Making the Dean’s “Other” List: Reflections of a First-Generation College Grad

Unlike J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy , or Tara Westover, who wrote the memoir Educated , I haven’t (yet) written a book about my experience as a first-generation college graduate to become a New York Times best-selling author. But, hey, you never know, perhaps this blog post is a start.

So here goes. …

As an unimpressive teenager—far more focused on cars, rock bands, football and getting dates than on my classes—and growing up with parents without college degrees, college didn’t appear likely for me.

The author circa 1979, sporting long hair in a school picture

College did not appear likely for this “unruly-haired kid,” circa 1979. The author admits he bombed the ACT, not knowing it was a test you could prep for.

I was regularly grounded by my dad for getting D’s and F’s. Not surprisingly, I bombed the ACT, not knowing one could actually prepare for it.

There were no books in the house, nor was college in the cards for any of my 13 siblings and first cousins (though one cousin eventually graduated from college).

But my best friends were going away to college, and I was quite eager to get out of the house, get out of the family business and get out of Akron, Ohio, so I ended up applying to Ohio State University in May ( May! ) of my senior year, 1979.

I couldn’t believe it, but I was admitted—a feat unlikely at Ohio State today.

I had a blast my first term at OSU, but landed on the Dean’s “other” (i.e., bad) list, prompting a threat from my dad to cut off funding if that continued.

That definitely motivated me to get my act together. To my surprise, I made the Dean’s proper list nearly all of my remaining terms, graduated cum laude with a degree in accounting, passed the CPA exam, and landed a coveted job at Ernst & Whinney (now EY).

I somehow made it to and through college, but far too many first-gen kids do not.

In fact, we’re going in reverse.

America’s Unrealized Potential

Recent research from my colleagues Ana H. Kent, William R. Emmons and Lowell R. Ricketts, from the St. Louis Fed’s Center of Household Financial Stability , found that:

The share of college graduates who are first-generation has declined.

Between 2015 and 2018, the share of grads who are first-generation grads declined by about 7 percentage points. It now stands at about 4 in 10.

In fact, the share of first-generation grads has declined steadily across each successive generation, starting with adults born in the 1940s. Rates are even lower among blacks and Hispanics.

Nearly 2 in 3 adults have “first-generation potential.”

The overall number of college graduates has been rising, but that’s due almost entirely to the growing number of “continuing-gen” grads, or those who have at least one college-educated parent.

This is especially surprising given that nearly 2 out of 3 adults age 25-64 have “first-generation potential” (meaning that their parents are not college-educated).

I can’t really explain all these trends, but I can offer a few observations based on my own experience.

First, don’t underestimate how much a kid without college-educated parents does not know. It wasn’t just the ACT that was foreign to me; it was how to apply, how to write an essay, and which school was “right” for me.

That feeling of not knowing, or even not belonging, can continue once on campus, too.

Second, family pressures play a much bigger role for first-generation college kids—whether helping out financially, taking care of siblings, or (for me) pitching in with the family restaurant business.

For many, college isn’t really about enriching yourself or finding your true passion; it’s about coming back home and helping your family, now or down the road.

And third, it’s hard to stay in and succeed in college when you’re not surrounded by a college-going culture. I went to college because my friends were going, not because I cared at all about education. I stayed in college in no small part because my friends were staying.

Father and son picture, circa 1979, with the author and his dad wearing dress suits

Boshara had a blast his first term at Ohio State University, but his dad (left) threatened to cut off funding if his son’s poor academic performance persisted. The author points out that even today, “It’s hard to stay in and succeed in college when you’re not surrounded by a college-going culture.”

Does a College Degree Matter?

It’s really too bad that more kids with first-generation potential are not college-bound, given what our Center has learned about the remarkable economic returns.

At age 50, we predict that:

  • The annual income of a typical first-generation college grad family is $59,000 higher (109% higher) than a typical non-college grad family headed by someone whose parents were also nongrads.
  • The wealth of a typical first-generation college grad family is $320,000 higher (349% higher) than a typical nongrad family headed by someone whose parents were also nongrads.

To be sure, the expected income and wealth of children whose parents were also college graduates are significantly higher—the first-generation college boost doesn’t make up for having college graduate parents.

Still, it’s hard to argue with triple-digit income and wealth returns for first-gen college grads, so it behooves us to help more of those millions of kids with first-generation potential to get to and make it through college. Although there probably is a limit to how many people will benefit financially from a college degree, we don’t seem to have reached that limit yet. My Center for Household Financial Stability colleagues found evidence that the income premium (as distinct from the wealth premium) associated with college degrees has held up, even as the share of college graduates continues to rise. See William R. Emmons, Ana H. Kent and Lowell R. Ricketts, “Is College Still Worth It? The New Calculus of Falling Returns,” Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Review, Fourth Quarter 2019 (forthcoming).

The “making it through” part is especially important for lower-wealth families.

Fabian Pfeffer of the University of Michigan found that, among those whose families are in the bottom 40% of U.S. wealth distribution, college attendance has actually risen significantly for kids born in the 1970s and 1980s. However, college completion—which is what generates those impressive boosts—has flat-lined. We must close that gap.

But it’s just as important to stress that these compelling returns pegged to a college degree for first-generation and continuing-grad parents does not mean that college is for everyone.

College wasn’t the best route for nearly all of my siblings and cousins. College may not necessarily be the best route for many other Americans.

Therefore, it’s critical we develop more skills and career options for them, too.

That’s a tricky business, of course, figuring out who should and should not be college bound—what other countries call “tracking”—and then getting them on the best path. (Indeed, I’m fairly certain my high school counselors would have dismissed me, as well as J.D. Vance and Tara Westover, as not college material.)

So, yes, let’s do a better job aligning capabilities and interests with college and career paths—but, in doing so, make sure that we don’t close off the college path too soon for that seemingly unpromising, unruly-haired, souped-up-car-driving, KISS-obsessed kid who just hasn’t yet found his way.

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Society believes that those who "pull themselves up by their bootstraps," like first-generation college graduates, should be rewarded through upward economic mobility. But are they? Hear more from St. Louis Fed experts at “Grading On a Curve: Do First-Gen Grads Fall Flat?” This free event is part of our Dialogue with the Fed series.

Bookmark this page to watch the livestream.

Notes and References

1 Although there probably is a limit to how many people will benefit financially from a college degree, we don’t seem to have reached that limit yet. My Center for Household Financial Stability colleagues found evidence that the income premium (as distinct from the wealth premium) associated with college degrees has held up, even as the share of college graduates continues to rise. See William R. Emmons, Ana H. Kent and Lowell R. Ricketts, “ Is College Still Worth It? The New Calculus of Falling Returns ,” Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Review, Fourth Quarter 2019 (forthcoming).

Additional Resources

See the August 2019 In the Balance essay, "First-Generation College Graduates Get a Financial Boost, but Don’t Catch Up,"  by Emmons, Kent and Ricketts.

See the Center for Household Financial Stability’s May 24, 2018, symposium, "Is College Still Worth It: Looking Back and Looking Ahead." In particular, check out Fabian Pfeffer’s presentation, " "Wealth Gaps in Education" (PDF) .

Ray Boshara

Ray Boshara is a former senior advisor and assistant vice president of the Institute for Economic Equity at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. He is also a senior fellow in the Financial Security Program at the Aspen Institute.

