Our lives are shaped by our contributions to society, through our work, and the experiences and events that take place throughout them. For many, a critical part of that experience is the educational journey. Education and its availability to the American people, and globally, has undergone many changes over the course of our existence. The American educational model has moved from access to only the privileged elite, to being free and available to all in some way, shape, or form.

A large percentage of the American population has attained some type of schooling, whether it be middle school or a high school graduate. Long gone are the days where young people dropped out of school after eighth grade to go work in factories, mills, or farms. In 2021, many young people are finishing high school at a higher percentage and are pursuing higher education in either a two-year or four-year setting.

With the continued emphasis on higher education for better job opportunities, there is a group of people that continues to struggle with these opportunities. This group is identified as first-generation college students.

What is a First-Generation College Student?

By definition, students whose parents do not possess a four-year college degree are considered first-generation college students. The Department of Education additionally defines a first-generation college student as students who live with and are supported by only one parent, a student whose only such parent did not complete a bachelor’s degree.

Although fairly clear, some colleges and universities have their own definition of first-generation college students. Some colleges count students as first-generation college students only if neither parent attended college at all after high school, regardless of whether they received a degree. Some colleges consider the completion of an associate’s degree enough to discount further generations from being considered for this designation at all.

First-Generation College Student Struggles and Challenges

For many, attaining a college degree is a great source of pride and feeling of accomplishment. First-generation students take great pride in the fact that they are the first in their families to pursue higher education. For many of these students, the chance to form lifelong friendships, lasting memories, and acquire applicable skills to their career path are attractive enticements to pursue a college degree. Typically, these students experience the same thrills, exhilaration, and anticipation upon entering college.

However, the typical college experience also brings anxiety, uneasiness, and stress. For first-generation college students, navigating the college minefield of these experiences can prove problematic. Many students that are first-generation lose sight of their goals and experience feelings of self-doubt, which can hinder their academic performance. As first-generation college students, these students simply do not have the support needed because their immediate family members never experienced college.

For first-generation college students, several challenges and struggles exist. First, many of these students experience a great burden of debt. Higher education is not cheap, and for first-generation college students, the costs incurred can cause issues between family members who already may not be trusting of the educational process, or uneducated about the costs.

Moreover, the extracurricular activities that go along with college such as Greek life, intramural sports, clubs, activities, and others offer additional costs to students. For these first-generation college students, striving to fit in, especially at smaller colleges and/or universities, may require additional fees or financial burden.

Next, first-generation college students experience guilt with leaving family members behind. First-generation college students are the first to experience college life, academically and socially, and often feel the burden of leaving their family members behind to go off and better their lives or familial situation. Many first-generation college students are children of immigrants, who are sometimes the sole English speaker in the household. This guilt is further exacerbated by these students potentially excelling where others may not have, particularly if they are in a family situation where college was attempted by their parent(s), and they were not successful.

Another challenge or struggle for first-generation college students is the anxiety of going back to school, particularly if a first-generation college student is going to school for the first time at an older age, or after a career change that now requires higher education. For these students, being in colleges or universities with younger peer groups can lead to anxiety and stressful situations; and combined with navigating the complex academic field of advice, class and work schedule, and the normal college stressors, this all can be a recipe for disaster.

Finally, first-generation college students don’t have the baseline of college experience that another student whose parents went to college may have. Because of this, the potential for drop out is higher in first-generation college students. Ultimately, first-generation college students must realize their journey will be completely different, but it is normal to experience many ups and downs during their undergraduate career.

Resources for First-Generation College Students

Although faced with a multitude of challenges, first-generation students are resilient. They are resilient because of their challenges and, oftentimes, have greater work ethics, experience increased learning gains, and don’t accept failure or give up easily. All of this can be attributed to their personal experiences, as first-generation college students possess a general hardiness about them in dealing with situations.

As first-generation college students, many colleges and universities target this group of students because they want to see them succeed. For colleges and universities, having identified students on campus who are the first in their family to potentially obtain a college degree is a great marketing strategy and tool for these higher education institutes. In that spirit, many colleges and universities specifically target this group with outreach programs designed to help these students assimilate into college life, experience success, and ultimately graduate and go on to successful and illustrious careers in their chosen career path.

Moreover, there are national organizations that seek out, identify, and help first-generation college students reach their hopes and dreams. “I’m First,” a national program designed to help first-generation college students, was created as a nonprofit in 2013 to provide students inspiration, information, and support as they navigate their college experiences. Their network of support systems allows for students to connect with others, find the right fit for college, and even provides a mentor program for students when challenging times present themselves. Another support resource is “America Needs You,” a program which provides first-generation college students with “intensive career development” and focuses on economic mobility for first-generation college students, specifically targeting minority students who are historically underserved.

Despite the different backgrounds of first-generation college students, one thing is certain: first-generation college students possess the skills, desire, and determination to be successful. Although there are challenges, obstacles, and struggles, colleges and universities are becoming more keenly aware of the potential of this group and are becoming more committed to the success of first-generation college students.