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Common Challenges First-Generation Students Experience

Updated: Nov 5, 2021

Photo by Wix.

Financial Challenges

First-generation students who come from working-class families face many financial challenges in college. They are often left with financial stress because they have to pay for their own tuition. Most are working part-time and even full-time to make ends meet. Every term, students are required to purchase textbooks, pay course fees and buy additional supplies.

Students who are first-gen or low-income can be eligible for financial aid. The process of filling out forms annually and meeting deadlines can be stressful. Those who apply for financial aid know the challenge of finding important documents from their parents. Missing deadlines for financial aid applications can result in losing out on thousands of dollars in grants. This can lead to first-gens dropping out because they cannot afford to attend.

Imagine coming in as a freshman, still adjusting to college, and you receive an email saying the financial aid application is due soon. As a freshman, I didn’t know anything about tax forms and when I had to ask my parents for important documents, I was utterly overwhelmed. I was often unsure if I was filling the application correctly.

Photo by Wix

The process of financial aid is just another responsibility first-gen students have to deal with yearly, and it can cause extra stress when the application process does not go smoothly. Many resources are available for those struggling to pay for their tuition, including scholarships, grants, work-study and loans. According to Sallie Mae’s How America Pays for College report, scholarships and grants helped cover 25% of a student’s college cost.

Knowledge About College

College can be hard to navigate when you are the first in your family to attend. Before these students attended college, they learned about the SATs, college applications and scholarships by relying heavily on their high school advisors. Their parents couldn’t help with any of those things.

Young people go into college knowing very little about how college works and the experience. Taylor Sessoms, a former undergraduate at the University of Virginia, struggled to adjust to college her freshman year.

Sessoms is just one of many who came into college knowing very little about it. Besides taking courses in college, students have the opportunity to get involved on campus. Many clubs and organizations are available on college campuses for diverse students to join. The benefits of being involved are to gain personal development skills, social opportunities and professional experiences.

Students who commute to school are less satisfied with their college experience because they are on campus for a short period of time. It can be difficult for them to get involved since many events happen during the evening. First-gen students often don’t have the capacity to join clubs because they have other responsibilities such as working part-time and helping out at home.


Lack of financial support and knowledge about college are just two challenges first-gens often go through. These challenges make it more difficult to focus on their education. It can often feel hard at times but reaching out to people you trust, like your professors, friends and advisors will make the process easier. Remember, you are not alone because many are going through the same experiences as you.

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