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What is a First Generation College Student? (And Why it Matters)

first generation college graduate essay

One of the first questions on the Common Application asks about the educational history of the applicant’s parents. This information, along with other information (such as income and/or Pell Grants ), helps colleges and universities decide who is a first generation student. 

In this post, we’ll explain who is considered first generation by whom, and how that determination might affect admission chances, financial awards, and overall college experience.

Jump ahead to:

What is a first generation college student?

  • Different colleges define first generation differently
  • Why does first generation status matter?
  • Final thoughts

If you are looking for scholarships, you can check out our top list of scholarships for first generation students!

To begin, let’s start at the federal level Higher Education Act of 1965 and 1998 defines first generation students as follows:

  • An individual both of whose parents did not complete a baccalaureate degree 
  • In the case of any individual who regularly resided with and received support from only one parent, an individual whose only such parent did not complete a baccalaureate degree

Seems clear enough, right? By this definition, the educational level of the parent(s) who lived with the student should be counted. Let’s look at the following example:

A student’s mother has a four-year degree, but the student was raised by their father without a degree. Therefore, they are technically considered first generation by the government.

Sounds straightforward? As far as federal guidelines, yes. However, individual colleges and universities use their own formulas to determine first generation status.

Different colleges define first generation differently 

Some colleges/universities consider students first-generation only if :

  • No one in their family ever attended college
  • Their siblings did not attend college
  • Basically, zero education after high school for all family members

Yet, other colleges/universities state that:

  • If the parent(s) attended college, but did not graduate from a four-year college or university, students are first generation
  • Only the parents educational status matters, not grandparents or siblings

For example, at Marquette University, even if your grandparents graduated from Ivy League schools, but your parents did not graduate with four-year degrees, you would still be considered first generation. 

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The definition of first-generation is a work in progress.

In 2017, the New York Times cited a study by a professor at the University of Georgia. Analyzing the term “first generation” as applied to 7,300 students, the research revealed that the number of students who could be defined as first-generation ranged from 22 percent to 77 percent.

Obviously, a more general definition of first generation is needed. This is something that policy makers are and continue to work on.

Related:  Top scholarships for adopted and foster children

Why does first generation college student status matter?

Recognizing that first generation students may be at a disadvantage compared to their peers, universities take steps to provide extra support. These three advantages include:

Admission & scholarship advantages

  • Shows that despite exposure to higher education, the first generation student attained their goals
  • When all other factors are the same, being first generation might be the tipping point for admissions or scholarships

Monetary first generation advantages

In addition to academic and social campus support, some colleges are more financially friendly to first generation students. This includes:

  • Fee waivers when applying to colleges/universities
  • Scholarships (partial and full) just for first generation students
  • Cost-free books and computers

Support on campus

Being first-generation, students may feel that they are at a disadvantage when navigating the campus experience. Some colleges and universities offer special programs for first generation students that help them:

  • Adjust to the expectations of university life, including social aspects
  • Connect with other first-generation college students and share experiences
  • Handle the pressure of being the first in their family to attend college 

For example, Princeton University offers the “ Scholars Institute Fellows Program ” for low-income first generation students. This program offers a support network of faculty, staff, and students who mentor and offer academic enrichment and support. 

FAFSA reminder!

Whether you are a first generation student or not, all financial aid starts with the FAFSA , so fill out yours ASAP! Each year, only 65% of high school seniors complete the FAFSA , with first-generation and low-income students less likely to do so. 

Related : When is the FASFA deadline for your state?

Final thoughts on first-generation status

Remember, when evaluating your applications, the main criteria for evaluations will be your academic performance, essays , recommendations , and extracurricular activities . As we have seen, whether or not you are declared a first generation student or not by the admissions team can be arbitrary. 

Truthfully informing colleges/universities of your family educational history will only help you. If you are a high achieving student who did not benefit from the guidance of college educated family members, it is only going to make you look all the more impressive to also be first generation.

Key Takeaways

  • The federal definition of “first generation” is a student who was raised by a parent(s) who did not complete a baccalaureate degree 
  • Colleges and universities have differing definitions of first generation students 
  • Being recognized as a first generation student has advantages when it comes to admissions, financial aid, and support on campus
  • Always fill out the FAFSA as soon as it opens in your state!

Frequently asked questions about who is a first generation student

Am i first generation college student if my grandparents went to college, are you first generation if only one of your parents went to college, are there scholarships especially for first-generation students, scholarships360 recommended.

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College Essay Tips for First-Gen Students

tl;dr: Writing a first-gen student essay can be a daunting task, but it's an amazing opportunity to showcase your personality and be the host of your own immersive world. Start by choosing a challenge you have faced as a first-gen student and then outline why it was significant, what you learned, and how others can learn from it. Make sure to captivate your audience with a strong introduction, add immersive descriptions, and talk about your future in the conclusion. Don't forget to ask for help from teachers and peers to edit your essay for grammar and feedback!

What is a First-Generation Student?

A first-generation student is someone who is the first generation in their family to attend a 4-year college or university. This can encompass many different types of students from diverse backgrounds.  While some of these students' families may have been living in the United States for a long time, others may have been born in the U.S. to immigrant parents 👪 or a naturalized American citizen.

For more information about first-gen students, check out this article from CollegeVine !

What is a First-Gen Student Essay?

A first-generation student essay is different from a regular college essay because the reader wants to hear about the struggles you experience as a first-gen student. First-gen essays are mostly found in scholarship prompts but can be used as your personal essay on the Common or Coalition Application. Being that these prompts are found in scholarships, not all first-gens are required to write them! The prompts tend to follow the guideline of “describe a challenge you have faced as a result of being a first-gen student.” First-gen essays allow you to describe the aspects of your life that have been challenged due to being a first-gen and how those obstacles strengthened 💪 your spirit; in this essay, you have the chance to highlight your culture first hand.

Although these are not first-gen student essays, reading these sample essays can help you understand essay structure and brainstorm essay topics !

How to Structure Your First-Gen Student Essay

Most of the time, first-gen essays are found in scholarship prompts, meaning that other students might face the same struggles as you. What’s important to remember 💭is how you flourished despite those struggles or moments, how the lessons learned have altered your future, and how you can use your growth to benefit others. This essay is more than an “essay”; it's an opportunity to exhibit your personality and be the host of your own immersive world the reader will want to come back to. It’s your moment to pull a Gatsby, throw an elaborate party to win the heart of Daisy–even if you die at the end 👀, at least the party holds your memory.  

The first step in developing your essay is choosing your tribulation or a moment of struggle in your life that has stayed with you. In an outline 📝, describe why this event was significant, what you learned, how others can learn from this, and how you might have approached the situation differently. These questions will get you thinking, and hopefully, you can produce at least five solid ideas. From those thoughts, you can cross some moments out.

During this process, it is essential to remember 🧠 that every moment you experienced has value. Crossing out a moment on a list doesn’t mean it’s being crossed out of your life; these moments have made you strong and better prepared for your future. You know you have chosen the right moment when you can write a “novel long” 📖 description of it; however, if the key lesson you learned is omitted from your “novel,” try again.

Now that you have a topic, it is time to captivate the reader. Just like in every English class, you need a strong opening statement! Your essay can be well written but a waste if there’s no eye-catching, breath-holding, heart-racing 😯 intro. This is probably the most important and equally tricky aspect of your essay, so you should designate a decent amount of time and attention to your introduction. You might not get it on the first try, but it’s ok! That is why the delete ❎ key exists.

