What to Know as a First-Generation College Student

College student studying at computer

One thing that many first-generation college students seem to share is a lack of knowledge about how higher education works.(GETTY IMAGES)

FOR MANY first-generation college students, being an academic trailblazer is a dream come true.

But despite the excitement, this dream is often beset with challenges. First-generation students tend to graduate at lower rates than their peers with parents who earned a four-year college degree, according to National Center for Education Statistics data. Experts say the reasons that first-generation college students may not succeed in higher education are often both social and economic.

“Many of them are very academically prepared, they’re really talented. It’s just sometimes they don’t have the information they need to go to the best school for them, to understand the financial aid process, to understand the right questions to ask along the way,” says Sarah E. Whitley, senior director of the Center for First-Generation Student Success, an initiative of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators and The Suder Foundation.

First-generation can be defined in different ways, Whitley says, but generally speaking, the term refers to students from families in which their parents did not earn a four-year degree. According to an NCES report from 2018, recent figures show a third of college students are first-generation.

But they also balance other identities, Whitley says, with some being low-income and minorities as well. While characteristics vary, one thing that many first-generation college students seem to share is a lack of knowledge about how higher education works, she says. Because of that they may not visit campus before enrolling, seek out help from professors or understand the inner workings of college.

“First generation students can sometimes feel socially isolated because of the elitism at many institutions or they (may) have a hard time balancing their academic tasks with the need to work or help support their families. The best advice I can offer first-generation students is to ask a lot of questions about the same issues and challenges, and to remember that so many aspects of their experience (were) not designed with them in mind. It’s not you, it’s the system that is rigged,” Marcia Chatelain, a history professor at Georgetown University – who also is working on a book about first-generation students – wrote via email.

Chatelain has also co-taught a course at Georgetown designed to help first-generation students understand how to be successful in college. In the class, she says the focus was on the “unspoken expectations of the college experience,” such as relating to professors, identifying and cultivating a mentor and balancing multiple responsibilities as a student – like academics and employment.

“I think the students felt seen and also realized the importance of seeking help when they are overwhelmed,” Chatelain says of the class.

Seeking help is a theme that several experts emphasize as important for first-generation students. University of Richmond President Ronald A. Crutcher, a first-generation graduate himself, recalls his own struggles in school.

In high school Crutcher had taken cello lessons and played in concerts at Miami University—Oxford. He was familiar with the campus and professors. But once he enrolled at the institution he felt alienated as one of only two African-American males in a residence hall of 250. He was determined to carve out his own academic path and show he belonged, but he struggled in classes and fell short of a 3.0 grade-point average in his first semester.
“This was back in the ’60s. We were taught to toughen up and keep a stiff upper lip,” Crutcher says.

But he realized that was a mistake. When he began to seek help from his professors, his academics improved. Now he encourages students to do the same.

“You’re not indicating that you’re weak, or that you’re not well prepared or that you don’t belong here when you ask for help. Everybody needs help of some sort,” Crutcher says.

Pressure for first-generation students is not limited to doing well academically. Experts note that there is also the pressure of being the first in the family to attend school, serving as a role model for younger siblings and in some cases continuing to help support the family.

“I feel like at times I’m carrying the future of not only myself but my parents as well,” Karina Ortiz-Gomez, a graduating senior at York College of Pennsylvania, wrote via email. While she says her family did not put any direct pressure on her, she felt it as a role model to a younger brother. Though she says her grades in college were generally good, a bad mark could make her feel incompetent.

For encouragement, she says she kept a picture of her parents with her at all times to remember everything they sacrificed for her.

Whitley notes that pressure can lead to impostor syndrome – the concern that a student doesn’t belong and won’t succeed.

Paying for college is another major concern. For Ortiz-Gomez, affording college was a major source of stress during her search. She describes herself as terrified about how she was going to afford school until she received a full ride to attend York College of Pennsylvania.

For many students – both first-generation and those with parents who earned a college degree – navigating the murky world of financial aid can be tricky.

“First-generation college students, especially those from low-income families, should be diligent in asking questions about how much college will cost them. Full scholarships can be deceptive if they only apply to tuition, and not fees. Also, they have to consider their educational costs may rise over a four to six-year period,” says Chatelain, who encourages students to plug into first-generation support networks to find friends and allies.

“Also, find out how your school supports students facing food insecurity, housing options, and services designed to help with mental and physical health. Colleges need to understand that first-generation students sometimes need flexibility in their school and work lives and meet students where they are; one size fits all can’t work for higher education,” Chatelain says.

For her fellow first-generation college students, Ortiz-Gomez also has a list of what to look for when choosing where they’ll pursue a degree: “Go to a college that suits you best, in terms of class sizes, major, clubs and sports, distance, money, etc. You need what works best for you, don’t go to a school just because it’s on TV, go because it’s a home away from home.”

Whitley encourages prospective students to look at data points such as freshman retention rates and overall graduation rates. She also encourages students to share their first-generation status with colleges and ask about programs and scholarships available to them, as well as having a similar conversation with high school counselors who can help them identify programs.

One such example, noted by experts, is summer bridge programs, which allow students to get an early start on campus and may be paired with advising services.

“I think taking some time to understand the campus community is really important. Many first-generation students do not know that it’s OK to tell the institution that they are first-generation and to ask if there are programs and services for them,” Whitley says.

Ortiz-Gomez wants first-generation college students to remember they are not alone and there is help available if they seek it.

“Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it; many people have been in your spot before and are willing to help. Remember your roots, and don’t ever forget about the people who have helped you along the way. As for the families, keep up the wonderful support you keep giving us. You don’t need to know exactly what we’re doing, but the support is warming and pure – don’t ever stop,” she says.

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By Monica Clem
Monica Clem Executive Director, Career Development and Experiential Learning Monica Clem