Challenges and Resources for First-Generation Students

For many first-generation students — students who are the first in their family to attend college — post-secondary education is a huge deal. They’re taking a different path than the rest of their family, one that their parents may not understand or even support. In many cases, they have more financial stresses than other students and may also feel like they don’t belong on campus. Thankfully, there are plenty of resources to help first-generation students adjust to college life.


Not every first-generation student comes from a low-income family. However, the National Education Longitudinal Study found that first-generation students are more likely to have dependent children, not receive financial help from family, and come from a lower-income family than students with parents who have degrees. Clearly, this puts them at a disadvantage right from the start.

There are several methods for getting funds. The most obvious (and first) step to take is applying for as many grants and scholarships as possible. If the amount received still isn’t enough, there are ways to make money while going to college. For example, you can try doing a work-study program. Also, many courses are available online, which makes it easier for students to schedule classes around their work schedule.  

Family Relationships

For many students who come from a family of college graduates, getting a post-secondary education is expected. This isn’t always the case for first-gen students. Their parents may not see the value of attending college. For other first-gen students, their parents may be proud of them but not understand just how much work college really is. This translates to less emotional support, which adds even more stress. 

The only real solution here is communication. If possible, students can include their parents in discussions with the high-school guidance counselor or precollege staff. If it’s too late for that, telling mom or dad “I just want you to say I can do it” can help them know how to help you.

Fitting In on Campus

It’s common for first-gen students to feel as if they don’t belong on campus. Things that come naturally to other students, such as talking to professors, may be confusing. Income inequality is noticeable in casual conversations. For example, a first-gen student may have nothing to say when her wealthier classmates discuss their latest trips to Europe or the Caribbean. Sometimes professors unwittingly ask questions that make first-gen students feel uncomfortable. For example, while getting to know students in the class, they may ask everyone what their parents do for a living.

Building a support system is the best solution. Student-run organizations for first generation students are popping up in colleges across the states, including Ivy League schools such as Harvard and Yale. These organizations create a community on campus, provide social and financial resources, and give first-gen students a voice. When choosing a school, first-gen students should do some research to figure out which ones have well-developed support programs.

Attending college can be challenging for first-generation students. They may feel as if they’re trapped between two worlds without belonging to either one. However, it’s definitely possible to graduate and even have fun in college by asking for help and looking for like-minded people. 

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