounges, or treating yourself to a cup of coffee at your campus cafe. Take care of yourself, too!

About Lorna Contreras-Townsend

Students Rising Above Alum

Lorna Contreras-Townsend is a Students Rising Above alum from the class of 2004. She attended St. Mary’s College of Moraga and received a bachelor’s degree in politics with a minor in Spanish, then went on to pursue a master’s in psychology from The Wright Institute. Lorna has extensive experience in community advocacy work and navigating social services for a holistic approach to client’s needs. Lorna’s passion lies in giving back to the community that once supported her, and she joined SRA as an advisor in 2010. Lorna feels lucky to be able to work with SRA now both as an advisor and as managing director of student programs.

3 Constance Carmona, Program Coordinator at Breakthrough Central Texas

To me, “first-generation student” means tenacity, triumph, and opportunity. A first-generation student beats the odds and rewrites the ending of an otherwise perpetual cycle many students don’t believe they can get out of.

By Constance Carmona Program Coordinator at Breakthrough Central Texas
Learn more about Constance Carmona

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

To me, “first-generation student” means tenacity, triumph, and opportunity. A first-generation student beats the odds and rewrites the ending of an otherwise perpetual cycle many students don’t believe they can get out of. Having a college degree creates opportunities that some individuals were not privileged to before. What makes the first-generation student unique is the factors of the specific path they choose, such as their school, what connections they make, and how it develops their character.

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

Time. Legacy students have been prepared since they were young, whereas if first-generation students wait until high school to engage, data says it’s too late. It’s crucial for first-generation students to begin learning how to apply skills and experiences as early as possible. The time it takes to develop trust in oneself and others. The time it takes for students to know that we won’t give up on them, nor should they give up on themselves. That’s why every one of our Breakthrough students receives our uncompromising 12-year commitment. From middle school to high school to college through graduation, we are there every step of the way.

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

Nearly two-thirds of new jobs in Central Texas require a post-secondary degree. Any form of post-secondary degree increases an individual’s lifetime earnings by 75% over those with a high school diploma. Yet, only 8% of middle school students from low-income communities in Central Texas will earn a post-secondary degree.

The value of a college degree is the increased earning potential for the person who earns it. It’s the pride and satisfaction of accomplishment felt by the student and his or her family. It’s the lasting ripple effect through an entire family and neighborhood, as friends and community members are themselves inspired to follow their own vision. It’s the impact on an entire region and economy, as educational attainment closes the opportunity gap and decreases social and economic inequity.

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?

In terms of support, it varies from campus to campus. The most prominent lack of confidence I see is in students speaking to professors. This can be misconstrued by first-generation students as a misconception where only “dumb” people go talk to professors, and that simply isn’t true. Across the board, every institution will likely be extremely different from where they grew up and where their previous education was obtained. For example, a student from a smaller rural high school who attends the University of Texas at Austin, more than 50,000 students, can feel lost, different, overwhelmed, and less likely to reach out for help. As students put off reaching out for help, their willingness diminishes. My job as their case manager is to teach them ways to be confident and to provide them with a boost of willingness to help themselves.

In what areas do first-generation students typically struggle?

Every student struggles in different areas, the most common struggle I see is time management. The homework load in college is a huge adjustment from what students are familiar with, and so is the amount of free time. Our studies show students with part-time jobs are more successful at time management whereas students with excessive free time seem to suffer.

The second most common struggle I see is balancing social and academic life. It’s difficult to provide oneself with both time for school work and also time for self-care and a social life. To see a student thrive on campus through finding a balance of both is always the goal I am reaching for.

First-generation students have a tendency to feel guilty for receiving higher education instead of being home to support their family. Some students have never left their hometown or their families, and college being hard enough as is, homesickness does not help.

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

Key pieces of information first-generation students are missing or have less access to include: out-of-school academic opportunities, a personal advocate, and the development of non-cognitive skills. These are skills we strive to teach at Breakthrough, to ensure first-generation students are prepared for everything.

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?

Seeing other people similar to them succeed is the biggest factor to lead a person to pursue a higher education. People can read about it all day, but speaking to a first-generation college graduate in person and meeting them in the flesh is highly motivating and special. It's important to showcase accomplished first-generation graduates thriving in the workforce to demonstrate just how successful students can be.

I strongly believe the Breakthrough Summer School Program is the center of our success. While other middle schoolers may be at Six Flags or the beach, our students are attending math and science classes (there are fun field trips too!) to ensure they receive all the attention needed to be prepared for the new school year. The value of education ultimately comes from within. With help from role models, educators, mentors, and their fellow Breakthrough students, the power of support is crucial in believing in oneself.

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?

We need to start supporting students as early as possible. Breakthrough begins helping students in 6th grade to give them the experiences and support necessary to achieve a vision of what is possible for him or herself.

Recently, schools no longer put students in remedial classes. Instead, they keep them in the same class as everyone else, but add an extra study course or lab for the subject. Students feel less isolated through this method while still receiving the tools to grasp the content and succeed in the class.

How do colleges benefit from first-generation student populations?

Colleges benefit from first-generation student populations because they provide different backgrounds across campus. In order to become the best version of ourselves, we need to try as many different people’s shoes on as possible. The more we understand of others, the more we understand about ourselves. First-generation students provide a shoe many students have never come close to walking in, and their presence on college campuses will help students better understand the world. I think the more we understand about ourselves, the closer we get to reaching our personal goals.

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 can ensure they are supporting first-generation students prior to college by continuing to put effort towards students at an early age. Our program at Breakthrough combines individualized, long-term case management with extended learning time for students who statistics say will not enroll in or graduate from college without significant support. We know, and the data clearly supports, that if you wait until high school to engage students, that’s too late. This is especially true for students from low-income families whose parents never attended college. That’s why, unlike other college degree-completion programs, Breakthrough begins with the right engagement at the right time.

