First Generation College Student
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As you begin your college admissions process, you may hear about “first generation college students.” This might lead you to wonder: what are first generation college students? Am I a first generation student? What is the first generation college student definition?

Being a first generation college student can change your college admissions process. Here at CollegeAdvisor, we want to make admissions as straightforward as possible for everyone, including first gen students. 

In this first gen student guide, we’ll explain what it means to be a first generation college student. We’ll discuss how being a first gen student can affect your college experience. 

We’ll also cover:

  • First generation college student statistics
  • Common first generation college student struggles
  • Resources for first generation college students, including some CollegeAdvisor webinars
  • The best colleges for first generation college students, and more! 

We know that it can be stressful applying to colleges as a first generation college student. However, we want to level the playing field for you. 

At CollegeAdvisor, we believe in promoting equal opportunity for all students regardless of background. That’s why we offer tons of free resources for first-generation college students. Later on in this first generation college student article, we’ll highlight specific webinars and articles designed to help the first generation college student.

Ready to learn more about what it means to be a first generation college student? Without further ado, let’s dive in and tackle the question of the first generation college student definition. So, to begin with: what is a first generation college student?

What are first generation college students?

In this first generation college student guide, we’ll define what it means to be a first gen student, and how it can have an impact on your college experience. But before we answer “what is a first generation college student?” you may wonder why we need to answer this question at all. 

As a first generation college student, you will find many resources and programs designed exclusively for the first gen student. These are meant to make college admissions more accessible for first gen students. It is therefore most important to know the answer to “what are first generation college students?” Then, the first gen student can access as many resources as possible to help them combat first generation college student struggles. 

So, what is a first generation college student? We’ll go into more detail on the first generation college student definition in the next section. However, know that the first generation college student definition is generally a student whose parents did not complete a bachelor’s degree.

Resources for First-Generation College Students

If you think you fit the first generation college student definition, you might be looking for support. Perhaps you’d like resources that teach you how to win a first generation scholarship, how to navigate college admissions, and more. If you’re just starting your research, we know it can feel overwhelming. Where should you start?

First Generation College Student starting line
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CollegeAdvisor has tons of free resources for a first generation college student!

We’ve got you covered with first generation student webinars on:

We also have a free webinar, led by an admissions officer at Penn State University, on tips and tricks for navigating the college application process as a first generation college student.

You can also read our comprehensive guide on applying to colleges as a first generation college student. 

Concerned about your ability to pay for college? We suggest you check out this article on how to pay for college as a first generation college student. 

Many institutions offer grants, aid, and scholarships specific to the first generation college student. This is why it’s vital to know the answer to “what are first generation college students?” The first generation college student definition helps ensure those who qualify can get as much support as possible. 

First Generation College Students’ College Experience

We’ve talked a bit about how first gen student status might impact applying to college. However, what should a first gen student expect from their college experience once they are enrolled? 

The experience of first generation students varies greatly, but first gen students often report similarities too. Many students go through the same first generation college student struggles and opportunities.

For example, many colleges have programs for first generation college students, in order to connect first gen students with helpful resources and other first gen students. Tulane is one such school. It offers workshops, mentoring programs, summer grants, and more for first gen students through its Center for Academic Equity.

We will dive deeper into specific first generation college student struggles and first generation college student statistics later. In the meantime, there are many reliable resources about the first generation student experience out there.

A few of our favorite resources for first generation college students are:

These articles discuss some of the resources that have most helped first gen students navigate enrollment. For example, they suggest first gen students cultivate a mentor relationship. For both first gen student authors, this was the single most helpful decision of their undergraduate career. 

First generation student Le’Jon Butcher also advises students to use their school’s Career Services Center. Here, staff can cater advice to first-generation students.

Both articles also emphasize that asking for help is not a sign of weakness. Taking advantage of the resources at your disposal is a sign of resourcefulness and strength. There should never be a stigma attached to your status as a first generation student. Rather, you are a trailblazer.

Finally, if you are looking for inspiration, read about one of our client’s paths through admissions as a first generation college student. Victor Lobelo, a first gen student born in Venezuela and raised in Littleton Colorado, worked with CollegeAdvisor expert Ryan Byrd and was offered enrollment to Columbia, UPenn, Brown, Duke, and Rice, among many other prestigious universities

Next let’s take a look at a question that comes up a lot: what are first generation college students? It’s time to pin down the first generation college student definition.

