Best Colleges for First-Generation Students

Being the first in your family to attend college is a huge accomplishment. Learn what the best colleges for first-generation students have to offer.
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Updated on October 2, 2023
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Being a first-generation college student is something to be proud of. But while being a trailblazer is meaningful for yourself and your family, first-generation students often face unique challenges in college.

The best colleges for first-generation students have dedicated resources to help them succeed, such as mentorship programs, social and networking events, scholarships, counseling, and devoted faculty and staff members. Choose a college that wants to help you excel.

What Makes a Good College for First-Generation Students?

When choosing a college as a first-generation student, research what programs and opportunities are available to help you succeed. The best colleges for first-generation students have first-gen initiatives or centers with resources and support from faculty and staff.

The National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) developed the Center for First-Generation Student Success to advocate for first-gen students. The Center designates schools as "First-Gen Forward" when they follow criteria showing that they prioritize first-generation students:

  • Creating institutional goals
  • Attending monthly community meetings
  • Hosting first-gen celebration events
  • Submitting annual reports to the Center

This shows that the school prioritizes first-generation students.

Our Ranking Methodology

In ranking the best colleges for first-generation students in the U.S., we considered the following factors in our methodology:

  1. Recognition in the 2022-23 NASPA Center for First-Generation Student Success Cohort
  2. Six-year graduation rates for students pursuing a four-year degree at a designated college
  3. The average cost of attendance for each college.
  4. Percentage of students receiving financial aid (loans, scholarships, and grants)
  5. Colleges that have received and maintained institutional accreditation

10 Best Colleges for First-Generation Students

Georgia Institute of Technology

Founded in 1885, the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) has a student population of around 44,000 students and a student-to-faculty ratio of 14-to-1. The most popular academic programs include engineering, computer and information sciences, and business.

Georgia Tech developed the First-Generation College Institute summer program for Grades 8-12 to engage and prepare first-generation and low-income students. The program helps ease the transition from high school to college for first-generation students by promoting unity among students with similar backgrounds, connecting them with resources and support staff at the institute, and engaging students with STEM academic programs.

Notable alum include former President Jimmy Carter, Mailchimp CEO and co-founder Ben Chestnut, and astronaut Sandra Magnus, who also serves as a "Professor of Practice" at Georgia Tech.

University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

Founded in 1867, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (U of I) has over 56,000 students and a student-to-faculty ratio of 21-to-1. Popular academic programs at U of I include business, engineering, and liberal arts and sciences.

UIUC's Student Success, Inclusion & Belonging units are various centers and programs that support diversity, equity, and inclusion. Some of the services and resources provided for first-generation students include:

  • Counseling and advising
  • Event listings
  • Guides to university life and terminology
  • Study and time management tips
  • A list of first-gen faculty and staff who support students

Alumni and faculty boast 24 Nobel Prize Laureates and 28 Pulitzer Prize winners, including film critic Robert Ebert and journalist Julie Westfall. Other notable attendees include civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, the first African-American female U.S. senator Carol Moseley Braun, and founder of Susan G. Komen for the Cure Nancy Brinker.

University at Buffalo

The University at Buffalo (UB) was founded in 1846 and has a student population of 32,000 students and a student-to-faculty ratio of 13-to-1. The university's most popular programs include:

  • Business
  • Engineering
  • Social sciences
  • Psychology

Proud to Be First, UB's first-generation initiative, guides students and families through campus resources and events, a peer mentoring program connecting first-gen students with more experienced students, and networking opportunities with faculty and staff.

Distinguished alums at the University of Buffalo include CNN journalist Wolf Blitzer, former Chinese Minister of Education Zhou Ji, and NFL Chief Diversity Officer Jonathan Beane.

Penn State University

Founded in 1855, Pennsylvania State University has a student population of 89,000 and a student-to-faculty ratio of 15-to-1. Popular programs at Penn State include engineering, business, and computer and information sciences.

The Student Success Center at Penn State offers resources and support to first-generation students through events such as the 2022 First-Gen Student Support Summit and the National First-Generation College Celebration. The student-run mentorship program, First-Gen Advocates supports first-generation undergraduates through personal and professional opportunities such as workshops, events, and academic resources.

Notable alum include actor Keegan-Michael Key, former Nike CEO Mark Parker, Nobel Prize winner Paul Berg, and the first African-American astronaut in space, Guion Bluford.

The University of Alabama

Founded in 1831, The University of Alabama (UA) has a student population of 38,000 and a student-to-faculty ratio of 19-to-1. Popular programs include business, engineering, and health professions.

UA's Legacy Scholars program provides support and community for first-generation students through:

  • Monthly meetings
  • One-on-one peer and faculty mentorship
  • Social events
  • Eligibility for up to five $500 scholarships

Notable alum from UA include "To Kill a Mockingbird" author Harper Lee, ESPN host Rece Davis, "Forrest Gump" author Winston Groom, and Habitat for Humanity co-founder Millard Fuller.