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

Finding a first-generation organization on campus is always a great start. Most importantly, finding any organization on campus that sparks interest or joy can be life changing. Spending time on things which fascinate oneself leads to more interest in school overall. Secondly, finding a role model. There is such a strong importance for our younger Breakthrough students to connect with the Breakthrough upperclassman on their campus to help provide guidance and support.

What are some useful resources for first-generation students?

Some useful resources on campus for first-generation students in Central Texas consist of TRIO programs and the ACAN (Austin College Access Network). Each college campus provides different resources to students, and it’s important for students to explore those available help centers and tutoring opportunities to help them succeed.

About Constance Carmona

Program Coordinator at Breakthrough Central Texas

Constance is a published author and higher education specialist, bringing more than 10 years of experience to Breakthrough Central Texas. Currently serving as Breakthrough’s program coordinator on the college completion team, Constance takes great pride in getting to know her students personally and stopping at nothing to help them reach their full potential in college. She holds a bachelor’s degree in art with a minor in psychology from St. Edward’s University, a master’s in higher education student affairs from Salem State University at Boston, and fellowships at Harvard University. During her last year in Boston, Constance worked with the Harvard College Women’s Center interns to promote equity, diversity, and the advancement of women while supporting the center’s mission to challenge, motivate, and inspire others.

4 Benjamin Serrano, Alumni Support Manager at High Jump

Faced with more questions and few answers from previous generations that did not complete that level of education, first-generation students are tasked with navigating a new academic world. And they do so often alone. Because of all these differences, first-generation students are more resilient and diligent in their approach to education, because to them, the stakes are too high.

By Benjamin Serrano Alumni Support Manager at High Jump
Learn more about Benjamin Serrano

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

A first-generation student is someone who has overcome the barriers set up by economics, prejudice, and disenfranchisement to complete a level of education that hasn't been completed by those before them. They are not necessarily the first people to try to reach these levels of education nor are they the only ones who can. What makes these students unique is that they have been able to access and utilize the resources and support needed to persist in their education. First-generation students are young and old, elementary school graduates, high schoolers, and college graduates, kids, parents, workers, etc.

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

A first-generation student often has to overcome two main barriers to complete their education: access and persistence. Many legacy students are guaranteed access to a higher education since they have families with access to economic resources, social capital, and clout. For them, admission to college isn't necessarily the issue, the issue is usually where. For first-generation students that widely lack economic resources and social capital, the issue is how. How do I apply to college? How do I pay for college? How good do I have to be to go college? A first-generation student is faced with many more questions than their counterparts because access is not guaranteed. This becomes a further issue when it comes to college persistence. How do I reapply for financial aid? How do I travel to campus every year? How do I pick a major that will get me job with enough pay to help my family? Faced with more questions and few answers from previous generations that did not complete that level of education, first-generation students are tasked with navigating a new academic world. And they do so often alone. Because of all these differences, first-generation students are more resilient and diligent in their approach to education, because to them, the stakes are too high.

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

A college education has become a vital necessity in a job market where the high school diploma is no longer the minimum expectation. Many jobs require that an applicant have at least a Bachelor's degree and still many require that applicants have at least a Master's degree. By the mid-2020s, when most of the current high school students will graduate college, there will be more STEM-related jobs than ever that require deep knowledge of technology, computer science, and medicine. These students will need college degrees for those jobs. For many first-generation students, it is the life after college that is the main concern. For them, access to college should mean access to resources that have been denied to them and their families. College should mean access to a life of stability and safety that is automatically guaranteed for the few. By seeking more knowledge, skills, and tools for critical analysis and problem-solving, first-generation students can become stronger leaders for their families and communities.

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?

Support is multi-faceted. All students need some form of academic support, whether that is at the moment of instruction or afterwards in office hours, because they are encountering new learning material. College is expensive, so students need financial support. The costs of books, travel, room, and board directly impacts a student's ability to fully participate in their college education. Students need health support, which is also directly tied to their room and board as a student who can sleep comfortably knowing that they'll be able to sleep in the same place tomorrow along with having enough food without the worry of not affording food helps support a healthy body. A healthy mind is also important, so mental health and emotional support is needed for students as well. These resources are available at most colleges, and so first-generations don't lack them outright. It's about accessibility to these resources that can lead first-generation students to become insecure about their educational path. A student can ask themselves, "Are the mental health services made for someone who is Black and gay like me?" or they can ask themselves, "Should I only take four classes instead of the six I want to because the books are too expensive? Will that make me look dumber and less capable?" If first-generation students are granted access to academic, financial, health, and social-emotional resources that are geared toward their specific experiences and needs, then they'll feel that their schools are active advocates in their education. They'll feel confident that these schools are there for their interest as much as for any other student's interest.

In what areas do first-generation students typically struggle?

The transition between high school and college is a struggle for many first-generation students, just as the transition from middle school to high school is a struggle for those same students. Many of the highest-performing students, especially those coming from large-city public high schools, nearly always see their GPA drop in that transition. Adjusting to the rigor of a college curriculum, adjusting to the campus life, and adjusting to being far away from the family network that may still need financial support are just a few of the things that these first-generation students struggle with. The stress and anxiety that comes with balancing those things can also lead to mental health struggles that then cycle back to poorer academic performance. Also, college-aged students are at the point of their development where they're putting their identities in greater social contexts. This experience becomes more complex and intense when these first-generation students, who are largely working-class and of color, are attending predominantly white and wealthy institutions. So first-generation students are facing very specific experiences and struggles and at very high stakes.

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

As a first-generation student myself, one key missing piece of information that I wish that I received is that you can make your college education whatever you want it to be (at least in a liberal arts environment). Students can go get so focused on the end-game of designing their education to have the most benefit for their future career, but as many liberal arts colleges now point out, there are a variety of careers someone can take with a variety of courses of study. Swarthmore College, for instance, has extensive information around the majors students have done and the careers they've ended up with, and how the same major can lead to a variety of careers. First-generation students also tend to learn later that there were extracurricular programs and experiences at their college that they could have completed at no financial cost. Since these experiences are not advertised as cost-free or possibly cost-free experiences, students with limited economic resources tend to miss them unless they are deeply involved in the offerings of their major's academic department.