Once you have your intro, it's time for your essay’s body, meat, and party. Your reader is your guest and if you don’t have the “perfect” theme, guests, food, music, party favors, they’re going to leave unsatisfied eventually. Although you might have all these party 🎉 plans in your head, they aren’t executed in the “real world” until you make it real! In this step, you describe your story, add immersive descriptions, make the reader feel as though they are living your struggles–the highs and the lows included. Don’t leave them wanting a cake slice 🍰. Although this is your opportunity to write a “sob story,” remember that what will make you stand out is the growth you have learned, achieved, and will continue to follow. How did your growth benefit you, your community, your future? Although you are creating a “perfect” party, you still want the reader to come back to celebrate 🙌 with you again.

As with all parties, your essay must come to an end, so make sure the guests are leaving satisfied! To close off your essay, talk about your future. Don’t stray from the lessons and personal growth 🌱 you have achieved. Talk about how you will follow through and use what you learned to uplift and inspire others. You’re the host of the party, and you always want your guests to leave on a positive note.

Tips to Remember

Continuing with the party analogy, although other people might host the same party, it’s imperative to put your own 💃 spin on it. You and another host might have the same theme, but what do you have that they don’t? These essays allow you to show off your personality and your challenges in a manner of different ways.

Being a first-gen student myself, I understand the difficulty in opening up and revealing your tribulations, pain, and vulnerability. However, readers are eager to read about your life–writing a first-gen essay allows you to present a personal glimpse of who you are 🤩.

It’s important to understand that good writing is not only about grammar; many first-gen students learned English as their second language. What's important is the effectiveness in delivering your ideas clearly and being able to communicate 🗣 effectively. After you write your essay, ask a teacher or a peer to edit your essay in order to better your grammar or receive comments that better strengthen your essay.

During this entire writing process, don't listen to the pessimistic voice 🙊 in your head, no matter how persistent it may be. That voice inside you roots from the unnecessary burden of centuries before you. This process might make you question your life, value, or identity, but what matters is that after every struggle you've marched on with your pride intact and spirits high, shaping who you are today. This may be a stressful moment, but you owe it to yourself to step back and relax 🧘. After all, the best parties always have a host that is enjoying themselves as well. Happy writing!  

For more tips about college essay writing, watch this video !

Next, check out these great TikToks and tweets for advice about the college application process!

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Related content, first-gen: preparing for the college application, what extracurriculars should high school sophomores do, college checklist: what to accomplish in your junior year, 5 goals for your freshman year of high school, 10 goals for your freshman year of high school.

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The First-Generation College Student Experience Essay

The term ‘first-generation college students’ is used to describe the scholars who are usually the first people in their immediate families to study in a college within the United States. The experiences of first-generation college students can be both positive and negative. Most first-generation students have some advantages and disadvantages when they are pursuing a college degree. Most first-generation students often face the challenge of adapting to an academic culture while they continue to maintain a connection with their cultural values and family customs. The difficult scenarios that surround the situations of first-generation college students are reflected by an article that appeared in the “New York Times”.

The article follows the experiences of three girls who are first-generation college students. Besides, all the girls who were featured in the article came from poor backgrounds and they could barely afford to pay for their college fees. According to the article, the scenarios surrounding first-generation college students are complicated by social, psychological, and financial factors. The three featured students are Melissa, Angelica, and Bianca. The author of the article that is titled “For Poor, Leap to College often ends in Hard Fall” theorizes that it is almost impossible for college students from poor backgrounds to make it through college. This paper uses Angelica’s case to show that first-generation students face difficult hurdles in their quest for a college education.

Melissa, Angelica, and Bianca were all gifted students in their formative levels of education. Furthermore, all three students were enrolled in a college-prep program because they showed better academic abilities when they were compared with their classmates. After enrolling in a college-prep program, all three students showed that they were able to accomplish all the college-related tasks that were presented to them. Angelica was an A-student throughout high school. Furthermore, Angelica managed to achieve an overall general point average of 3.9 over her four-year stint in college.

I believe that Angelica’s educational fortunes started to decline when she joined college. None of her other personal challenges including her poor background and her strained family relationships had managed to slow her down until she was rejected by Northwestern University. I think that after being rejected by her academic institution of choice, Angelica developed low self-esteem and decided to apply to one of the schools that had contacted her earlier. Although Angelica’s financial troubles could have been solved at Emory, her lack of additional support led her to lose her chance of attaining an affordable college education. I am convinced that a lack of finances was not Angelica’s main undoing. However, if her family, educators, and other mentors had ‘pushed’ her to follow up on her college routine, her academic fortunes would have fared better. It is also important to note that the lack of fees eventually prompted Angelica to drop out of college.

It is apparent that although financial troubles were a major obstacle to Angelica’s academic achievements, there were other contributing factors. In my opinion, Angelica’s humble financial background as the daughter of a Wal-Mart employee is the main barrier to her successful college experience. If Angelica’s family could pay for her college fees, it would have been possible for her to enjoy an alternative college experience. For example, it would have been possible for Angelica to pay the $40,000 tuition fee that was necessary to study at Emory without experiencing financial difficulties. Other than financial problems, Angelica also suffered from a lack of support from her family especially her mother. Angelica’s mother was her primary benefactor but because she did not have any experience dealing with college matters, she offered little help to her first-generation daughter. Angelica was a first-generation college student and she was likely to identify with the plight of her immediate family. Thereby, Angelica ended up neglecting her college commitments. From the article, it is clear that during Angelica’s stay in college she never fully embraced the persona of a college student. For example, Angelica kept omitting details in her application forms. In my view, Angelica’s quest for a college education was cut short by a series of barriers.

In my opinion, not all of the challenges that were faced by Angelica were avoidable. For example, Angelica could not change her and her family’s financial circumstances. Angelica lacked the financial resources that could have alleviated most of her college-related problems. However, I believe that as a first-generation college student Angelica could have eased most of her troubles by seeking the help of an experienced mentor or consultant. Although the latter would require payment, Angelica’s financial troubles could have been eased by seeking consultation services. Therefore, Angelica would have been able to avoid most of the mistakes that she made during her initial application to Emory. Alternatively, Angelica could have personally contacted Emory’s administration for a detailed explanation of the institution’s application procedures. However, Angelica complicated her situation by adopting a complacent attitude after she found out that her financial burden could be eliminated.

Various interventions could have helped avert Angelica’s college-related difficulties. The college-prep program that Angelica was enrolled in high school only took care of her intellect/academic based needs. However, the prep program could have covered college-application procedures. Colleges do not only focus on academic performance when admitting students into their institutions. It would have been beneficial for Angelica to find out what college-application situations favored her particular conditions such as her gender, race, location, and finances. Angelica would also have sought advice from mentors who were familiar with the college admission procedures as she was a first-generation student. Seeking mentorship would have ensured that Angelica was prepared for her college experience both mentally and financially. I would advise Angelica to retrace her steps and go back to Emory. Emory is a college that takes care of the students who lack the financial abilities to finance their education. Furthermore, the college has been helpful but Angelica has not shown the institution’s administration her determination and cooperation.

