General Education

Where First-Gen College Students Can Get Financial Aid: We Made a List.

Where First-Gen College Students Can Get Financial Aid: We Made a List.
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Nedda Gilbert May 30, 2019

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Considering a two- or four-year degree? Your college applications will ask a seemingly endless list of questions about all aspects of your life. One of those questions — an important one, it turns out — will almost certainly be “Are you a first-generation college student?”

The term ‘first generation‘ is often understood to apply to those whose parents did not complete a four-year undergraduate degree. Some alternate definitions disqualify those whose uncles, aunts, grandparents, or other family members of an earlier generation earned a bachelor’s degree, and some are even more restrictive (these will be discussed further below). The definition of the term is not, unfortunately, fixed by law, and different institutions use widely varying definitions.

According to the Postsecondary National Policy Institute, an estimated 50 percent of the college population is made up of students whose parents never attended college. Unfortunately, according to the Pell Institute, nearly 47 percent of low-income first-generation students will not complete college; for students in the same income bracket whose parents did complete college (i.e. continuing-generation students), that number falls to 41 percent. Similarly, for first-generation students with higher incomes, 38 percent will not complete college (compared to 23 percent of continuing-generation students). Clearly, first-generation status poses additional challenges above and beyond the already-challenging task of succeeding at, and paying for, an undergraduate institution.

For many first-generation college students, such challenges include a lack of funds.

As the Department of Education noted in 2017:

“A higher percentage of first-generation college students (54 percent) than continuing-generation students (45 percent) reported they could not afford to continue going to school as a reason for leaving college without a postsecondary credential.”

Understandably so; the family income disparity between the two groups — $37,565 vs $99,635 in 2012 — is enormous.

Demographic issues point to additional challenges.

First-generation college students tend to be older (average age 24 vs 21 for continuing-generation students; twice the percentage — 34 percent vs 17 percent — are over age 30) and are more likely to have children. They are more likely to speak a language other than English as their first language, more likely to have a disability, and more likely to need remedial classes. In short, first-generation students start out with fewer advantages and more barriers.

Additionally, first-generation students often must manage college without the same level of family support that continuing-generation students typically receive. According to Inside Higher Ed, first-generation students “receive far less emotional, informational, and financial support from their parents than continuing-generation students,” and consequently have “higher levels of stress and anxiety than the few first-generation students who [do] feel supported by their parents.” Although the relative lack of support may be a result of the family’s uncertainty as to what level of support is appropriate, not the result of neglect, the impact is significant all the same.

Closing the gap for first-generation students

What are educators doing to help first-generation students beat the odds?

For starters, educators know that first-generation students have to work harder to overcome their circumstances. As a result, many academic institutions have implemented dedicated academic support systems for the students in colleges and universities across the nation.

Second, a lot of money and outreach have gone into programs to help first-gen learners move past their obstacles. Numerous independent organizations exist to ensure that first-generation students get the vital mentoring, support, and funding they need to complete their college education.

Assistance is no good unless potential recipients know about it, of course. Unfortunately, it can be enormously difficult to identify available resources. And once you find them, it can be just as challenging to determine whether you qualify. The answer to the latter question hinges on how the organization defines the term ‘first generation.’

What is a first-generation college student?

There is no universal definition for the term ‘first-generation student.’ Researchers at the University of Georgia, in fact, considered eight definitions of the term, and their study only considered students living with two parents as of grade 10.

Their definitions:

  • One parent did not continue past high school
  • Neither parent continued past high school
  • One parent took some courses toward an associate’s degree
  • Both parents took some courses toward an associate’s degree
  • One parent holds an associate’s degree but did not continue further
  • Both parents hold an associate’s degree but did not continue further
  • One parent took some courses toward a bachelor’s degree but did not finish
  • Both parents took some courses toward a bachelor’s degree and at least one did not finish

Further, the University of Georgia study used an inclusive definition of the term ‘parent’: biological parents, adoptive parents, step-parents, and foster parents all qualified under the study. Constrain your definition to only some, or just one, of these subgroups, and you can see how quickly the number of possible definitions of ‘first generation’ can balloon. Complicating matters even further, some aid providers take into consideration whether you have a sibling with an undergraduate degree in determining your status.