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?

As I mentioned before, for those without or with little economic resources, an education is often seen as a means to accessing those resources. And therefore in many families, a value for a stable, healthy life with adequate resources is equated with a value for education. Some first-generation students seek more education because they'd rather not face the hardships that their immediate family or those before them have faced. Some first-generation students seek more education because there is a problem they'd like to solve or people they'd like to help, and they need more skills to do so. And some go to college because in their schools they've been taught that logically the next step after high school is college. In the end, it's not that people solely value learning on its own (to learn solely for the sake of learning is a luxury for the well-resourced). For many of these students, education is a means of survival. These people value their lives and the lives of others, and they'll seek whatever kind of learning that they have access to in order to continue these lives.

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?

Well, first thing is that any high school program that works with first-generation students solely on college admissions needs to ensure that there is a plan for college persistence. Many programs do have this in place. Students begin as juniors developing college lists, apply to college in their senior year, and are still working with that program throughout the next four years of college to make sure that they graduate. Chicago Public Schools has data for their high schools that not only tracks the number of seniors that enroll in college, but the number that continue to their second year of college. For many of these high schools, that latter number drops sharply. For instance, one Chicago high school sends 88% of their seniors to college, but only 61% of those students go on to sophomore year. Another Chicago high school sends 49% of their students to college, but 81% of them continue to sophomore year. Both of these schools are nearly 100% low-income and students of color. Which school creates more college-ready students? We can ensure high levels of both enrollment and persistence by keeping track of students' academic performances and experiences throughout their entire first year, and making sure that they will have enough financial assistance into their sophomore year. This support will only succeed if this work starts well before college, when students are beginning their research.

How do colleges benefit from first-generation student populations?

Every college benefits from a community of learners, thinkers, and doers from a variety of places and experiences. Classrooms are enriched with the different perspectives that all these students have. But outside of what they can say in the classroom, first-generation students teach colleges about the gaps those colleges have in creating equitable and affirmative learning environments. It isn't the obligation for these students to teach this nor do they always teach this purposefully, but they end up being valuable resources for these colleges. Colleges learn of the possible prejudices in curricula or the student body. Colleges learn about the financial accessibility of their programs. Colleges get major benefits from having these students, so it is necessary that they provide whatever resources these students need to be successful at their schools.

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?

Many educators in high schools where the majority of students are low-income and of color are often tasked with creating a college-going culture at their school. That is a big ask of educators who are mainly working to make sure that their students graduate from high school. To best support students as they seek further education, educators in high school and before can have students ask themselves why is education important to them. Students reflecting on their own schooling are better critical thinkers who are more likely to seek more chances to learn. Educators can also be there to proofread application essays and write recommendations. I do think it's most helpful, however, for educators to guide students toward college access workers for questions around applying and enrollment, rather than take on that task themselves. To support students in college, educators can guide their former students toward summer work and internship opportunities, engage them in conversation on their social-emotional health in college, and send them toward academic support centers. You don't have to be their college counselor, just know how to point them toward one.

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

These students are already very involved in the academic community! There are some first-generation students who get involved that identify as such, but many of these students find affinity with all sorts of communities. These students are in the Pan-African Student Union working to establish a campus center for Black students. These students are working to unionize the campus custodial staff. These students are off-campus at schools doing workshops to teach undocumented youth their rights. To get first-generation students involved as first-generation students shouldn't be the goal. The goal should be to give the resources and space these students need to become whatever students, academics, and leaders they want to be.

What are some useful resources for first-generation students?

The I'm First: Guide to College is a great resource that gives first-generation students a look at not only the schools that can support them the most, but the first-generation student programming at those schools in which they can participate. Financial resources are always useful, so first-generation students should look out for the scholarship opportunities out there for them, such as Odyssey at the University of Chicago. The best kinds of scholarship programs are the ones that provide you with financial and academic and social-emotional support.

About Benjamin Serrano

Alumni Support Manager at High Jump

Benjamin Serrano is an educator and youth worker who works as High Jump’s Alumni Support Manager, where he creates and manages programming that helps our High Jump alumni transition into college preparatory high schools and higher education. As an alumnus of High Jump’s Cohort 15 and the Latin School of Chicago, he understands the academic, social-emotional, and financial resources necessary for a successful journey through school, and he wants to ensure that all High Jump alumni are supported as they grow into more advanced learners and leaders. He believes that with the right tools, these young Chicagoans can not only edify themselves, but also their own communities. His relationship with High Jump began in 2003 and he is excited to return to High Jump fifteen years later in this new role.

Outside of his work with High Jump, Benjamin is a writer and artist, working mainly as a playwright, graphic designer, filmmaker, and photographer focusing on themes of race, colonialism, and the Black radical tradition. Born and raised in Chicago’s West Town and Humboldt Park neighborhoods, Benjamin has a deep knowledge of Chicago history and tries to learn something new about this city every day.

Benjamin has an M.Ed. in Curriculum & Instruction from Boston College and a B.A. in English from Tufts University.

5 Nancy Lee Sanchez, Executive Director at the Kaplan Educational Foundation

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.

By Nancy Lee Sanchez Executive Director at the Kaplan Educational Foundation
Learn more about Nancy Lee Sanchez

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!

About 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.

6 Ron Oliver, Director of First-Generation Student Success at FAU

The unknown is what creates the insecurity and leads to a lack of confidence. First-generation students need mentoring from other first-generation students or professionals that can help them see that they too can be successful.