I have encountered challenges that are associated with being a first-generation college student. When I was applying for college, it was hard to get information that could help me. However, unlike Angelica, I turned to all sources of information to avoid making a mistake. For instance, I spent a lot of time on the internet seeking information about applying to universities abroad. Furthermore, I called some friends who were studying abroad and enquired about application procedures. My parents were not sympathetic to my decision to attend college mostly because they do not have much value for a college education. Nevertheless, unlike Angelica, I have not faced any financial difficulties during my college experience.

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IvyPanda. (2021, January 27). The First-Generation College Student Experience.

"The First-Generation College Student Experience." IvyPanda , 27 Jan. 2021,

IvyPanda . (2021) 'The First-Generation College Student Experience'. 27 January.

IvyPanda . 2021. "The First-Generation College Student Experience." January 27, 2021.

1. IvyPanda . "The First-Generation College Student Experience." January 27, 2021.


IvyPanda . "The First-Generation College Student Experience." January 27, 2021.

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What to Know as a First-Generation College Student

Being the first in your family to attend college is rewarding, but comes with challenges.

What To Know as a First-Gen Student

Close up of a young woman studying in a library.

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It's common for first-generation students to feel out of place in higher education, experts say.

Being the first in your family to attend higher education can be a rewarding and exciting experience.

But research shows that first-generation college students also face challenges, often related to economic and social factors, at phases of the higher education process from application to graduation. Veronica Hauad, the deputy dean of admissions and deputy director for access, affordability and inclusion at the University of Chicago in Illinois, says that these students commonly lack what experts call "social-cultural capital."

"If you're first gen, your parents haven't gone to college, maybe other people in your family haven't gone to college - you haven't navigated this space yet. So you don't know the new space's rules and how to navigate that new space," says Hauad, who was a first-generation college student.

Who Is Considered a First-Generation Student?

The definition of first generation, used to determine eligibility for the federal TRIO programs and Pell Grant, is a higher education student whose parent or parents did not earn a bachelor's degree, according to an amendment to the Higher Education Act of 1965.

Some schools, like the University of Pennsylvania, extend the definition to those whose parents received degrees from non-U.S. institutions, among other exceptions.

Given that the definition often varies by institution, students can miss out on resources and opportunities. Evelyn Elliott, a first-generation senior and president of First Gen United at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., says she came to campus unfamiliar with the term.

"I didn't even know what first-generation students were until I got an email from my college about it, inviting me to join the first-gen community. It's an identity that I didn't even realize that I could access and tap into," Elliott says.

Applicants should verify what definition an institution uses, or ask an admissions officer if it is not clearly stated to see if they qualify for its first-generation student opportunities.

Finding the Right Institution

Students from a first-generation or low-income background tend toward community colleges, trade schools and other vocational routes. But Matt Rubinoff, creator of the national I’m First campaign to help first-generation students succeed in higher education, encourages applicants to take a thoughtfully optimistic approach to the college search and to look at four-year degrees and more selective institutions, even if they feel out of reach.

Rubinoff, who is chief strategy officer at UStrive , an online mentoring organization for high school and college students, says it's important for first-gen students to consider financial and other constraints but not to limit their options.

“One thing we are trying to tackle head on is this misperception of what college opportunities exist for first-gen students," he says, "especially low-income first-gen students who, because they don’t have a parent who went through the process, tend to take more of a 'glass half-empty' approach.”

Like their peers, first-gen students should take into account a college's size, selectivity, location, extracurriculars, academics and cost . But that's "really just the tip of the iceberg,” Rubinoff says.

First-generation students also need to consider additional aid and on-campus opportunities offered specifically for first-generation students. These include summer bridge programs, first-generation cohorts and faculty mentorship programs.

Rubinoff says to think “ahead of the first time you show up, ‘Is this a school that is going to be able to support and nurture me both in and out of the classroom? Not just academically, but socially and financially as well?’”

Talking directly to an institution's admissions officer or current student can be a great way to fill in informational gaps and learn more about what programs and services that institution offers.

Financing Your Higher Education

Navigating the financial aid process is complicated for everyone, but it can be especially confusing for first-generation applicants. A study from the Pew Research Center reports that first-generation students are more likely to incur college debt, and more of it.

Applicants should fill out the FAFSA , typically due at the end of June for each academic year, which is responsible for a large portion of many applicants' financial aid package.

Some universities also allow students to submit financial aid appeals . If students feel they did not receive enough in scholarships, grants or loans in a university’s offer, they may be able to appeal to increase their aid package. Hauad stresses the importance of asking questions throughout the entire process.

“You need things and you should ask for them, even if the outcome is not what you want, you should ask,” Hauad says. “That’s a big piece in any part of the process. You need to be proactive.”

First-generation students can also look for scholarships and aid that cover living expenses in addition to tuition and fees, as well as scholarships offered exclusively to first-gen students. Information on such scholarships can be found online through resources like UStrive and First Generation Scholars .

Elliott advises students to budget based on the financial breakdown given to them by their college, and then seek out and account for any hidden costs and fees .

“This can be asking your academic adviser if there are certain courses that have course fees. Those are often huge surprises that come up and can be $300 to $400, depending on what your major is,” she says.

Alongside academic advisers, current students of the same intended major can be a good resource for uncovering potentially hidden costs.

Elliott also recommends looking for on-campus resources such as food pantries , textbook banks and school-sponsored transportation, which can help bring down the cost of living.

Summer Bridge Programs and Other On-Campus Resources

Summer bridge programs, typically two to four weeks during the summer months, can help ease the transition to freshman year for first-gen students and families. These programs may invite students to an in-depth orientation, communicate with family members, provide academic advising and offer noncredit summer courses.

"The two colleges I've worked for have had those programs – you can go to Kenyon and do KEEP or STEM , you can go to UChicago and do CAAP . These are programs that are for students who historically are underrepresented at the college. You get to spend some time at that college in the summer before orientation, before move-in, and you get to learn the landscape of the school," says Hauad.

Once on campus, opportunities to connect and aid first-generation students are available at many institutions. Mentorship programs often pair first-generation students with faculty or upperclassmen that have similar backgrounds. Student-run organizations, like First Gen United at GWU, help connect new students to a larger cohort of first-generation students across their college or campus, and host social and academic events.

“I would definitely recommend reaching out and attending events that are specifically targeted for first-gen students, if they are available,” Elliott says. “If they’re not, that’s kind of where it can become really difficult. Especially if you go to a university or college that is traditionally high income – it can be isolating, it can be difficult.”

If programs for first-generation students are not offered at an institution, Rubinoff recommends finding other affinity groups such as student organizations and clubs, and connecting with faculty members.

Experts say it's common for first-generation students to feel out of place in higher education.

“It’s not that you’re the impostor. It’s that you didn’t have information that others did, sometimes very intentionally, systematically, and you haven’t gotten that information,” says Hauad. “And that’s where the comfort with asking questions will come in, making sure that you ask things of people – that you’re proactive.”

But for many first-gen students, especially those from lower-income backgrounds or who are geographically far from family, that feeling might also be reinforced from back home.

"Oftentimes, it's the parents who kind of are pressuring students to commute or come back home, drop out of school, get a job and support the family," Rubinoff says. "It's a difficult situation, but the investment in your education and the value of a college degree and being able to have that to show for your effort beyond long term pays for itself and more."

First-generation students who feel out of place on campus should remember that many other students are feeling the same way when they enter college, Hauad says.

