4 Things First Generation Students Need to Know to Succeed in School

first generation college students

The term “first-generation college student” has been making the rounds in higher education circles quite frequently in recent years, but not all are clear on who exactly makes up this branch of college students. Put simply, a first-generation college student is a student who does not come from a college-going tradition – this means neither of the student’s parents are college educated. These students often come from middle- to low-income families.

First-generation college students currently make up an estimated 50 percent of the U.S. college population, and many of them are struggling to experience the same level of success as their fellow students. In fact, a 2008 study by the Pell Institute found that low-income, first-generation students were nearly four times more likely to drop out of college after their first year than student who had neither of these risk factors.

Many of these students are blazing a trail in a direction their families haven’t been capable of pursuing, and the culture shock, social expectations and financial differences can feel debilitating. We enlisted a handful of professionals to address first-generation student concerns and compiled a list of strategies and resources for staying the course and achieving success in the world of higher education.

Whether you’re encouraging a first-gen student or you are a first-gen student yourself, take heart—there are many out there rooting for you, and there’s a host of amenities available to soften the transition into college.

4 Things first-generation college students should know

1. There are outlets for dealing with the psychological impact

A lot of first-generation college students suffer from feelings of guilt, as they feel they are leaving their families behind to attend school. These feelings exist even if their families see them as providing for the family unit and working to improve conditions for everyone involved.

“With a large amount of pressure on first-generation students to succeed, knowing their parents did not have the opportunity that they have, these students often face a sense of unworthiness for attending college,” says Jennifer Lee Magas, employment law attorney and English professor at Fairfield University. She goes on to explain that this is just one of the emotions first-gen students can experience. Feeling like an outsider or imposter on campus is another common reaction.

Colleges and universities now offer a myriad of psychological and counseling services. As a first-gen student dealing with significant cultural and familial changes, it can be helpful to connect with a professional who can help you work through the transition. It’s beneficial to communicate what you are experiencing and work it through with someone who’s experienced in these types of circumstances. You can walk out of the experience with a handful of helpful tips to get you through difficult stretches. 

2.  Staying connected can offer invaluable support

It can be easy for a first-generation college student to feel isolated and alone once on campus, especially when he or she has no basis for understanding the ins and outs of college life. It can be important to remember that first-gen students don’t have the option of turning to their parents for guidance regarding college culture or processes.

“Make sure to get connected and get involved on campus to strengthen social networks,” advises Tosh Patterson, CEO of Healthinista Living and a former university administrator. “Remember, there are numerous staff on campus to answer your questions and help you navigate university life.”

Whether you’re a first-gen student or not, going to college for the first time can be scary! Connect with other like-minded students, join support groups or get involved in extracurricular activities. The extra support you’ll receive from the relationships you build is invaluable, and it will do a lot to help you feel more adjusted in your new surroundings.

3. There’s a lot of financial aid available

College is expensive, and first-, second- and third-generation students alike may have to work while attending classes to make ends meet. First-generation students face additional challenges regarding finances as they may come from a low-income background or have to work to help their families pay the bills back home.

Thankfully, there’s plenty of financial aid available at a multitude of schools nowadays. Do your homework in researching scholarships you might qualify for because every little bit helps.

Not sure what schools to even start considering? There are several websites and organizations out there that are devoted to helping first-gen students get their footing in the world of finances. Take a look at FirstGenerationStudent.com, Opportunity Nation or the first-gen student pages on CollegeScholarships.org or Scholarships.com.

4. A little preparation will go a long way

Besides the financial and social difficulties that transitioning to college can trigger, it’s important to consider the academic challenges that lie ahead as well. While there’s not much you can do to work ahead in your curriculum, being organized and mentally prepared will help set you up for success.

“For the students who find themselves in classes with a higher-than-expected rigor, it is important for them to prioritize the time it takes to achieve their desired goals,” says Tosin Williams, founder of The Learning Period. “I've seen many, many students fall into the trap of thinking ‘I'll just study more’ without making an effort to sit down with a calendar and map out exact times.”

These types of organizational skills can truly make it or break any student’s college experience. You’d be surprised what a little preparation and a lot of determination can do!

Blazing a trail

Just because it hasn’t been done before doesn’t mean it can’t be done. First-generation college students face their share of challenges, but the benefits of earning a college degree definitely outweigh them.

There’s no reason to doubt your chances for success in college. Find out if you’re ready to enroll in our article: 6 Signs You’re Ready to be a College Student.


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Lauren Elrick

Lauren is a freelance writer for Collegis education who writes student-focused articles on behalf of Rasmussen College. She enjoys helping current and potential students choose the path that helps them achieve their educational goals.

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