By Ron Oliver Director of First-Generation Student Success at FAU
Learn more about Ron Oliver

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

First-generation students are students that are first in their family to attend college and attain a four-year degree. To me, a first-generation student means “a diamond in the rough”. They are oftentimes extremely bright and talented, but have not had the resources to truly shine. They are unique because their lived experiences are so different from traditional students. This allows for robust classroom discussions and critical discourse.

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

Legacy students grow up knowing they are going to college. It is discussed and planned for beginning at an early age. It is the expectation. For some first-generation students, there is no expectation. Perhaps the expectation is to work and contribute to household expenses or to seek a suitable suitor who will take care of them. In homes where first-generation students are being encouraged by parents/family to attend college, the parents/family member often lack the financial resources to assist their student and do not understand processes such as admissions, orientations, completing FAFSA, etc. Once admitted, first-generation students face enormous pressure as the “first” in their family to attend college. They often view this as the one and ONLY shot they have to succeed in life. As a result, they work twice as hard to meet their goals.

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?

Yes, I agree with this statement. Some first-generation students have a clear idea of what they want to study and what profession they want to work in. However, they don’t know what path to follow to get there and don’t know how they will be able to afford it (especially if they are interested in medical school or law school or careers that require a great deal of education or terminal degree). For other first-generation students, they have no idea what career they want to pursue or what program of study to enroll in. The unknown is what creates the insecurity and leads to a lack of confidence. First-generation students need mentoring from other first-generation students or professionals that can help them see that they too can be successful. They also need people that are dedicated to helping them navigate transition from high school to college and every year there on after through graduation.

In what areas do first-generation students typically struggle?

  • Acclimating to the collegiate environment and feeling like they belong
  • “Survivor’s guilt”, meaning they sometimes feel guilty for moving ahead in life and leaving loved ones or friends behind
  • Academically underprepared -- many attend schools in low socio economic districts and don’t have access to college preparatory courses
  • Financial instability
  • Balancing school, work, and family

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

How to ask for help. Perhaps because they are embarrassed to admit they do not understand certain processes or they are ashamed that they are struggling academically or financially. By the time they request help, it can be too late, or the initial challenge is compounded with more challenges.

How to manage money. Since many first-generation students come from low socio-economic backgrounds, they can often find themselves covering expenses for other people in their family or becoming eager to purchase items they may not necessarily need in the moment. Helping them create a budget and to plan for the future is critical.

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?

In some cases, the family is the driving force. For example, parents who wish they had the opportunity to attain an education and unfortunately were not able to. For some, the motivation comes from teachers or counselors that encourage them to see opportunity outside of the environment they are living in. For others, it’s the search of an escape from the environment they are currently living in. The desire to have more than their parents could provide for them and to hopefully help their family long-term.

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?

From the minute they enter the educational system (pre-school). It takes time to cultivate confidence in a child. If the school environment doesn’t prove to be different than the environment they are growing up in, then it becomes difficult to imagine something different. Colleges and universities should look for creative ways to partner with K-12 public schools in underserved communities. For instance, education minors could be involved in reading to children or with children at all levels. Efforts should be made to develop hands-on field trip experiences for children to gain exposure to college campuses. Summer enrichment programs can be developed to assist bridge the educational gap utilizing graduate students or teacher assistants. In addition, when planning orientations or open houses, consider sessions specifically for first-generation students and their parents or family members. Parents and family members will oftentimes want to be involved, yet don’t know how to support their student.

How do colleges benefit from first-generation student populations? 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?

The best way to support first-generation students is to truly know the challenges first-generation students face and not making assumptions about what they “should know”. By understanding the experiences and challenges of first-generation students, you can make pedagogical changes in the classroom.

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

Developing programs that bring first-generation students together and allow them to connect to the larger institution, especially faculty and administrative staff that were also first-generation students. When a first-generation student has contact and conversations with successful individuals that were first-generation, it is uplifting and empowering for them. In addition, developing orientation sessions, introduction to college courses, and workshops specifically for first-generation students. This provides them with a safe space to ask questions they wouldn’t normally ask in a session that included legacy students. Also, incorporating co-curricular components in first-generation programs, such as leadership opportunities, service-learning projects, research. First-generation students are passionate about making a difference. Getting them involved in meaningful high impact experiences motivates them to persist in their educational journey.

What are some useful resources for first-generation students?

List the resources we offer in the office of first-generation student success including the registered student organization since the org is what brings them together.

About Ron Oliver

Director of First-Generation Student Success at FAU

Ron Oliver joined Florida Atlantic University's staff as the director of basketball operations in May 2014 before being elevated to assistant coach in the spring of 2016. In April of 2018, Ron was named director of first-generation student success. He brings over 20 years of coaching experience at both the college and NBA level.

He served as an advanced scout for the Philadelphia 76ers and was the assistant coach for the Detroit Pistons and the Toronto Raptors. An Arkansas native, Mr. Oliver has over two decades of professional and leadership experience. In addition to FAU, Mr. Oliver was employed by Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. During his tenure at Ball State University and at FAU, Mr. Oliver was instrumental in advising and mentoring student-athletes of underrepresented at-risk populations, including first-generation and low socio-economic students. As a life coach, Mr. Oliver has empowered professionals and students with effective strategies to meet individualized goals and to develop critical life skills such as endurance, persistence, and resiliency.

Mr. Oliver holds a bachelor in kinesiology and movement science from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, where he was a four-year letterman for the wolverines men’s basketball team and was a student leader in the elite Michigamua Society. He is currently pursuing a master’s in education from Northcentral University. In his spare time, Mr. Oliver enjoys golfing and spending time with his wife and five children.

7 Mike Woodward, Executive Director at College Track New Orleans

There is a tremendous benefit in bringing together diverse populations and viewpoints, as well as people with a multitude of lived experiences. These enrich the learning environment for all. For many of us, our neighborhoods and schools are determined based on one’s access, or lack thereof, to resources.

By Mike Woodward Executive Director at College Track New Orleans
Learn more about Mike Woodward

Can you define what "first-generation student" means to you? What made you unique as a student, aside from family history?