First generation college student definition

What is a first generation college student? Some schools may disagree on the specifics of the first generation college student definition. However, for most, the first generation college student definition is as follows: a student whose parents did not complete a four-year university program. 

First Generation College Student definition
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In other words, a first gen student is the first in their family to attend an institution of higher learning. However, one or both parents of the first generation student may have attended some college without completing their bachelor’s degree.

Are you a first generation student? Check out this free resource to help figure out your first gen student status. You’ll find more information to help you answer “what are first generation college students?” In addition, you’ll find more first generation college student statistics to help you pin down your own first gen student status. 

When answering the question “what is a first generation college student?” some schools have expanded their first generation college student definition. There are several scenarios that can qualify someone as a first generation college student.

These include someone whose:

  • Parents received a degree from a college outside of the United States
  • Grandparents, but not parents, received a bachelor’s degree
  • Parents started but did not finish college

Still confused about the answer to the question of “what are first generation college students?” Since some schools differ in their exact first generation college student definition, we suggest reaching out to your chosen schools for more details. This is most important when you’re working out if you’re eligible for certain first generation scholarships.

To summarize, what is a first generation college student? While the exact first generation college student definition varies, it primarily refers to a student whose parents did not complete a bachelor’s degree at a four-year college program.

Now that we’ve answered “what are first generation college students?” let’s talk about some key first generation college student statistics.

First generation college student statistics

There has been a lot of debate around the first generation college student community in the past fifteen years. A lot of it has revolved around the question of “what are first generation college students?” But equally important: “how many first gen students are there?” 

While many first gen students may worry that they’re in the minority, in fact, you are not alone. Roughly 50% of students identify as first generation students. While this figure may differ slightly depending on the first generation college student definition used, the point remains: you are not alone. 

Moreover, 59% of first gen students were also the first sibling in their family to attend college. Further, 24% of first generation college students had parents with no postsecondary education. However, only 20% of first generation students (with parents who have no college experience) attain a bachelor’s degree. This is in contrast with 82% of students who have two parents with a bachelor’s.

See more first generation college student statistics here.

Why do we include first generation college student statistics?

Well, very few first gen students are aware of their first gen status until they start attending college. This makes it hard for a first gen student to get the help they need. While many colleges offer resources for their first gen student population, this help is only available to those who know to look for it.

Here at CollegeAdvisor, we are working hard to address this lack of awareness amongst first generation students and their families. 

In addition, many first generation students believe their first gen student status holds some kind of stigma. They may also feel alone as they progress through college. As you can see from the numbers, this is not the case. Many students who identify as a first generation college student will have similar stories, struggles, and successes to share.

The first generation student community is huge. Whatever your story, you can find other first generation students on a similar path.

First generation college student struggles

Being a first generation college student can be tough. For non first generation college students, parents can be incredibly helpful as they apply to college.  

In addition, many schools weigh “legacy” status in college admissions, giving an advantage to the children of alumni. This might include an additional read-through of a student’s application or a more lenient approach to their candidacy. 

First Generation College Student
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For a first gen student who lacks these advantages, college admissions can feel intimidating. For many, it can feel like there is more to figure out on your own. In this section of our first generation college student guide, we’re going to discuss this and other first generation college student struggles. 

1. First generation students are less likely to graduate from college

Many studies show that the higher a parent’s educational status, the more likely it is that their child will complete a bachelor’s degree. Amongst those with two parents who graduated college, 82% attain a bachelor’s degree or higher. For those without university educated parents, this number drops to 20%. 

In fact, the biggest indicator that a student will complete college is that one or both of their parents has a bachelor’s degree. In many cases, this is because of the support and expertise that parents can provide throughout college admissions and college enrollment. Without this built-in support, first generation students have to be proactive about seeking resources elsewhere. 

Some schools offer more extensive resources than others, making it difficult for some first gen students to navigate their options. In addition, unfortunately many first generation college students still feel a stigma when it comes to asking for help. 

At CollegeAdvisor, we hope to remove this stigma by spreading information about what it means to be a first generation student, as well as the resources that are readily available to those with first gen student status.