“College is new to everyone. Everyone is learning something – you’re a first-gen, you’re international coming from another country, your parents went to a different college at a different time, you’re learning to navigate. You’re not the only one even if it feels that way.”

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I’m a First-Generation American. Here’s What Helped Me Make It to College

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My father is an immigrant from Mexico who decided to sacrifice his home to give me a better life. He grew up with the notion that the United States had one of the best education systems in the world and he saw that education as my ticket to participate in the pursuit of happiness.

When he moved to America, he chose Flushing, Queens, in New York City—which this year became an epicenter of the COVID-19 crisis—because the public elementary school was highly regarded for its academics and safety. But navigating the public school system was extremely difficult, marked with constant reminders that the system was not designed for students like me. These difficulties and inequities have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis and will continue to impact students if they remain unaddressed.

My father always lived with the fear that if people found out I was the son of a Mexican immigrant, I would be ostracized in the classroom. From the first day of elementary school, he prayed that no one would bother me for being Mexican American, and that I would learn English quickly so I could defend against attacks on my identity. I have gone through all my academic career fighting the stereotypes that Mexicans are all “lazy” and “undocumented.”

I have experienced an interesting duality as a Mexican American, one that has played a formative role in my education and development. I have two languages, two countries, two identities. I learn in English but live in Spanish. I am Mexican at home but American at school.

I first became aware of this code-switching in middle school. The ways I interacted with my white, wealthy peers were far different from with my Latinx friends. I understood that English held more power than Spanish. Many people associate an accent or different regional variants of English to be unsophisticated, so I worked to be perceived as “articulate” and “well-spoken” at my local elementary and middle schools. In fact, it was my attention to coming across as “articulate” that helped me get into the high school that I attended.

I wanted to attend a high-achieving high school, but I did not perform well on the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) and therefore failed to be admitted into one of New York City’s specialized high schools. But the principal of Millennium High School, a selective public high school in Manhattan, offered me a spot—and gave me a shot. Principal Colin McEvoy saw more than the student who failed to get into a SHSAT school. He saw a well-spoken kid who was determined to find a school that would have the resources to achieve his goal of graduating and going to college. My father had sacrificed everything so I could go to college, and I saw Millennium as the means to get there.

Not every student can have the same opportunity I did, but every school community and educator can take certain steps to support students who feel at odds within a system that was not designed for them. Here are three steps that will help students like me:

1. Play an active role in their students’ lives outside of academics. While this is important during “normal” times, it is even more important now during the global pandemic when students are worried about their family, cut off from friends, and unsure what the future holds. Each student should be assigned a teacher who also serves as adviser, an additional adult figure in their life to help guide and assist them—even if this is done virtually. At Millennium, each student in the beginning of the high school experience is assigned an adviser and meets in advisory class three days a week to complete college-preparatory activities and check in with their adviser about academics and their personal life.

2. Acknowledge how political developments may affect students. Schools should provide students who may be affected by a policy decision with the tools to protect their education. I have many friends who have been affected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy and had to go through the complex process of ensuring they could study in the country without their parents. This June, the Supreme Court rejected the Trump administration’s efforts to rescind DACA, but immigrants’ fight for protection under the law is far from over. It is important for teachers to understand how politics can impact the well-being of students—and how the fear of those impacts often take a toll on students’ academics.

3. Offer guidance on how to apply to college and options aside from college. My former high school requires every student to meet with the college guidance counselor at least twice, once each in their junior and senior years. As the first in my family to apply to college, these meetings were essential for me to figure out the application process, as well as for navigating financial aid and scholarships. It was only with this guidance that I applied for a Posse Foundation scholarship and earned a full scholarship to Middlebury College—opportunities that I would not have even known about otherwise.

As the COVID-19 vaccine gets rolled out more widely, there remain a lot of unknowns in higher education and in many families’ financial futures. Educators can help students explore alternate opportunities during this difficult time, including community college, internships, apprenticeships, gap years, or service-learning options.

Students of marginalized communities are both fighters and academics. Going through the American education system is difficult, and there are active ways that schools and educators can help their students navigate it. This is not a matter of doing the work for the students but acknowledging that there are several challenges present in students’ lives—challenges that may be exacerbated during a pandemic—and helping them navigate them.

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First-generation college students face unique challenges

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April 25, 2022

About 40% of UC-Santa Barbara students represent the first generation in their family to attend college—something my university is proud of. Often, first-generation students come from low-income backgrounds, but are they really all that different from other students who grew up in poverty but are not the first in their families to attend college? At the national level, how do first-gen students fare in college, and how are they supported?

In this post, I first provide some basic, data-based facts about these students. Unless otherwise mentioned, all our data comes from the Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Survey conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics. This survey has been conducted every eight years since 1990, and it collects information from beginning college students at the end of their first year, and then three and six years after starting college. For this post, I look only at students enrolled in four-year schools, and “first-gen” means neither parent has a four-year degree. I conclude with some discussion of evidence and reminders that “first-gen” and “low-income” are not synonymous labels for college students.

Fact 1: First-gen students are now a sizable, stable population among college enrollment.

The first fact is that neither college-entering rates nor college-graduating rates for first-gen students have changed much in recent years (see Figure 1 below). But note that they decreased drastically in the ‘90s—partially due to the increased bachelor’s attainment rate in the U.S. in the ‘60s and ‘70s—leading to more college-goers having at least one college-educated parent. Today, over 40% of entering students are first-gen, as are about one-third of graduating students. (In Figure 1, the label “Class of 2015” means students who would have graduated in 2015 if they spent four years earning their bachelor’s. As is standard, the calculation of graduation rates allows up to six years for graduation.)

Fact 2: First-gen students disproportionately enroll in less-selective colleges.

There is a very striking pattern when one looks at first-gen enrollment across college selectivity levels.

In open-admission schools, two-thirds of students are first-gen. Contrast this with “very selective” schools, where less than one-third of students are first-gen. (As an aside, the high proportion of first-gen students at my large, R1 university appears to be something of an anomaly.) The fact that very selective schools have lower fractions of first-gen students is likely not surprising as these schools are (a) more expensive and (b) require more savvy and resources on how to get admitted (i.e., guidance from parents). Unfortunately, as you will see next, outcomes for first-gen students are better precisely at those very selective schools where they are least likely to attend.

Fact 3: First-gen students complete college at lower rates than their peers.

Most first-gen students who attend a very or moderately selective school graduate, while the large majority of first-gen students who attend an open-admissions school do not. Of course, the more selective schools cherry-pick students likely to graduate, where open admission schools take all comers who meet basic qualifications. However, the same cherry-picking-or-not distinction is true for non-first-gen students. At very selective schools, family educational background is associated with a modest difference in graduation rates (10 percentage points). In contrast, the graduation rate for first-gen students at open-admission schools is below half the rate for non-first-gen by a gap of 23 percentage points.

First-gen students are different from low-income students

I dug a little deeper into graduation rates by running regressions predicting whether a student graduated on the basis of both first-gen status and parents’ income. First-gen students tend to come from lower-income families (average family income of $58,000 by my calculations) than do non-first-gen students (average family income of $120,000). Perhaps the differences in graduation rates are explained by these large differences in family income?

The first lesson from the analysis is that, while income matters, first-gen status matters even when controlling for income. Holding all else equal, I find that first-gen students are 16% less likely overall to graduate than are non-first-gen students with equal parental income. So being a first-gen student really does mean something more than just coming from a low-income family. This finding resonates with other studies that have looked at the experiences of first-gen students. (For further reading, see Terenzini et al. , Engle , and Engle and Tinto .)