A first-generation student is one where his or her parents have not attained bachelor’s degrees. In other words, the first-gen student is the first in their family to graduate from college. In my situation, neither of my parents graduated from high school, much less attended college. However, my parents always had very high expectations for my educational outcomes and met those expectations with a high level of care. And now, here I am, the executive director of an organization whose mission is to see that first-generation students, like myself, earn a four-year college degree and a life of choice and opportunity.

How did your approach to education as a first-generation student differ from your legacy counterparts?

Reflecting on my experiences in college, particularly in my early college years and the years preceding, I viewed college as the place where I would learn exactly what I wanted to do with the rest of my life and as a pathway to a career, which resulted in emphasising the destination of a college degree instead of the journey of a college experience. Many of my legacy counterparts, however, viewed college as an opportunity to maximize exposure to a myriad of experiences, not only limited to career. I remember feeling a tremendous sense of pressure and responsibility to succeed. I felt it was incumbent upon me to break the chains of intergenerational poverty that my family had experienced for generations. I do not recall my legacy counterparts feeling such pressures.

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

At College Track, we know a four-year college degree continues to be the best predictor of upward social mobility. And yet, even while college attendance rates continue to rise, the gap in college completion, particularly for lower-income, first-generation Americans and students of color, is widening at an alarming rate. In order to have a world where everyone can participate, and to meet the demands of the workforce, we need to support first-generation students and help them earn a four-year college degree. 87% of College Track students will be the first in their family to earn a college degree.

Also, if as an employer you want a leader that is adaptable, resourceful, innovative, look no further than a first-generation college graduate.

There is also a level of social capital that is very rarely acquired by first-generation students if they do not attend and graduate from college, a level of social capital that is necessary for all voices in society to be represented. We know that a college degree is a requirement to be in many positions with decision-making authority and we know that the majority of Americans do not have a college degree. Therefore, in order to ensure representation for the majority, we must have first-generation students attend and complete college so that they can lead and make decisions with the perspective and experience of those who are all-too-often under-represented in leadership.

We set out to change the narrative by equipping first-generation students with the tools, resources, encouragement, support, and love necessary to not only succeed in college selection, enrollment, persistence, and graduation, but also to serve as change agents in their communities to, in the words of our late U.S. Secretary of Commerce, Ron Brown, “keep the door open and the ladder down for others to follow.”

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?

This is exactly the challenge College Track is set up to help students overcome. Students who are the first in their family to apply to college usually don’t have family members to effectively help navigate the process. We guide our students through the admissions and financial aid processes, help them narrow their list of colleges and ultimately assist them in deciding which school will be a “best fit” for them. We fill in the gaps that families and many secondary schools cannot, so our students will not only get to college but will successfully graduate.

In what areas did you struggle as a first-generation student?

Most of my struggles were academic and social/emotional, particularly in my first years of college. My high school did not adequately prepare me for the academic rigor that awaited me at Stanford and I quickly learned that there not only existed a significant disparity between the haves and have-nots on campus, but that I was very much a member of the latter group. While I did not feel that others treated me differently as a result of my lack of financial resources, I remember initially battling what is described as impostor syndrome, sometimes feeling like I was only admitted to increase the university’s diversity.

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

First-generation students often lack the social networks that are an important component of college life, and also highly useful when seeking internships and employment. They often under-utilize campus resources and support, that are most helpful to navigating college successfully, such as career centers, office hours, counseling services, and study abroad opportunities. Many times first-generation students are simply not aware that these resources even exist.

First-generation students are also much more likely to return home over holiday and summer breaks and resume work at the same or similar job they had in high school, as opposed to securing internships that are aligned with passions and fields of study. This is often exacerbated due to the financial barriers that accompany unpaid internships, family pressure to return home, and the under-utilization of the aforementioned resources. All of these factors operate in tandem to limit these students ability to effectively build social capital.

Our internal data at College Track shows that students who complete at least one internship, while controlling for GPA, are 40% more likely to secure full-time employment within six months of college graduation. Therefore, we must act to ensure that first-generation students are connecting their studies to career pathways sooner to catalyze their pathway to upward social mobility.

What are the factors that lead you to pursue an education even though no one in your family has? Where did your value for education come from?

I always viewed higher education as a pathway out of poverty. I remember the most common arguments in my household growing up were related to finances. Furthermore, my parents bought into the idea that higher education was my pathway to success. I was surrounded by a village of family members, friends, and educators who saw potential in me that I sometimes did not see in myself. It was my grandmother’s dream that I, as the youngest of her six grandchildren, would become the first to earn a college degree, as it was an accomplishment that had not been attainable for so many in my family. It was very clear to me from an early age that so many had invested so much into me and the way for me to pay them back was the succeed beyond my wildest dreams.

One of the sagest pieces of advice I received occurred in sixth grade while I was doing pre-algebra homework. My dad made it clear to me that it was important to surround myself with people who have done what I aspire to do in response to him no longer being able to support me with my homework assignments. He acknowledged that one thing all of my teachers had in common that he and my mom did not was that they had earned a college degree. I have reflected on and followed his advice ever since. That is partly why I am thrilled to work for an organization like College Track, where I can make a living by leveraging my personal identity for younger people in New Orleans as one who has done what our scholars aspire to do.

First-generation students are more likely to delay college entry, need remedial coursework, and dropout of college. How can we help reverse this trend? At what stage did you feel like you needed more support as a first-generation student?

Much of this can be traced back to long before the college application process begins. We need to do more to support first-generation students early in high school, so we can make sure they are academically, socially, and financially prepared for college. Also, selecting the best-fit college for the student is critical. College Track’s “Best Fit” college recommendations include those that offer on-campus supports for first-generation students, admirable graduation rates, academic and social-emotional resources, and financial aid packages that allow students to graduate with less than $30,000 in student loan debt. Our research has shown that when these factors are mitigated for, our students graduate college at a rate more than double the national average for first-generation students.