2. First generation college students enroll in less selective colleges

As discussed in the section on first generation college student statistics, first generation students make up half of the total number of students attending college. Despite these positive first generation college student statistics, first generation students are still less likely to enroll at more selective institutions

In fact, at the most selective colleges, first gen students only make up about 25% of the total enrollment. This is compared to open-admission schools, where first generation students comprise about 75% of total enrollment. This phenomenon is likely a result of the higher price tag of more prestigious schools. In addition, you typically need more niche knowledge and access to resources to gain acceptance to the more selective institutions.

3. First generation college students graduate at lower rates

Unfortunately, there is still a gap between graduation rates of first generation students versus non first generation college students. If you are a first gen student at a selective school, your odds of graduating are 10% lower than a non first gen student. At an open-admissions school, this number goes up to 23%. 

First Generation College Student statistics
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This discrepancy is likely because there aren’t enough resources to support first generation students through their undergraduate career. While resources are more accessible than ever before, there is still a dearth. Moreover, many students are unaware of their first gen student status or simply don’t know where to start in asking for the help they need.

4. A first gen student may experience unequal benefits from having obtained a bachelor’s degree 

Whether first generation college students or not, those who have completed a bachelor’s degree have higher earning potential. However, one of the first generation college student struggles is that they don’t feel these benefits equally. Those who have a parent with a college degree still earn higher incomes than first generation students upon graduating.

Across all households aged 22 to 59, the average income for a first gen earner is $65,200. This is as opposed to an average of $100,900 for an earner with parents who earned a bachelor’s. 

As can be seen, there are still first generation college student struggles that need to be addressed. Luckily, there are also many resources in place for those first gen students who know where to look. In addition to school specific programming and resources, there are also first generation scholarships and other resources available. 

In the next section of this first generation college student guide, we’ll point you toward numerous resources created with first generation students in mind.

Additionally, we’ll give you information to help you:

  • Win a first generation scholarship!
  • Apply to schools as a first gen student
  • Select a school that will help offset first generation college student struggles 

Keep reading this first gen student guide to learn how to make the strongest possible application as a first generation college student!

Resources for first-generation college students

So, we’ve discussed how to define first generation college students, the first gen student statistics, and first generation student struggles. Now, it’s time to talk about the specific resources for first-generation college students, including first generation scholarships. 

But firstly, just in case you’re still thinking “what is a first generation college student?”, check out this NYT article. The author discusses how much the first generation college student definition changes, based on who you talk to. As we discussed, the definition of “first generation students” can vary greatly. In order to win a first generation scholarship, you need to find out whether your target school classes you as a first gen student. 

Application resources

Once you know that the first generation college student definition fits you, it’s time to start applying. As you apply, you may face some first generation college student struggles. Therefore, it’s important to get advice and support. At first, it can be helpful to understand some common challenges amongst first gen students. 

First generation college student
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Then, you should learn about the resources available to you as a first gen student. So, without delay, let’s explore the most useful resources for a first generation college student!

One of our expert advisors, Kiara, a first generation college student herself, shares valuable resources for a first gen student in this article. Kiara won several first generation scholarships when she applied to college and even before. She mentions a life changing program that she took part in during her high school years: the LEDA Scholars program. 

LEDA Scholars Program

LEDA (Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America) accepts 100 high-achieving high school students from underrepresented communities in selective colleges. This includes many first generation college students. The program helps students navigate their whole college journey, from beginning to end.

LEDA is an especially good opportunity for a first generation college student who may not have any support in the college process. The program is competitive and has a three-part application process. If you think it could be for you, you should undoubtedly check out the application and criteria.

Summer opportunities & mentorship

In addition, many universities have programs for a first generation college student once you’re admitted. For example, Tulane University offers mentorship, activities, and summer opportunities for first generation students. Many universities also offer similar resources. As such a large percentage of incoming students are first generation college students, schools know they need to help first-generation college students excel. 

One of the most stressful parts of applying to college as a first generation student can be the financial aspect. The financial aid process is notoriously tough. It can be especially hard for a first generation college student, because they’re the first in their family to go through it. Certain schools have better resources for first-generation college students as well as better financial aid offerings. 

Financial aid guidance

FRANK breaks down some of the best colleges with top resources for first-generation college students. Elite universities such as Harvard and Duke make this list. You may also want to explore how to obtain a first generation scholarship through organizations outside of the specific university you’d like to attend. You’ll likely have to apply for these after deciding to enroll. 

First Generation College Students
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There are some university resources for first-generation college students that every school is likely to have. In this article, one first gen student writes about four things he wishes he’d taken full advantage of during his college years.