The second lesson from the regressions is that the apparently varying first-gen/non-first-gen gaps in graduation rate by college selectivity—the ones shown in Figure 3 above—are mostly about the same size after controlling for family income. With these models, I find that first-gen students are about 16 percentage points less likely to graduate than other students at institutions of varying levels of selectivity. The exception is very selective institutions, where the first-gen difference is only about 7 percentage points.

First-gen students warrant more support than they get

I also examined financial aid. Interestingly, public universities give more financial aid to first-gen students while private universities give more to non-first-gen students. (Data for this question comes from the 2016 Baccalaureate and Beyond Longitudinal Study, which is a little more current than the Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Survey.)  The survey data shows first-gen students in public universities get about $5,100 in need-based aid and $10,100 total in their senior year, while non-first-gen students get about $3,200 in need-based aid and $8,700 overall. In private universities, first-gen students get about $8,900 in need-based aid and $19,400 overall, while non-first-gen students get about $8,800 in need-based aid and $22,000 overall.

In other words, public universities give first-gen students more need-based aid than non-first-gen students receive, presumably reflecting income differences. Merit-based aid is about equal. In contrast, at private universities, non-first-gen students get about $2,600 more financial aid than do first-gen students. What’s happening at private universities, presumably, is that non-first-gen students are competed for with considerably more “merit-based’ aid.

Prior research suggests that increased financial aid is particularly important in helping first-gen students succeed, though other academic supports could help as well. Angrist, Autor, and Pallais conducted a field experiment that randomly assigned aid to Nebraska high school graduates to study the effect of merit aids on college degree completion. They found that the estimated effect for first-gen students is twice as large as the estimates for students from more-educated families. Further, Angrist, Lang and, Oreopoulos found that a combination of financial aid for higher grades (with enhanced academic support services) was especially effective for first-gen students, but only for women as it had little apparent effect for men.

In summary, first-gen students do well at selective institutions, but the less selective institutions that most attend haven’t found a way to get graduation rates up compared to rates for non-first-gen students. Part of the difference in outcomes is due to first-gen students coming from lower-income families. Income differences don’t explain everything though. The disadvantages of coming from a family where you are a pioneer in higher education are real.

The author is grateful to UC-Santa Barbara undergraduates and Gretler Fellows Leshan Xu and Karen Zhao for research assistance.

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First-Generation College Student: An Expert’s Guide

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In this article, Admissions Expert KiKi explains what being a first-generation college student means. Kiki covers what first-generation college students need to know during the application process and how they can find resources to help them succeed in higher education. Want to learn more about planning for the future and the college application process in general?  Sign up to work with an admissions coach 1-on-1 .


When I submitted my application to Princeton, I was the first in my family to apply to college. Uncertainties overwhelmed me: How would I pay for college? What resources existed for students from my background? How could I succeed in a place I knew nothing about? Years later, I’m an Admissions Expert at and am also celebrating my admission to the University of Cambridge as a Marshall Scholar. Now, I reflect on those anxious times with relief. Despite each fear, pressing anxiety, and worrisome doubt, I turned out more than okay—I excelled.

In this article, we’ll look at definitions of “first-generation college students.” Often, the phrase is associated with “low-income college students.” Don’t worry, I’ll break down what these labels individually mean. As an aside, first-generation and/or low-income students are often referred to as FLi or FGLI students.

Next, I’ll share scholarship opportunities for students from FLi backgrounds. I’ll also discuss some campus resources to keep an eye out for as you compile a college list. I’ve largely gathered these resources from personal experience and from the experiences of other FLi students I built community with.

Given the flexibility of the FLi label, not every aspect of this article and advice may apply to you.

Who is FLi?

Before I attempt to establish what a first-generation college student is, I’ll first readily acknowledge the term’s ambiguity. Colleges and programs often have competing definitions for who counts as FLi. For example,  Northwestern University  defines first-generation college students as the “first in their families to graduate from a four-year college or university.” The Center for First-Generation Student Success acknowledges that it’s not that simple. In fact, they admit that this  definition  may need to be expanded to consider students whose parents attended college outside of the U.S. and/or those who weren’t raised by their biological parents. One  study  even found that “depending on the definition used, the percentage of first-generation students varied from 22% to 77% within a sample size.”

Who is a first-generation college student?

Colleges and programs often have differing criteria for who may be considered a first-generation college student. More broadly, as defined by  Brown University , a first-generation college student is “any student who may self-identify as not having prior exposure to or knowledge of navigating higher institutions such as Brown.”

A first-generation college student is not necessarily a student who was born outside of the country. In the admissions world, we call these students “international students.” A student can, however, be both an international and a first-generation student.

Relatedly, I’m often asked if a student whose parents have international college degrees is considered first-generation. This varies across institutions. However, it generally depends on certain factors. Did the parents graduate from Oxford or another top-ranking foreign institution? Do those international degrees aid that student’s parents in supporting their family? If the answer is yes to any of the above, I tend to believe such students do not count as first-generation college students. However, if a student’s parents have non-transferable or unrecognized international degrees, they may count as a first-generation college student.

In general, parents function as the marker as to whether you’re first-generation. Siblings’ degrees and the education level of non-immediate family members usually don’t matter. An exception to this rule is if you have little or no contact with your parent who has a college degree. In that case, you can likely self-identify as a first-generation student.

Who is considered a low-income college student?

Most colleges define low-income college applicants as those who qualify for  Pell Grants –federal grants given to applicants with family incomes below $50,000. In nearly all cases, these students qualify for need-based scholarships wherever they apply. For some schools, especially selective universities like the Ivy Leagues, incomes higher than $50,000 can also qualify for generous need-based scholarships. At Princeton, for example, the university will cover the tuition, college fee, and most of the room and board for any student whose family income is less than $100,000. Princeton will even award  full tuition  to a family earning as high as $160,000 per year. In other words, the “low-income” label changes depending on the school.

To dive even deeper into financial aid and how to pay for college, check out some of our other CollegeAdvisor Admissions Experts like our article  Harvard Financial Aid Guide: How I Paid for College .

The  New York Times  shares that first-generation and/or low-income are terms often used as a “proxy for underprivileged”–a way for colleges to promote education as a tool for social mobility. In other words, it’s assumed that “the student [and their] parents have little or no experience navigating the academic, financial and cultural barriers to higher education.” The FLi/FGLI label functions as a shorthand for the immense hurdles that some first-generation college students/low-income students face in higher education. Keep this in mind when considering whether you identify with these communities.

High School Resources for First-Generation College Students

Pre-college programs – juniors and sophomores.

I strongly recommend all FLi students apply to free pre-college programs before the college application cycle begins. During my junior year of high school, I attended the  LEDA Scholars program . This pre-college program changed my life. Not only could I access a vast of resources, but LEDA helped me edit my college essays and raise my standardized test scores. LEDA also introduced me to a larger community of similarly disadvantaged students.

LEDA isn’t the only pre-college program of its kind. For humanities students, check out  TASP  for juniors and  TASS  for sophomores (the latter serves students interested in Critical Race Studies). For students interested in STEM, MIT offers the  MITES  program, which supports minority students interested in the sciences. And all three of these renowned, prestigious programs are completely free!