One of the strategies we have employed at College Track New Orleans that has nearly eliminated the need for remedial coursework is to partner with our local community college to offer the remedial equivalent courses to our scholars while they are in high school. This mitigates the degree to which test taking remains a barrier for college admissions and ensures our scholars begin college on track. On a macro level, I recommend that state boards of education create policy to better align high school offerings with college minimum admissions standards and counties implement partnerships with local colleges and universities to reduce or eliminate the need for remedial college coursework.

Personally, I realized I needed more support as a first-generation student during the summer after my freshman year of college. While living and interning with fellow first-generation students, I remember frequently discussing what were the then barriers to our success and the opportunities as a result. These conversations laid the framework for us to start what is now First-gen, Low-Income Partnership (FLIP) at Stanford, a student group designed to provide a community for first-generation/low-income students on campus.

How do colleges benefit from first-generation student populations?

There is a tremendous benefit in bringing together diverse populations and viewpoints, as well as people with a multitude of lived experiences. These enrich the learning environment for all. For many of us, our neighborhoods and schools are determined based on one’s access, or lack thereof, to resources. As such, our peer learning can be stifled if we do not engage with folks who are different from us. First-generation student populations have identities, experiences, and perspectives that make our colleges more reflective of society, better prepares students for their future careers, increases student self-awareness, and yields more robust, holistic solutions to community challenges.

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?

Before they get to college:

  • College affordability/financial aid support to ensure that students and families have completed all necessary forms and are making college choices with affordability as a primary criterion for selection. At College Track, we conduct college affordability workshops with our students and families beginning in 9th grade. We then conduct individualized senior 1-on-1 meetings, FAFSA workshops, and CSS profile workshops.
  • Focus on non-cognitive skills like time management, study habits, organization, and self-advocacy. These are often overlooked in high schools, but prove necessary to navigate higher education effectively.
  • College exposure via college tours, university representative visits, following colleges/universities on social media. “Demonstrated interest” is one of many factors that colleges who practice holistic admissions take into account when deciding who is admitted. Furthermore, it is my firm belief that there is no substitute for feeling like you belong on a college campus than by setting feet on one regularly.
  • Meaningful summer engagement is vital for all students, but particularly first-generation students. At College Track, we ensure that all of our students are meaningfully engaged in the summer whether it is through working at a job, taking a summer course (to remediate or accelerate), or enrolling in a summer enrichment program on a college campus. These opportunities can be transformative for first-generation students and they combat “summer brain drain” or “summer learning loss.”
  • Standardized Test Prep is an opportunity that can be very costly for families and has traditionally served as a barrier for students who cannot afford it. At College Track we provide standardized test prep for our students at no cost, there are other free or low-cost opportunities for students as well. For example, Khan Academy and College Board have partnered to offer free SAT prep for all students via their website.
  • Summer bridge or orientation programs specifically for first-generation students. These programs allow students to live on-campus, earn college credit, and meaningfully connect with peers and faculty in a more intimate setting the summer after high school graduation, but before college begins.

In college:

  • Living and learning communities that allow first-generation students to enroll and take classes together while living in the same or proximate dormitories.
  • Mentoring programs that provide one-to-one or group mentoring where first-gen upperclassmen can connect in a structured, yet authentic, way with first-gen underclassmen.
  • Faculty interaction to reduce the perceived barrier between faculty and the first-gen student population. This can be implemented in a number of ways, ranging from structured office hours to work-study opportunities to dinner with professors.
  • Early warning systems to alert university staff to when a (first-generation) student is in danger of not persisting that is met with a coordinated effort to provide the necessary supports to keep that student on-track.
  • Encouraging students to get involved but not overly involved because extracurricular involvement on a college campus is a way to build social capital and is likely to increase one’s sense of belongingness. However, some first-generation students have a tendency to become overly involved to the point where they are not allocating enough time to their academics.
  • Monitor work hours as many first-generation students need to work to make ends meet. Sometimes students will work too many hours at the expense of academic performance. At College Track, we recommend that students do not work more than fifteen hours per week.
  • Career/internship support to ensure that first-generation students are securing opportunities that are going to give them increased exposure to successfully transition from college to career.

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

Colleges and universities must institutionalize spaces and supports for first-generation students. While what we did at Stanford with FLIP was student-led, the university created the Diversity and First-Gen Office three years later. We have seen similar student groups and offices emerge on several campuses throughout the country, but we are nowhere close to where we need to be regarding this matter. Fifteen years ago, very few, if any, colleges or universities were taking on this work, so I am happy to see the progress that has been made, but if we are to truly move the needle for first-generation graduation outcomes we need far greater effort across the higher education landscape. I would also recommend colleges and universities to partner with community-based organizations like College Track who also focus on college persistence and graduation. For example, through our partnership with Tulane University, we have seen tremendous success for our student outcomes. Since the partnerships inception in 2014, Tulane University has created a Center for Academic Equity, which serves all self-identified underrepresented or non-traditional students. Our partnership boasts a 96% on-track to graduate within four-years rate, an increase of more than 20% for pell-grant eligible students at the university. Similar partnerships not only increase the diversity of college campuses, but also make them more inclusive and equitable. Once first-generation students feel a sense of belongingness, support, and value, they too will become more involved in the academic community.

What were some useful resources for you as a first-generation student?

I attended the Quest Scholars Program, a summer enrichment program at Stanford University for high achieving first-gen/low-income students. That helped me through the rigors of the holistic college admissions process and the Partnership for Academic Excellence, a program that offered free SAT prep and took students on college visits, in my hometown. Through the support of these two programs and mentors, I was able to secure numerous scholarships that removed all financial barriers to my attainment of a college degree. I used FastWeb to identify the majority of the scholarships for which I applied.

