First-Generation College Students: Facts and Statistics

Roughly 1 in 3 college students are first-generation. Explore seven key facts about first-generation college students.
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Jane Nam
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Jane Nam is a staff writer for BestColleges' Data Center. Before her work on higher education data trends, Jane was a news writer and the managing editor for an academic journal. She has graduate degrees in social and political philosophy and women's...
Updated on April 12, 2023
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Lyss Welding is a higher education analyst and senior editor for BestColleges who specializes in translating massive data sets and finding statistics that matter to students. Lyss has worked in academic research, curriculum design, and program evalua...
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Data Summary

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    Over one-third of undergraduates in a bachelor's degree program (about 37%) were first-generation college students in 2016.[1]
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    Many first-generation college students come from lower-income households and will likely incur more college debt.
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    Only 26% of first-generation college students went on to get their degree.[2]
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    82% of students with two parents who earned bachelor's degrees or higher also graduated with their bachelor's.Note Reference [2]
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    First-generation college graduates made roughly $36,000 less than their non-first-generation counterparts.Note Reference [2]

A first-generation college student is someone who is enrolled in college but whose immediate family members did not earn degrees. Disparities exist between first-generation college students and continuing-generation college students when it comes to graduation rates and student loan amounts. These gaps continue to exist after students graduate.

This report touches on key findings about first-generation college students, covering demographics, graduation rates, enrollment, and typical post-graduation income levels.

1. Over one-third of college students are first-generation.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), around 37% of undergraduate college students were first-generation in 2016.Note Reference [1]

For comparison, roughly 18% of students identified as the first person in their immediate family to go to college in 2011-2012.[3]

First-Generation College Student Demographics

Among first-generation undergraduate students who enrolled in college in 2015-2016:Note Reference [1]

  • 34% of first-time postsecondary students identified as men and 40% identified as women.
  • 43% were also first-generation immigrants.

Hispanic and Latino/a, Black, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander, and American Indian and Alaska Native students are more likely than students of other races to be first-generation. White students are the least likely to be first-generation.Note Reference [1]

2. First-generation college students tend to come from families with lower incomes than other students' families.

This might be due to the fact that educational attainment is strongly correlated to household income. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, a household with a high school education level made a median income of $50,401 per year. A household with a bachelor's degree level of education made over double that with an income of $105,552.[4]

3. First-generation students also incur more student loan debt.

In addition to coming from lower-income households, first-generation students incur more college debt than non-first-gen students.Note Reference [2]

  • Roughly 66% of first-generation college students had educational debt compared to 56% of continuing-generation students.
  • Around two-thirds (65%) of first-generation college graduates owed $25,000 or more, while 57% of continuing-generation college graduates did.

4. Having at least one college-educated parent significantly increases the odds of graduating.

Students with at least one college-educated parent were much more likely to get their bachelor's.Note Reference [2]

  • Students with two parents who earned bachelor's degrees had the highest graduation rate for college at 82%.
  • 60% of students with one parent with a degree in higher education graduated. However this is still double the percentage of first-generation students who graduate.

College graduates with a parent who was also a college graduate were also more likely to complete an advanced degree (master's, professional, doctoral degree).Note Reference [2]

When race is factored in, white college graduates were most likely to have parents with at least a bachelor's degree compared to students of other races. Black students were least likely.Note Reference [2]

5. First-generation college students are more likely to attend two-year and for-profit institutions.

There was a strong correlation between parents' levels of education and the type of institution that students went to.[5]

  • Almost half of students with parents who had an education level of a high school diploma or less went to two-year institutions (48%).
  • This is in contrast to the 42% of first-generation students who went to four-year institutions.
  • Students with parents who have a bachelor's degree or higher mostly attended four-year programs (57%). Less than one-third went to two-year institutions (32%).

6. First-generation college graduates made roughly $36,000 less per year than their non-first-gen counterparts.

The disparity between first-generation college students and continuing-generation peers is evident even after graduation. Those without a college-educated parent went on to make a median household income of $99,600, whereas those with at least one college-educated parent made roughly $135,800.Note Reference [2]

7. First-generation college students received more financial aid and grants than continuing-generation students.

First-generation college students received more financial aid and grants than continuing-generation students, making their total cost of attendance lower.Note Reference [3]

  • The average price of attendance for first-generation college students was $16,100 versus $21,000 for continuing-generation students.
  • Students with parents who have a bachelor's degree or higher had an average cost of attendance of $25,100.
  • Nearly 70% of first-generation college students received Pell Grants for 2011-2012.
  • In comparison, 44% of continuing-generation college students received Pell Grants.
  • Students with parents who have a bachelor's degree or higher received the most institutional grants and merit-only grants (36% and 28%, respectively).
  • First-generation college students received the lowest percentage of merit-only and institutional grants (12% and 20%, respectively) when compared to students with parents who had some postsecondary education and those with a bachelor's degree or higher.