In many states, including  North Carolina  and  New Jersey , you can also find funded Governor’s Schools for academically-gifted students. Lastly, look out for national programs like  Upward Bound  with local chapters supporting FLi high school students.

This list is far from complete, but it’s a good start for researching pre-college programs.

First-Generation College Student Scholarships – Seniors

Many scholarships support first-generation, low-income students. I personally won scholarships through the  Ron Brown Scholars Program  for Black-American students ($40,000), the  KPMG Scholarship  for young women ($40,000), and the  National Horatio Alger Scholarship  for students who’ve overcome hardship ($25,000). Other scholarships I strongly recommend researching include the  Coca-Cola Scholarship  ($50,000), the  Jack Kent Cooke Scholarship  (full-ride), and the  Gates Millennium Scholarship  (full-ride).

These national scholarships tend to operate on a general basis. This means they don’t specify academic/athletic interests, local regions, or specific cultural backgrounds. However, some scholarships assist students with specific interests or experiences. These include the  Hispanic Scholarship Fund  and the  Heisman High School Scholarship  for student-athletes.

Something I always underscore to FLi students is that while scholarships are important, admission to an elite school will almost always guarantee a full ride. Practically all of the Ivy+ schools–ranging from Harvard to Stanford to UChicago–meet 100% of demonstrated need in the form of grants. Though these schools are unquestionably difficult to get into, the promise of full financial aid is yet another compelling reason to aim high when applying for college.

College Resources for First-Generation Students

At Princeton, I was heavily involved in the first-generation, low-income community. I served as a co-president of the  FLi Council  and co-chaired the national 1vyG conference, which celebrates FLi students from selective universities. If it’s important to you to have a FLi community at your school, look for colleges with student organizations that uplift FLi students. Many universities now have centers and offices dedicated to FLi students–Brown has the Undocumented, First-Generation College and Low-Income ( U-FLi ) Student Center, UPenn has the  FGLi Program , and Princeton has the  Emma Bloomberg Center for Access and Opportunity . Some schools even have fly-in programs for FLi students that occur the summer before freshman year commences. These programs allow FLi students to explore campus and familiarize themselves with college-level coursework. At Princeton, I participated in such a program called the Freshman Scholars Institute ( FSI ).

Programs, student groups, and centers like these can deeply benefit first-generation college students as they transition into the higher education space. When creating your college list, make sure to check if the schools you’re applying to have similar resources.

To summarize, a first-generation and/or low-income college student is often one whose immediate family has not had access to institutions of higher learning. Given the power and privilege that a college degree can afford, colleges assume that families lacking such degrees are generally more disadvantaged, both socially and economically. As a result, it can be the case that first-generation students may struggle initially upon arriving at college campuses-especially elite ones—and that obtaining a college degree could change the course of their/their families’ lives.

It is important to note though that being first-generation is by no means an indicator of a student’s ability to succeed in and after college. For example, Michelle Obama, John Lewis, Michelle Kwan, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg are all first-generation college graduates.

As a reminder, many colleges devote additional resources to recruit FLi students onto their campuses. There are also ample pre-college programs, scholarships, and even institutionalized centers dedicated to uplifting and supporting FLi students through their undergraduate experience. Such resources have irrevocably changed the course of my life, and I wouldn’t be where I am without the support I received along the way.

first generation college graduate essay

This article on resources for first-generation students was written by senior advisor  Kiara “KiKi” Gilbert , Princeton University ‘21. To get help with your college applications from KiKi or other  Admissions Experts , click here to schedule a free meeting with one of our Admissions Specialists. During your meeting, our team will discuss your profile and help you find targeted ways to increase your admissions odds at top schools. We’ll also answer any questions and discuss how can support you in the college application process.

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First-generation college graduates lag behind their peers on key economic outcomes, college graduates without a college-educated parent have lower incomes and less wealth, on average, than those with a parent who has a bachelor’s or higher degree.

Pew Research Center conducted this analysis to understand more about how the educational background of parents is linked to their children’s labor market and economic outcomes. Much has been written about the impact parental education has on children’s educational attainment, but less is known about the longer-term impact on economic well-being. Two surveys collected by the Federal Reserve are used to illuminate this relationship. The larger and more recent  Survey of Household and Economic Decisionmaking  (SHED) collects information on the type of college the adult attended and has a battery of questions on educational debt. The analysis examines adults ages 22 to 59, of which there are 7,429 unweighted respondents in the 2019 SHED. The SHED is not designed to precisely measure economic outcomes such as income and wealth. The well-known  Survey of Consumer Finances  (SCF) is the gold-standard for measurement of household wealth, and the 2019 collection ascertained the respondent’s parental levels of education. The SCF also has information on inheritances received and expected. This allows us to explore the relationship between the economic outcomes of the head of the household and parental education and some of the ways in which college-educated parents are able to transmit their wealth to their offspring. 

In this report, references to  college graduates  or people who are college educated comprise those with a bachelor’s degree or more.  Some college  includes those with an associate degree, certificate, or technical degree and those who attended college but did not obtain a degree.

A  first-generation college graduate  refers to a person who has completed at least a bachelor’s degree but does not have a parent who has completed at least a bachelor’s degree. A  second-generation college graduate  has at least one parent who has completed at least a bachelor’s degree.

Net worth  or  wealth  is the difference between the value of what the household owns (assets) and what it owes (debts).

References to  White  and  Black  adults include only those who are not Hispanic and identify as only one race.  Hispanics  are of any race.

first generation college graduate essay

Even as the cost of college  continues to rise , with  student debt levels climbing along with it, the long-term  financial benefits  of a four-year college degree remain indisputable. Adults who have attained at least a bachelor’s degree have better economic outcomes, on average, than adults who have not completed college. They tend to earn more and  accumulate more wealth . 

But the economic benefits are not equally felt among college graduates. A new Pew Research Center analysis of data from the Federal Reserve Board finds that first-generation college graduates are not on equal footing with their peers who have college-educated parents. Among household heads who have at least a bachelor’s degree, those who have a parent with a bachelor’s degree or more education have substantially higher incomes and more wealth than those who are the first generation in their family to graduate from college.

Adults who have at least one college-educated parent are far more likely to complete college compared with adults with less-educated parents. Some 70% of adults ages 22 to 59 with at least one parent who has a bachelor’s degree or more education have completed a bachelor’s degree themselves. Only 26% of their peers who do not have a college-educated parent have a bachelor’s degree. 

Scholars and higher education administrators have focused on the many challenges facing students whose parents have never attended college. 1 Enrolling in U.S. higher education is a complicated multistep process that includes completing  college prep coursework  in high school and navigating the admissions and financial aid process. Whether labelled “college knowledge” or “cultural capital,” students whose parents have their own experience and success in how to go to college have  greater access  to postsecondary education. Once on campus, students whose parents have not attended college  are less likely to complete  a degree.

For adults who do complete a bachelor’s degree, financial outcomes are strongly linked to parental educational attainment. The median household income for households headed by a first-generation college graduate ($99,600) is substantially lower than the income for households headed by a second-generation graduate ($135,800). 

The median wealth of households headed by a first-generation college graduate ($152,000) also substantially trails that of households headed by a second-generation college graduate ($244,500). The higher household income of the latter facilitates saving and wealth accumulation. The gap also reflects differences in how individuals finance their education. Second-generation college graduates tend to come from  more affluent families . First-generation college graduates are more likely to incur education debt than those with a college-educated parent. They also have greater amounts of outstanding education debt.

