First-Generation College Student Guide

Last updated: Jul 22, 2019

Nearly one-third of rising college freshmen are first-generation college students. The status should be a point of pride, but many students who hope to be the first in their immediate family to attend college don’t take credit for being trailblazers. They either don’t realize it’s a plus in the eyes of admissions officers or think it’s a mark of shame. To set the record straight, here’s our first-generation college student guide.

Two first-generation college students work on a computer together.

What Is a First-Generation College Student?

If you are the first person in your immediate family to attend college, most people consider you a first-generation college student. When it comes to admissions offices and financial aid issues, though, definitions vary.

The National Center for Education Statistics, which is part of the U.S. Department of Education’s data crunching institute, goes by this definition: “First-generation college students are students who enrolled in post-secondary education and whose parents do not have any post-secondary education experience.”

The Florida Department of Education’s definition differs: “A student is considered ‘first generation’ if neither of the student’s parents earned a college degree at the baccalaureate level or higher.”

To be safe, always ask school officials or the financial aid or scholarship administrators for their definitions.

A Statistical Look at First-Generation College Students

First-generation college students face a daunting statistic: a college dropout rate that is four times the average for second-generation students. The reasons most often cited for failure are the greater likelihood that they come from financially challenged and minority families and the fact that they don’t have a parent experienced with the challenges of getting into college and graduating.

A report from the U.S. Department of Education makes these observations:

  • Forty-six percent of continuing-education students (the overall label for those with at least one parent with some postsecondary experience) who had a parent with a bachelor’s degree and 59 percent of those who had a parent with at least a master’s degree went on to earn a bachelor’s degree, versus 17 percent of first-generation students.
  • First-generation students deemed college-ready were as likely as their continuing-education peers to return to college after the first year, but those not deemed college-ready were not. (They didn’t spend high school prepping for college, with a focus on standardized tests and college-oriented academic and extracurricular choices, and a last-minute push for college is challenging.)
  • First-generation students were more likely to take out more student loans than their continuing-education counterparts, and the amounts tended to be larger.
  • Fewer first-generation students took college entrance exams.
  • One report found a 44-percentage-point lower likelihood, compared with continuing-education peers with a degreed parent, that first-generation students would earn a bachelor’s degree.

Tips for First-Generation College Students

Don’t let challenging statistics get you down though. You can achieve your goal of earning a college degree.

  • The first rule of being a first-generation student is to wear the status as a badge of honor.
  • The second rule is to make sure anyone who can help you enroll in and pay for college sees that badge.

Google “first-generation college student,” and you’ll find no end of information, from A Field Guide for First-Generation College Students to Unique Concerns of First-Generation College Students. The advice being offered can be boiled down to these three basic rules:

First-generation college student taking notes and studying

Use Your Status

There are admissions and financial aid considerations available to first-generation college students:

  • Some schools recruit first-generation students, with admissions offices offering special guidance during the enrollment process.
  • Some schools, including the University of South Florida, simplify the hunt for financial assistance.
  • There are a variety of scholarships for first-generation students.

Build a Support System

A big downside for first-generation college students is not having a college-savvy parent to lean on during the preparation, enrollment, and on-campus stages of the experience. High school college counselors can help fill that void, along with high school and college teachers willing to mentor. You also can:

  • Network with college-bound students to find guidance.
  • Talk to college graduates.
  • Turn to online forums to engage college students and college-bound students.
  • Turn to your potential college choices to see what types of support systems they offer, including bridge programs that help first-generation students adapt to college life.

USF’s Student Support Services is an example of a built-in support system available to first-generation students.

Engage on Campus

College can be an obstacle course. To conquer it is to know it, and the best way to do that is to become part of it. Join clubs. Be active in student government. Engage students and faculty. Teaming up with motivated students who are on the same academic track can charge your batteries.

First-generation students often start college less prepared academically. That can mean remedial courses. Ease into the experience, being sure not to overload yourself academically – especially in the first semester. So choose courses wisely, and make time to meet the nonacademic challenges that help make you whole. And, ask for help from college support services.

Download Our Free First-Generation College Student Guide Below:

Download Our 1st Gen College Student Guide

Our USF admissions advisors are happy to answer your questions about the USF admissions process, so contact us online or by phone at 813-974-3350.