This isn’t just a question of semantics.

The University of Georgia study reports that the choice of definition greatly affects the number of students included in the ‘first generation’ group. Under the most generous definition — which allows one but not both parents to have earned a bachelor’s degree — 77 percent of students meet the definition. Under the most restrictive definition — neither parent advanced past high school — only 22 percent of students qualify.

The U.S. Department of Education, which administers federal programs for first-generation students, defines ‘first generation’ as someone who, at the age of 18:

  • lives with and receives support from two parents, neither of whom has earned a bachelor’s degree
  • lives with and receives support from one parent; that parent did not earn a bachelor’s degree, or
  • has no parents (i.e. individual does not live with a natural or adoptive parent)

It would be simpler if all schools and aid organizations simply adhered to the federal definition of ‘first generation,’ but unfortunately they don’t. Each aid provider applies its own definition, and every time you apply for assistance you will have to check to make sure you meet the applicable definition of the term. There will be plenty of forms for you to fill out in order to make that determination. Fortunately, many organizations use the most liberal definition of the term.

Where to find help: support programs for first-generation college students

Whether it’s a support network, professional mentoring, or assistance in selecting a college, every first-gen student can benefit from outside help.

Dr. Kevin Aiken, Vice President and Director of College Success and Community Outreach at Graduate! Philadelphia, a nonprofit helping adults in the Greater Philadelphia area complete their college degree, explains:

“Research suggests that first-generation students have difficulty remaining enrolled in school and obtaining a degree. Students who have obtained a degree give the most credit to their educational supports. These educational supports are people such as mentors, advisors, counselors, pastors, professors, and family members who have supported and encouraged their loved ones to completion. First-generation students who have stopped-out of college and come back to finish often need a village of people for support.”

Dedicated programs for first-generation college students can offer academic support, help with career planning, overcoming psychological and behavioral challenges, adjusting to college life, paying for college, and more.

Some of the top organizations helping first-generation undergraduates:

America Needs You (ANY):__ ANY provides intensive mentoring and career guidance to low-income first-generation students. The organization matches students up with fellows, i.e. professional mentors who provide academic support and career counseling to students over a two-year period. Established in New York City, ANY services are also available in California, Illinois, and New Jersey.

Beyond 12:__ Beyond 12 uses a high-touch tech platform to help current college students succeed. Their “MyCoach” app allows students to engage like-minded college peers and offers a tool to help them manage deadlines, schoolwork, pressure, and behaviors. This site also pairs students with mentor-coaches.

__The Center for First Generation Student Success:__ This organization offers first-gen students a wide range of resources, including research and data, advice, advocacy, and first-person narratives. Their website serves as a gateway to numerous other programs and services for first-gen students.

College Greenlight:__ Trying to find the best scholarships and college can be overwhelming. College Greenlight offers first-gen and low-income students help with college and scholarship search.

Gateway to College:__ The Gateway to College Network helps first-gen students complete their high school education while simultaneously earning credit towards a college degree.

Get Me to College:__ Get Me to College — whose slogan is “Everyone deserves a chance!” — provides a broad range of valuable advice to first-gens on subjects ranging from college readiness to college transfers to grants, scholarships, and loans.

__The Strive for College, I’m First Initiative:__ Strive is a non-profit organization that describes itself as “dedicated to ensuring equal access to higher education for all students.” “I’m First” is a Strive initiative devoted to supporting and mentoring first-gen students. Its useful college guide for first-generation students, distributed through school guidance offices and other service organizations, is a valuable print resource (rare these days!).

Strive for College also partners with to make applying to college easier and to facilitate application fee waivers. This initiative includes free mentoring services for those who qualify for fee waivers.

Student Success Agency:__ SSA offers high-quality mentorship to traditionally underserved populations like first-gen students. The organization connects students with peer-mentors via telephone — one big step up from IM and email, in our opinion — to provide guidance and help literally at their fingertips, at any time.