Before my freshman year at Stanford, I attended the Stanford Summer Engineer Academy (SSEA), which prioritized supporting first-generation/low-income incoming freshman who planned to major in engineering. During my early years at Stanford, I was heavily involved with the National Society of Black Engineers and the Black Community Services Center, both of which provided invaluable academic and social support. Then toward to end of my undergraduate experience, I relied on my peers that were in FLIP with me.

When I reflect on my experience as a first-generation college student, I know that 1) I had abundant resources that were made available to me as a student at Stanford University and 2) my trajectory is not the norm for the majority of first-generation college students in our country as most first-generation students do not attend colleges or universities free of financial barriers. What concerns me most is that most universities that offer comparable resources to Stanford are not accessible to most first-generation students. Therefore, it is our responsibility to prioritize providing the necessary resources for first-generation students on all college campuses because once resources are distributed equitably across the higher education landscape, we all succeed.

About Mike Woodward

Executive Director at College Track New Orleans

Since September 2018, Mike has served as the executive director of College Track New Orleans where he leads a team of 25 to ensure that first-generation, low-income students have an increased opportunity to reverse generational poverty beginning with the acquisition of a college degree. Prior to his current role, Mike served as the site director of College Track New Orleans for 3+ years. Most recently, Mike was selected to the New Orleans Regional Leadership Institute (NORLI) and as one of 80 W.K. Kellogg Foundation Community Leaders Network fellows in the U.S.

Originally from Fredericksburg, Virginia, Mike has been a socially-motivated leader since he was a teenager. While in high school, he developed a countywide tutoring program called Helping Other Help Themselves (HOHT). During his undergraduate years at Stanford University, Mike founded the First-generation Low Income Partnership (FLIP), to serve as a platform for students who identified as the first in their family to attend university or low-income to congregate for social, academic and professional support. Upon graduating from Stanford, Mike co-founded Project Skill Build in New Orleans, a service initiative focused on empowering a traditionally marginalized segment of the New Orleans population to rebuild the city one home at a time. During his time at Project Skill Build, Mike helped more than 80 participants find full-time employment. Mike is a first-generation college graduate with a background in education, business, and policy. He holds degrees from both Stanford University (BS in bioengineering ‘08) and Tulane University (MPH ‘13). Upon realizing that his most intense passion is working with youth, Mike joined Teach for America in 2013.

Mike has been recognized as both a student and a professional by numerous organizations. Among his awards and acknowledgements are Coca-Cola Scholar, Gates Millennium Scholar, Ron Brown Scholar, Albert Schweitzer Fellow, Bezos Educator Scholar, Louisiana Teacher Leader, Urban League ULEAD Fellow, Bryan Bell Metro Leadership Forum Fellow, New Leaders Council Fellow, STAND For Children Education Leadership Institute Fellow, Education Pioneers Visiting Fellow, a Leadership for Educational Equity Public Leaders Fellow, Emerging Philanthropist of New Orleans, and New Orleans Business Alliance Economic Ambassador. He is also currently an active member in the Young Leadership Council, the Urban League of Louisiana, the Teach For America Greater New Orleans Collective, the New Orleans Global Shapers Community, and serves as the Gulf Coast Regional Delegate for the Ron Brown Scholar Alumni Association, a Program Reading Committee member for the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation, and a New Orleans Business Alliance Economic Ambassador.

8 Shelby Brown, First-Generation Student

As first-generation students, my sisters and I were the first in our family to pursue a college degree. With this came a sense of pride that I was representing an advancement for myself that nobody in my family had yet accomplished.

By Shelby Brown First-Generation Student
Learn more about Shelby Brown

Can you define what "first-generation student" means to you? What made you unique as a student, aside from family history?

As first-generation students, my sisters and I were the first in our family to pursue a college degree. With this came a sense of pride that I was representing an advancement for myself that nobody in my family had yet accomplished. As a first-generation student, I think I really understood the importance of a degree and the long-term benefits that come with it. However, I also felt guilty when I didn’t get the best grades or didn’t know what degree path to pursue since I was carrying the weight of this responsibility with me.

How did your approach to education as a first-generation student differ from your legacy counterparts?

At first, I think it was very similar. None of my friends growing up were first-gen students, so I had the same mindset as them: go to college, get a degree, and land a job. It seemed easy before I got to college. But I quickly learned in my first semester that I needed to find more resources on campus for questions that my family couldn’t answer.

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

I think it’s essential for anyone to pursue higher education, but college gave me the opportunity to really do something for myself. It allowed me to explore my interests, expand my network, and build the foundation for my future.

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 think that’s absolutely true! It became obvious when I started college that I didn’t have the same kind of academic support system that most of my peers seemed to have. My parents never attended college, so I was pretty much on my own to figure out admissions, what major to declare, whether to go to a university or community college, payment, what classes to take, etc. It was easy for me not to be confident in what I was doing because I was new to all of this and it was up to me to navigate college -- I had nothing to compare it with.

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

A big one for me was scholarships. Since I attended a wealthier high school, nobody was focused on college scholarships and my parents never mentioned them to me, either. If I could go back, I would have sought out all of the scholarships I could apply for to help pay for college.

What are the factors that lead you to pursue an education even though no one in your family has? Where did your value for education come from?

When I was in elementary school, my older sister was involved in Upward Bound. Since she was my primary babysitter, she always brought me along to their events and after-school sessions. I remember talking to the UB director about how excited I was to go to college someday and being able to do all of these things on my own. I think at that point, college became a personal goal.

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? At what stage did you feel like you needed more support as a first-generation student?

I think I noticed that I needed more support towards the end of my first semester of college. Before that, I had that “I’m out of high school and can do anything” mentality, so I believed I had this college thing down.

If there were more dedicated “first-generation/low-income” student resources in college, it might benefit first-gen students who are looking for a one-stop place for information. I had to work throughout college, so I didn’t have time to run around the campus searching for answers. Having a specific place -- whether online or on-campus -- would have been extremely beneficial for me.

