General Education

How First-Generation College Students Can Overcome the Challenges of Higher Education

How First-Generation College Students Can Overcome the Challenges of Higher Education
Leaving behind family and friends to go away to college can be overwhelming for first-generation college students. Image from Unsplash
Sharon Greenthal profile
Sharon Greenthal December 6, 2019

On average, college graduates earn $20K more per year than high school graduates.

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Going to college is a life-changing experience for everyone. Still, for first-generation college students, there are more challenges than just getting along with a roommate or completing assignments.

From the personal to the practical, first-generation college students have a lot to figure out and manage, often with little guidance from parents who have no experience with college life.

Financial Responsibility

College is costly. Navigating the world of grants, scholarships, loans, and financial aid without help is daunting and frustrating. Insufficient financial security is one of the top reasons that students don’t finish college. Juggling jobs with a full schedule of classes and succeeding at both can be too much for some students. Getting financial assistance is crucial to success.

Resources for help with paying for college include:

Despite the expenses of a college degree, there are many good reasons to pursue one.

Keeping student loans to a minimum is a good plan for the long term. According to the Department of Education, the average owed on student loans at graduation is $33,654. Pell grants, on average, cover only 30% of the cost of tuition. The price of an education is high, but so are the payoffs. In 2018, the median annual earnings for a full-time worker who was between 25 and 37 and had a college degree was $56,000. Compare that to $36,000 for someone with some college education and $31,300 for a high school graduate, and it’s clear that over a lifetime, a college degree is worth the expense.

Cultural and Social Adjustments

At the University of California campuses, nearly 40% of students are the first in their families to attend college. Compare that to 11% at Brown for the class of 2023, and it’s clear that the social and cultural environments of schools varies greatly. Choosing a school should include thought about where a student will feel most comfortable and have the kind of social network needed to succeed, not only academically but personally.

First-generation college students may not have the money or the time to have what some consider the “college experience.” That may include Greek Life, semesters abroad, and other totems of college life, but that doesn’t mean they can’t enjoy their time in college as much—or even more—than those who do. Going to college is as much about finding out who you are as it is about getting a degree.

Among the top schools for first-generation college students are:

  • University of California – Berkeley:Their Incentive Awards Program distributes 1.8 million in scholarships to students who have faced hardships and challenges. The University of California schools overall gets high marks from US News for how well they serve first-generation students, a new and important criterion for their rankings.
  • University of Cincinnati: The innovative Gen-1 live-learn program offers support to first-generation students.
  • Cornell University: Cornell actively seeks out first-generation college students with the help of their diversity interns—students who work with the university to recruit underrepresented groups. While their first in the family percentage is only 13%, they are actively seeking out these students for admission.


Leaving behind family and friends to go away to college can be overwhelming for first-generation college students. For those who are children of immigrants, they may feel they are leaving their parents without a conduit to the English speaking world. Others may think they are abandoning their families, especially if they have younger siblings. Even if they stay at home and attend college, their world is expanding in ways their parents’ and many of their friends’ worlds will not.

According to Jeff Davis, who wrote “The First Generation Student Experience: Implications for Campus Practice, and Strategies for Improving Persistence and Success (Higher Education),” parents may have a much harder time with their child leaving home because attending college is not part of the first-generation student’s family story. First-generation students need to put some space between them and their families to allow for new relationships to develop through their college experience. It’s not a matter of leaving one place and going to another, it’s about broadening their lives overall.

First-generation college students can change not only their lives but the lives of family and friends as well. Seeing students succeed is a great incentive for others around them to consider pursuing a college education.

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