How to pay: financial aid for first-generation students

According to a 2018 Sallie Mae study, first-generation college students are less likely than their continuing-generation peers to utilize college scholarships; its data show that only 5 in 10 first-gen learners apply for scholarships, compared to 7 in 10 continuing-generation learners.

For most students — first-generation or continuing-generation — navigating the world of financial aid is a bit like hiking in unknown territory without a compass. Directionless, they’re likely to get lost or fall into an abyss.

Because there is no single portal listing every funding source available, student searches for aid can be haphazard and frustrating. Many can’t make sense of the chaotic world of financial aid and give up.

In an effort to help you avoid that pitfall, we’ve compiled a preliminary list to introduce you to the basics you’ll need to know, and to provide the resources you’ll need to get started. Once you’ve familiarized yourself with this preliminary information, we encourage you to seek expert help; your high-school guidance counselor and the financial aid offices of schools you’re considering are great resources that should be willing to assist you.

An important note: keep in mind that any financial aid program requires the completion of a financial aid application (the FAFSA) by a set deadline. A family member may need to provide financial information. Further, some grants are awarded only once a year. Most people start the financial aid application process way too late; don’t be one of them.

Scholarship and financial aid programs for first-gen students:

Pell grants
First-gen students should consider applying for the federal need-based Pell Grant, which originates at colleges and universities that participate in the federal student aid program. Because it is a grant and not a loan, it does not need to be repaid; if you qualify, this is free money. To be eligible, students must be enrolled in school at least half time and fall below specified family income limits (which change from year to year and depend on other factors: size of family, number of other children in college, etc.).

Many educational institutions offer their own first-generation support programs.A school with dedicated funds to support your education could be your best bet for completing your degree debt-free. It’s worth doing some research and asking admissions representatives and the financial aid office at prospective schools on your list whether/how they financially support first-generation students.

Private foundations and corporate scholarships
Many foundations and corporations offer full and partial scholarships for first-generation students. The amount awarded may depend on the student’s financial need or be otherwise limited by the corporation. Because these programs are often limited to a particular employer, or even to a specific geographic area, it may be helpful to work with your high school guidance counselor or the admissions representative at your desired school to learn about private scholarships that apply to you.

The list below is not comprehensive, but offer a helpful sampling of private scholarships for both low-income and first-generation college students.

Federal and private loans
Loans are another way to fund your education. Even if you get a generous financial aid package, you may still come up short; college, as you may have heard, can be expensive.

Interest rates can vary widely; shop around for the best one. To obtain the best rates and offers possible, apply for several loans. As part of the application, the lender will want to review your credit. It’s best to apply to only those private lenders who do a “soft run” on your prior credit; a soft run does not impact your credit score.

This is by no means a complete listing, but a few well-known lenders that offer no application or origination fees are: Salle Mae, Lend Key, and Citizens Bank.

Beating the odds

The road to college for first-generation students is paved with uncertainty and roadblocks. First-generation students are not be able to draw upon their parents’ college experiences and are more likely to come from lower-income families. Lacking the emotional and financial capital that benefit continuing-generation students, first-generation students face a tougher ride in succeeding at a college or university.

Fortunately, there are many organizations and websites dedicated to helping first-gens succeed in higher education. With the right supports, first-generation students of any age and from any background can reach their college dreams.

Questions or feedback? Email

About the Author

Ms. Nedda Gilbert is a seasoned clinical social worker, author, and educational consultant with 25 years of experience helping college-bound and graduate students find their ideal schools. She is a prolific author, including The Princeton Review Guide to the Best Business Schools and Essays that Made a Difference. Ms. Gilbert has been a guest writer for Forbes and a sought-after keynote speaker on college admissions. Previously, she played a crucial role at the Princeton Review Test Preparation Company and was Chairman of the Board of Graduate Philadelphia. Ms. Gilbert holds degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University and is a certified interdisciplinary collaborative family law professional in New Jersey.


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