What Is a First-Generation College Student?

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To figure out if you are a first-generation college student, look to your parents' formal education experience.

[Featured image] A first-generation college graduate wearing a cap and gown celebrates earning her bachelor's degree by throwing her hand in the air, holding up one finger.

A first-generation college student is a student whose parents—or parent, in the case of students raised by a single parent—did not complete a bachelor’s degree. This is the most common definition in the United States, as outlined in the federal Higher Education Act. However, different institutions may use broader and narrower nuances to determine who first-generation students are.

In this article, we’ll discuss some characteristics typically associated with first-generation college students and offer some success tips for first-generation students getting ready to attend or currently attending college.

Who are first-generation college students?

Since family structures, traditions, and experiences vary greatly, the designation of “first generation” might seem vague. Most simply, institutions look directly to the experience of the student’s parents to determine whether they are a first-generation student.

If neither of your parents earned a bachelor’s degree, you are typically considered a first-generation student. This designation typically remains even if your parents completed some college, earned their associate degree, or if your siblings, aunts, uncles, or grandparents earned their degree. Using this definition, the Center for First-Generation Student Success found that 56 percent of undergraduate students in the 2015-16 school year were first-generation students [1].

The interpretation can get tricky for students with less traditional upbringings. For example, some institutions may apply caveats for students who were adopted or lost their degree-holding parent during adolescence. These subtleties can be important if you plan to apply for financial aid or other assistance programs. Check with your school’s admissions office to clarify their criteria for first-generation students if you’re unsure whether you’ll qualify.

Success tips for first-generation college students

Regardless of your status as a first-generation college student, earning a four-year degree has many benefits. With a degree, you can increase your long-term earning potential and may qualify for higher level positions. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), people with a bachelor’s degree earn a median weekly income of $1,334, while people with a high school diploma earn $809 weekly [2]. That’s a difference of over $27,000 annually.

Academically, first-generation students are just as prepared for college as their continuing-generation peers. Receiving your high school diploma indicates a certain level of academic achievement and capabilities, and it’s generally seen as one measure for college readiness.

Still, being a first-generation college student comes with its own unique challenges, and graduation rates for first-generation students tends to be lower when compared with continuing-generation peers [3].

Let’s take a look at some of the things you can do to set yourself up for success in college as a first-generation student.

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1. Seek support when you need it.

The most consistent criterion to identify a first-generation college student is that their parents did not complete a four-year degree. A lack of household exposure to adults who have graduated from college may mean that you have less immediate support as you get ready to apply for and attend college. You may find it helpful to rely on external support systems for some of your college-specific needs.

As a first-generation student, you may need to be proactive in seeking support. It’s natural to have questions, and it’s important that you’re able to get answers. Find someone you trust to help guide you. Some people who may be able to support you include:

  • School counselors

  • Teachers or professors

  • Your friends’ parents

  • Other people you know who have applied for and/or attended college

You may also be able to find online resources and support groups dedicated to first-generation college students.

Be sure to take advantage of your support systems every step of the way, from applying for college and assessing financial aid packages, to creating your course schedule and attending classes.

2. Take advantage of school resources.

Schools offer a variety of programs and resources designed to help first-generation students as they begin college, including hidden curriculum courses, Educational Outreach Programs (EOPs), student resource centers, and student groups.

Let’s take a closer look at these community-based programs:

Hidden curriculum courses

Some colleges offer courses that dissect the school’s “hidden curriculum,” or the implied social norms and academic processes that students are presumed to abide by but aren’t explicitly taught. A hidden curriculum can particularly impact first-generation students if they haven’t been exposed to these cultural guidelines in the past, so some schools offer special classes to demystify the unspoken rules.

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Educational Outreach Programs (EOPs)

Some students participate in EOPs, bootcamp-like programs that prepare incoming students for rigorous academic schedules ahead of their first year and offer supportive structures through graduation. Generally, EOPs are not exclusively offered to first-generation students, but first-generation students have seen success after participating in these programs.

Student success centers

Many schools have a student resource center, an office of student life, or a student affairs department where first-generation students (and all students enrolled in the college) can go for additional support as they navigate college’s administrative and social challenges. To learn about the initiatives at your school, search “first-generation students” on your college’s website.

Student groups

Many schools promote student-run groups for first-generation students. In these groups, you can connect with and learn from peers who can more directly relate to your experiences. As you become more comfortable with your college experience over time, you can also pass your gained wisdom down to incoming first-generation students.

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3. Trust yourself.

Many first-generation students encounter self-doubt as they transition into college, which can feel isolating and hinder enjoyment. However, feeling a lack of belonging doesn’t always indicate that you don’t belong. In fact, the college admissions council already determined that you do belong!

Chances are, you aren’t alone in the way you feel. Impostor syndrome impacts people across all stages of life and throughout all types of transitions—one 2020 study estimated that up to 82 percent of people experience impostor syndrome [4], while another 2019 study noted that 20 percent of college students sampled experienced “very strong feelings of impostorism” [5].

Transitions can be challenging, and many new experiences come with a learning curve. Trust yourself as you navigate your next phase, and know that everything you’ve already accomplished has led you to exactly this point. You couldn’t have made it here otherwise.

Read more: ​​How to Be Successful in College: 9 Tips

Getting started

Explore college-preparation courses like U101: Understanding College and College Life from the University of Washington on Coursera. As you consider your higher education options, decide whether an online degree is right for you. You can earn your bachelor’s degree from a top university like the University of London or the University of North Texas from anywhere with an internet connection.

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Article sources

1. Center for First-Generation Student Success. "First-generation College Students: Demographic Characteristics and Postsecondary Enrollment, https://firstgen.naspa.org/files/dmfile/FactSheet-01.pdf." Accessed August 3, 2022.

2. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Education pays, https://www.bls.gov/emp/chart-unemployment-earnings-education.htm." Accessed August 3, 2022.

3. Pew Research Center. "First-Generation College Graduates Lag Behind Their Peers on Key Economic Outcomes, https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2021/05/18/first-generation-college-graduates-lag-behind-their-peers-on-key-economic-outcomes/." Accessed August 3, 2022.

4. Journal of General Internal Medicine. "Prevalence, Predictors, and Treatment of Impostor Syndrome: a Systematic Review, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7174434/." Accessed August 3, 2022.

5. BYU News. "Impostor Syndrome is more common than you think; Study finds best way to cope with it, https://news.byu.edu/intellect/imposter-syndrome-is-more-common-than-you-think-study-finds-best-way-to-cope-with-it." Accessed August 3, 2022.

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