Easy ways to get ahead as a first generation college student include:

  • Networking with professors
  • Studying abroad
  • Using the writing center
  • Taking advantage of the career resources available at your university 

These first gen student resources will be available at most universities.  

Being a first generation college student may feel lonely. However, remember that you most certainly are not alone in the process. Many undergraduates will fit the first generation college student definition – they’re navigating the first gen student process just like you. Learning about the experiences of other first generation college students may also help you as you apply to colleges. 

Check out Victor’s story and see how he aced the college application process as a first gen student. He was accepted to almost all 15 of the colleges he applied to, and many of them were Ivy League schools. He faced many challenges that are common amongst first gen students and he offers some useful advice learned from his experience. For him, the most important thing is to start early so that you can get all the complicated paperwork done, especially when it comes to financial aid

College webinars for first generation college students

The Pew Research Center recently released some first generation college student statistics. As has been noted, they reveal that graduated first gen students go on to earn much less than their peers. 

While this research shows that first generation college student struggles are very real, there are ways you can help yourself. By understanding the college journey and preparing accordingly, you can obtain a first generation scholarship and set yourself up for future success. 

In addition to articles and essay guides, CollegeAdvisor has lots of webinars for first gen students specifically. These webinars help answer and break down difficult topics related to students’ college journeys. This includes topics such as financial aid and first generation scholarships. 

Start with academics and extracurriculars

The first step in the first generation college student journey starts long before you fill out your applications. Firstly, you’ll want to focus on your academics and extracurriculars to optimize your admissions odds and first generation scholarship opportunities. 

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In addition, there are some insider tips on the college application process specific to first generation college students. Therefore, make sure you learn all the ins and outs of how to maximize your admissions odds

While you may feel like there are more challenges throughout the application process as a first generation college student, there are resources available to explain the process more in-depth. For example, this webinar explains how to apply as a first generation college student. Understanding applications, enrollment, financial aid, and first generation scholarships are important in making sure that you choose the right school for you

Understanding the potential challenges

In this webinar, you can hear about some of the challenges that first generation college student Aliyah, one of our expert advisors, faced during the college application process. She answers some common questions that first gen students may ask, and talks about some of her own first generation college student struggles. She talks about the emotional struggle of leaving home and living on campus. This was especially difficult for her because of the close bond between her and her single mother. 

As well as the questions that come up for first generation college students, parents of first gen students will also have their own challenges and questions. Parents can do a lot to support their child throughout the college journey of a first gen student. Here’s a helpful webinar for parents of first gen students that answers some common first gen student questions.

How do colleges know if you are first generation?

So, we know the first generation college student definition and have gone over some of the first gen student resources. Now, let’s talk about how colleges will know that you are a first generation student. In fact, it’s quite simple – colleges will know because you can identify yourself as a first generation college student when you apply.

For example, when filling out the CommonApp, the application will ask for your parents’ level of education. Individual schools may ask this too. You may even choose to use your experience as a first generation college student in a personal or supplemental essay. Some might choose to reveal background details about yourself and your family which would make your first generation college student identity clear. You can use your experiences as a first generation college student in a variety of creative ways to make a competitive application narrative

Above all, make sure you identify yourself as a first generation college student during the college application process. Most applications will directly ask for your parents’ level of education. But if they don’t, make sure you disclose this information. 

Why would you want to identify yourself as a first generation college student?

There are a couple of reasons why you should share your first generation college student status when applying to schools. One of the most important is that it may qualify you for a first generation scholarship or financial aid opportunities. 

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Sharing your status as a first gen student could also help you to connect to other resources and first gen student peers who are navigating the same experience. Having a supportive first generation student community during your college journey is vital to future success. Luckily, with so many students identifying as first generation, there are many resources available both in high school and in college to help you excel.

Best colleges for first generation college students

You may wonder if certain colleges are better than others when it comes to first generation college students. The best school for you depends on a variety of different aspects such as location, majors, size, and campus culture. However, different universities will offer different kinds of resources for first-generation college students. Access to these resources could facilitate your transition to college as a first generation student. 

As has been noted, first generation college student statistics show that first gen students apply to less selective schools. However, that shouldn’t be the case; many elite universities offer great resources for first-generation students. 

So, what are the best colleges for first generation college students? We’re going to check out this top 10 list from FRANK. FRANK is an organization that helps students pay for college, and navigate financial aid and student loans. 