California State University, Fullerton

Founded in 1957, California State University, Fullerton (CSUF) has 41,000 students and a student-to-faculty ratio of 25-to-1. Popular academic programs include business, communications, and health professions.

First-generation initiatives at CSUF include:

Notable alum include actor Kevin Costner, former professional basketball player Bruce Bowen, and astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson.

The University of Utah

Founded in 1850, The University of Utah (the U) has a student population of 34,000 and a student-to-faculty ratio of 18-to-1. Popular majors include business, engineering and social sciences, and kinesiology.

In 2019, the U established the Office for First Generation Access to support diversity, inclusion and a "more humane campus culture" for all students. While participating in the First-Gen Scholars program, mentors help students navigate college and students attend a class in their first year, connecting them to resources on campus. Program completion awards students two free credit elective classes and opportunities for scholarships.

University of Washington Bothell

Founded in 1989, the University of Washington, Bothell (UW Bothell) has a student population of 6,000 and a student-to-faculty ratio of 22-to-1. Popular majors include business, computer and information sciences, and health professions.

UW Bothell's First-Generation Student Network provides a community for first-generation students to engage in that includes on-campus, local, and online resources.

Students can also access digital content through the website, such as UWB First in our Families, a showcase of digital stories from members of the UW Bothell community, and the book "First in the Family" which gives advice about college from first-generation students.

University of North Carolina at Charlotte

Founded in 1946, The University of North Carolina at Charlotte (UNC Charlotte) has a student population of 30,000 and a student-to-faculty ratio of 200-to-1. Popular majors include business, health professions, and computer and information science.

UNC Charlotte's First Gen Niners is a student organization that provides resources and community to first-generation students. Students can share their stories and be featured on the "I am First Gen" website to celebrate being first-generation.

Notable alum from UNC Charlotte include activist and former NAACP CEO Benjamin Chavis, singer and Broadway star Clay Aiken, and bestselling author Kathy Reichs.

Oklahoma State University

Founded in 1890, Oklahoma State University (OSU) has a student population of 25,000 and a student-to-faculty ratio of 18-to-1. Popular programs include agricultural and animal sciences, biological sciences, and business.

At OSU, the Division of Institutional Diversity supports first-generation students through the Retention Initiative for Student Excellence (RISE) program that assists students in their transition from high school to college, and federally funded TRIO college prep and support programs, including:

Notable alumni include lawyer, educator, and author Anita Hill, energy executive and billionaire T. Boone Pickens, country music singer Garth Brooks, and aviator Mary Wallace Funk.

Resources for First Generation Students

The Center supports higher education institutions in serving first-generation students through expertise, training, and data. Their First Scholars model provides comprehensive support to improve academic, personal, and professional outcomes, focusing on scaling and sustaining student support.

This program offers a paid summer fellowship for undergraduate students who are the first in their families to attend college and are interested in social justice careers. Fellows intern with partner organizations, gain hands-on experience in civil rights advocacy, and join a community of emerging leaders in the FirstGEN Alumni Network.

Rise First is an online platform empowering first-generation, low-income students by consolidating nationwide programs and resources. They aim to create a comprehensive resource center, fostering a community focusing on first-generation news, events, career-related topics, and more.

Created by UStrive, I'm First! provides inspiration, information, and support to students without a family history of higher education. As an initiative of a national nonprofit, they also run an online college and career mentoring program, aiming to assist students on their journey to and through college..

Frequently Asked Questions About First-Generation Students in College

Do colleges care if you are a first-generation student?

Most colleges recognize the value of enrolling first-generation students and encourage them to apply by offering scholarships and grants for first-gen students.

Many schools apply for and receive federal grants to implement specific services, such as the federal TRIO programs, that assist low-income and first-generation students.

Why is it hard to be a first-generation college student?

Being the first in your family to go to college poses various challenges, including:

What are the benefits of being a first-generation college student?

Many first-generation students have a strong sense of responsibility to their families, which translates into self-reliance and independence — useful traits for navigating college independently. Also, being the first to go to college is a significant accomplishment many families value and celebrate.

As previously mentioned, several scholarship opportunities exist specifically for first-generation students to help fund your education and reduce student loan debt.

What do first-generation college students need to know?

First-generation students may face imposter syndrome. If you feel like you don't belong or can't succeed, remember that colleges want you to be there.

Finding a community in college is an important step in creating a sense of belonging and will help you sustain your mental and emotional health. Academic and mental health counselors, administrators, faculty, and student mentors can help you navigate unfamiliar processes and connect you to further resources. Being the first to pursue higher education in your family is not a detriment — it's an accomplishment that you should celebrate.