What to Know About First-Generation College Students?

Updated: Nov 4, 2021


Photo by Wix.

The standard definition of a first-generation college student is someone whose parent(s) did not complete a four-year college degree. You are still considered first-generation if your parents attended college but didn’t finish or if your parents completed community college. Some believe students whose parent(s) received a bachelor’s degree outside of the United States are first-gen, too. They are often confused about whether they can be defined as first-generation because of these circumstances. Many institutions have their definition as to who fits in this category. If you are unsure, check with the admissions office at your college or university.


According to a report by NASPA, Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, one-third of college undergrads are first-generation, and only 27% of them will get their bachelor’s degree within four years. Nothing is wrong with taking your time with your degree, but the downside is the costs. Many rely on financial aid to help pay for their tuition. Students eligible for financial aid can receive grants for up to six years if they enrolled in a four-year program. With the financial aid timeframe restriction, these young people are more likely than their classmates not to finish college.


The median parental income among first-generation students is $41,000, whereas the median income for parents with a bachelor’s degree is $90,000. Most whose parents did not graduate college are working-class, these students often must pay for their own education. Even with the help of financial aid, scholarships and loans, sometimes these costs aren’t enough to cover their tuition. They are more likely to pick up part-time or even full-time jobs to help pay for tuition, school supplies/textbooks, transportation and other costs.


Why would first-gen students take longer to graduate?

Those who come from a lower-income background have to work more than their classmates to afford college. It’s challenging to balance work and school when you cannot put 100% into one or the other, which means they sometimes fall behind in their classes.

According to a 2011 report from the Higher Education Research Institute, first-generation students were less likely to complete their college degree in six years than peers whose parents had at least some college experience (The Postsecondary National Policy Institute). Those with parents who attended college but didn’t finish are more likely to provide some guidance to their child compared to those whose parents never attended college. Most don’t have guidance and are left confused a lot of times and don’t know how to ask for help.

Photo by Charles DeLoye

In addition to working to pay for college, many students who belong to this category have other responsibilities at home. These include minorities who speak a language other than English at home. Parents of these young people struggle to understand that college is not the same as high school, and it can be difficult to communicate it. Parents often depend on their children to help them at home like filing taxes, scheduling doctor appointments or even taking care of their younger siblings. These undergrads have many responsibilities other than being a student, making it hard to graduate on time.


How does it feel to be first-gen?

Being the first to attend college in your family is exciting because you worked hard to get to this point. It can be scary because your parent(s) never went to college, so you don’t really know what to expect and will often feel lost because you don’t have anyone to go to for help. You aren’t given the same knowledge and resources as your classmates whose parent(s) went to college.

I remember my first week of college like it was just yesterday. I was overwhelmed by the amount of information given in each class during syllabus week. Even the thought of having to make new friends in each class was scary. Navigating college was difficult for me because I thought it would be similar to high school. I didn’t know that we had to register for classes independently or pay hundreds of dollars on textbook access codes every term. It felt frustrating having to spend so much on textbooks and other supplies needed for the class on top of paying to attend college.

These feelings as a first-gen student are completely normal. When you are confused or struggling with something, it’s always better to talk to someone who understands or can help with your situation. There will be a lot to learn throughout your college experience.