Let’s look at FRANK’s best colleges for first generation college students: 

1. Duke University

first generation college students

Ten percent of this elite southern school identify as first gen students. Duke LIFE (Low-Income First-Generation Engagement) is a specific program for first generation students. It helps welcome and advocate for first generation students throughout their college years. It’s also a great way to connect with other first generation college students. 

2. Harvard University

first generation college students harvard

While you’ve probably heard quite a bit about this top Ivy League school, you may not know that more than 15% of the student population are first generation college students. Their admissions office actually created a specific program to help first generation students apply. 

3. Colorado State University

This was the first university to offer first generation scholarships. Being such a trailblazer with first gen students, it may come as no surprise that about 25% of their student population identifies as first generation students. 

4. Yale University

Yale University; collegeadvisor.com image: a photo of Yale University's campus

Since first generation students tend to shy away from applying to highly selective schools, Yale has created The Community Initiative in order to help first generation low income (FGLI) students acclimatize to the Yale community. 

5. Cornell University

First generation college student cornell

Cornell actually has a First-Generation Student Union and a FGLI Student Support Center. These resources help first generation college students connect with one another. The center also helps with financial needs. 

6. UC Berkeley

First generation college student UC Berkeley

First generation students at UC Berkeley are able to enjoy a variety of resources specific to them. From mentorship programs to community resources, as a first gen student you’re bound to find something that suits your needs. With almost 26% of their student body identifying as first generation students, it’s no wonder they offer so many options. 

7. Texas Tech University

Texas Tech offers a first generation scholarship that first generation college students can apply for if they decide to enroll. They also offer ample support to first gen students with a transition and mentorship program to give first generation students the best chance of success. 

8. University of Cincinnati

This university offers first generation college students the nation’s first living-learning community specific to them and their needs. They also offer scholarships for housing assistance. 

9. Trinity University

Trinity University is continuously expanding the resources that they offer first gen students. Twelve percent of their students are first generation college students, so they prioritize programs specifically for a first generation student.

10. University of Michigan – Ann Arbor

First generation students will be given access to the First Gen Gateway, a specific portal for resources and support just for them. The university offers first generation college students a variety of resources including assistance on how to pay for school. 

While this list offers some of the best options for the first generation college student, other colleges also have resources and scholarships for the first gen student. Think about what kind of resources you’d find most helpful, and do some digging on the best university for you and your needs. 

You may also want to check out the list of academically rigorous schools recommended by the First Generation Foundation for some more inspiration in your dream school search. 

First generation college students- Final Thoughts

So, what is a first generation college student? Generally speaking, a first generation student is someone whose parents don’t hold a four-year degree. However, as has been noted, universities differ in their first generation college student definition. Investigate how a specific university or organization defines a first generation college student when looking for first generation scholarships. 

If you’re still not sure if you qualify as a first generation college student, check out how the Center for First-Generation Student Success answers the question “what are first generation college students?” They also have many other valuable resources for a first gen student on their website. 

Earlier in this first generation college student article we defined “what are first generation college students?” We also shared some resources for first-generation college students including first generation scholarships. 

Resources

Now, we’ve gone over some more resources available to first generation students, including centers at universities and first generation scholarships. We’ve discussed the importance of identifying yourself as a first generation college student in the college process. In addition, we’ve seen how you can gain access to university resources, and apply for certain first generation scholarships.

We’ve shared CollegeAdvisor’s webinars on the first generation student college journey. They’re useful in breaking down the process for first gen students and their parents. And we’ve also looked at some of the best colleges for first generation college students, which give ample support to first generation college students. 

You are not alone

Being a first gen student can at times feel overwhelming and confusing. However, you are not alone in the first generation college student journey. In fact, about one-third of graduating college students identify as first generation students. Many universities are proactive in creating and maintaining resources for first-generation college students. These will help you to form a first gen student community. 

The college journey is an exciting time. Know that you aren’t alone and that there are many resources available to you as a first gen student, both before and during college. It’s important to start preparing early and look for a community who can help in the process. However, with the knowledge, preparation, and support, you can excel in college and beyond! 

This guide was written by Becky Weinstein and Sarah Kaminski. If you want to work one-on-one with our talented team of advisors and other CollegeAdvisor.com Admissions Experts, register with CollegeAdvisor.com today.