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?

I wasn’t aware of any specific resources that were available for first-generation students. At my high school, we had something called the “College and Career Center,” but they were primarily focused on helping students land a part-time job after high school or pursue a vocational program, which wasn’t what I was interested in at the time. It would have been beneficial for me to have a workshop on scholarships, college applications, how to pay for college, etc.

Once first-generation students are in college, it is up to them to reach out to their professors for support. I think the best thing educators can do is be available for these students and understand the unique challenges that first-generation students may encounter in college.

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

More college prep programs -- like Upward Bound -- that are readily available for ALL high school students. Unfortunately, when I got to high school, UB was no longer offered at my institution.

What were some useful resources for you as a first-generation student?

I can’t stress the importance enough of taking advantage of academic advising in college. My advisors helped me understand my options and figure out my academic plan.

About Shelby Brown

First-Generation Student

Shelby studied digital journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno where she developed her skills in strategic communication. Her experience as a first-generation student and professional background working with students and various college prep programs made her a firm believer in college affordability and accessibility. In her current job, she continues to advocate for students by stressing the importance of higher education.

Contact

If you have questions or feedback about this collection, or would like to be a participant in a future panel, please contact us using the link below.

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What is a “first-generation student?” Without a standard definition, it’s up to each school or program to define, which can cause some confusion. A recent report from the National Center for Educational Statistics defines first-generation college students as “students who enrolled in postsecondary education and whose parents do not have any postsecondary experience.” Some institutions include students whose parents may have attended some college, but did not graduate with a bachelor’s degree and others include students who grew up in households where no one had college experience.

It may come as no surprise that first-generation students often choose to pursue a college degree with career and employment goals in mind. According to The College Board, “the typical bachelor’s degree recipient can expect to earn about 66% more during a 40-year working life than the typical high school graduate earns over the same period.” Employers are also increasingly hiring applicants with college degrees.

Our expert panel explored the challenges of becoming a college graduate, without the insight that comes from parents who have gone through the process. They also shared details about the characteristics of first-generation students, how they add value and diversity to colleges and universities, and what institutions can do to better support them.

Persistence, Ambition, and Determination

These are just a few of the characteristics our panelists used to describe first-generation students. They are often overcoming what is usually a late start to the college preparation process compared to their legacy student counterparts. And with a focus on career outcomes there’s pressure to succeed. This pressure, however, often brings out the best in students who are determined to reach their goals and to take the initiative necessary to reach their goals.

First-generation students are some of the most resilient individuals on these college campuses. They are resourceful and when they feel like one door has closed, they find another way to navigate around the barrier.

- Lorna Contreras-Townsend, Advisor and Alumnus, Students Rising Above

First-Generation Perspectives and Insight

First-generation students are meaningful contributors to their college communities. They represent ranges in age, backgrounds, socio-economic levels, ethnicities, and interests. They are enrolled across majors, and are eager to make the most of the college experience as part of a diverse and interesting student body.

In order to become the best version of ourselves, we need to try as many different people’s shoes on as possible … First-generation students provide a shoe many students have never come close to walking in, and their presence on college campuses will help students better understand the world.

- Constance Carmona, Program Coordinator, Breakthrough Central Texas

Access to Resources and Support

Making the transition from high school to college can be stressful for all students. First-generation students often have the added challenge of becoming aware of the available assistance and resources after they enroll. While a legacy student may already anticipate having an academic advisor, access to a writing center, and opportunities to join student clubs, for example, first-generation students may need an introduction to all that the institution has to offer. There’s a world of opportunity to be navigated.

They also might take more time to learn the different ways to get involved on campus -- they don’t have people telling them about the clubs or organizations they took part in while they were in college. First-generation students may be missing information about how to declare a major, or how to access professors for things such as office hours. Often it is the little, day-to-day operations of college or university life that students may not learn until months or even years of being on campus.

- Michele Scott Taylor, Chief Program Officer, College Now Greater Cleveland

Our panel recommends that colleges give specific attention to first-generation students in multiple aspects of student life, including:

  • Development of time management, organization, and self-advocacy skills.
  • Building social networks to encourage a feeling of belonging and personal identity and discourage “imposter syndrome.”
  • Making connections with mentors that may include first-generation upperclass students (i.e., Juniors and Seniors), as well as first-generation alumni.
  • Providing outreach to middle and high school students and their parents to prepare those who might consider college earlier in the process.
  • Offering summer bridge programs and orientations between high school graduation and the freshman year to help students prepare for campus life and academic success.
  • Working with faculty members to develop their awareness of first-generation student needs and support services.

For first-generation students the issue is not why go to college, but how it’s done. From testing and applications to financial aid and academics, navigating both college decision-making and college completion can be a daunting experience.

In many ways these students are trailblazers, discovering the process as they go. Ambitious, determined, and in many ways brave, they are charting a course without a map provided by family members who have experience navigating the route to a college degree. Making sure resources and support places are in place and accessible is an important step in first-generation student success.

Resources for Further Reading

BestColleges Guides

  • College Planning for Parents and Students: Preparing to enter college can be a daunting process for first generation students and their parents. Our year-to-year checklist, beginning with the 9th grade, provides specific steps to prepare for and navigate the admissions process.
  • A Student’s Guide to Managing Stress: Making the transition to college can be stressful for all students, particularly those entering as first-generation. Our guide provides a detailed background of the types of stress you might encounter, and practical tips for managing stress, maintaining health, and seeking assistance.

Organizations

  • Center for First-Generation Student Success: This initiative provides support to both those working with first-generation students in higher education and high school and college students, with a goal of helping students succeed.
  • I’m First!: This organization presents first-hand perspectives of first-generation college students through blogs, videos, and a free mentorship program.
  • TRIO Programs: Eight Federal student programs are designed to support students from disadvantaged backgrounds, including first-generation college students. Students can connect with these programs through offices on their college campuses.