The benefits of having a college-educated parent don’t necessarily extend to those who don’t graduate from college themselves. Among adults who have not graduated from college, there is no substantial economic boost associated with having a parent with at least a bachelor’s degree. 

Adults with college-educated parents are much more likely than others to have graduated from college themselves

Adults with parents who are college graduates are more likely to attain a bachelor’s degree

The likelihood of an adult completing a bachelor’s degree increases as their parents’ educational attainment rises. Among adults ages 22 to 59 whose parents have no education beyond high school, 20% have completed at least a bachelor’s degree. 2 Among those who have at least one parent who has completed some college, 34% have finished a bachelor’s degree. The share rises substantially for adults with one parent who has at least a bachelor’s degree, 60% of whom have completed college. Among adults whose parents have both finished college, 82% have at least a bachelor’s degree.

This pattern is consistent across demographic groups. Among White adults, those with at least one parent who has a bachelor’s degree or more education are more than twice as likely to be college graduates themselves as those who don’t have a college-educated parent (72% vs. 29%). Black adults who have a parent with at least a bachelor’s degree are also much more likely to have finished college than Black adults who don’t have a college-educated parent (57% vs. 21%). For Hispanic adults, the pattern is similar: 58% of those with a college-educated parent have a bachelor’s degree themselves. By comparison, only 15% of those who don’t have a college-educated parent are bachelor’s degree holders. 

The educational gains associated with having a college-educated parent are widespread

Among both men and women, those with a parent who has obtained at least a bachelor’s degree are much more likely to have graduated from college than those whose parents did not attain at least bachelor’s degree.

And while younger adults are more likely to have completed at least a bachelor’s degree than older adults, the advantage associated with having a college-educated parent is similar across age groups. For example, among 22- to 29-year-olds, those with a college-educated parent are more than twice as likely to have completed a bachelor’s degree as those without a college-educated parent (72% vs. 28%). The pattern is similar among 45- to 59-year-olds: 63% of those with a college-educated parent have a bachelor’s degree compared with 24% of those without a college-educated parent.

The type of higher education institution adults attended differs according to their parents’ educational attainment

Research has shown that students who initially attend a four-year college or university are more likely to complete a bachelor’s degree than those who attend a two-year institution. 4 Adults who have completed a bachelor’s degree tend to  earn substantially more  than those with some college.

For those who attended college, the type of school they went to varies by parental education

In addition, the selectivity of the college an individual attends differs based on their parents’ educational attainment. Among those who attended college, adults with a parent who has a bachelor’s degree or more education are more likely than those without a college-educated parent to have attended a “more selective” school (51% vs. 23%, respectively). By contrast, those who don’t have a parent with a four-year college degree are much more likely to have attended a less selective college – 54% vs. 24% of those with a college-educated parent. 6 Previous research has shown that the admissions  selectivity of the institution  impacts the likelihood of  completion.

The household incomes of first-generation college graduates lag those of other graduates

Beyond a boost in educational attainment, adults who have a college-educated parent enjoy, on average, better economic returns. 

Among household heads with at least a bachelor’s degree, household incomes are higher for those with a parent who is a college graduate

Households headed by an adult age 22 to 59 who has a parent with at least a bachelor’s degree had a median adjusted household income in 2019 of $100,900 – significantly above those headed by an adult whose parents lack a bachelor’s degree ($65,200). This partly reflects that the former household heads are more likely to have attained a bachelor’s degree than the latter.

The income advantage of having a parent who has at least a bachelor’s degree, sometimes dubbed the “ parent premium ,” is largely confined to college-educated household heads. The median household income for household heads who have a bachelor’s degree and a college-educated parent was $135,800 in 2019. By comparison, household heads with a bachelor’s degree whose parents did not graduate from college had a substantially lower median income – $99,600.

Among households headed by those with some college education, the difference in household income between those who have a parent with at least a bachelor’s degree ($70,500) and those who don’t ($67,000) is modest. The pattern is similar for household heads with a high school diploma or less education.

College grads with a parent who is a college graduate are more likely to complete an advanced degree

To be sure, there are differences in the demographic composition of households headed by first- and second-generation college graduates that may account for some of the differences in economic outcomes for these two groups. For example, Black and Hispanic college graduates, who tend to have  lower median incomes  than their White counterparts, make up a larger share of first-generation than second-generation graduates. Still, parental education matters even when taking race and ethnicity into account. A large income gap by parental education is apparent when the analysis is restricted to  White families .  Additional recent research  finds that parental education matters for the earnings of Black and Hispanic college graduates.

The household income gap is not due to differences in marital status, as first-generation college graduates are as likely as other college graduates to be married. 

Second-generation college graduates have substantially more wealth than first-generation college graduates

Among household heads with at least a bachelor’s degree, wealth is higher for those with a college graduate parent

Similar to household income, there is a substantial wealth gap between households headed by a first-generation college graduate versus those headed by a second-generation college graduate, and, again, the difference is particularly pronounced among those with a bachelor’s degree. Wealth is different than the household’s income stream. Wealth is the value of all the assets owned by the household (cars, homes, financial assets, businesses, etc.) minus outstanding debts owed by the household. Wealth is valuable because it can be used to tide the household over if its income is interrupted (due to layoff, illness, or variable earnings) as well as fund retirement. It can also be used to pay for a child’s  college expenses .

The wealth disadvantage of households headed by a first-generation college graduate partly reflect their lower household income.  Higher household income  makes it easier for the household to save and accumulate wealth.

College graduates with a parent who is also a college graduate are less likely to incur education debt

Educational debt is another factor that likely contributes to the wealth gap. First-generation college graduates are more likely to have incurred debt for their education than second-generation college graduates. The amounts outstanding also tend to be greater. 

Parental education does not influence the incidence and levels of education debt among adults who have not finished at least a bachelor’s degree. For example, adults with some college are roughly equally likely to report borrowing for their education regardless of their parents’ education levels.

Inheritance boosts the wealth levels of children of college graduates

Households headed by a person with a parent who is a college graduate are more likely to receive an inheritance

Aside from paying for their college, another  way in which college-educated parents can boost their children’s wealth is by directly transferring it to them, i.e., giving them an inheritance. Again, the benefit of having a college-educated parent is much more apparent if the child completes at least a bachelor’s degree. Differences in parental bequest behavior are modest for some adults who do not finish college.

One-in-five household heads who has a parent with at least a bachelor’s degree report receiving an inheritance, trust, or substantial gift, in comparison to 14% of heads of less-educated parents. For households headed by a college graduate, 23% of those with a parent who is also college-educated have received an inheritance. By comparison, 14% of those without a college-educated parent report getting an inheritance.

Parental education is related to the inheritance the household expects to receive

Although some people haven’t received an inheritance, they may expect to at some point in the future.

Household heads who have a parent who has completed a bachelor’s degree (27%) are about twice as likely as heads without a college-educated parent (12%) to expect to receive an inheritance at a later date.

Roughly a third (32%) of heads who are second-generation college graduates expect to receive an inheritance. Only 15% of heads who are first-generation college graduates expect an inheritance.

Parental education also influences the size of the inheritance expected. The median expected inheritance is $250,000 if the head has a parent who has finished at least a bachelor’s degree, this compares with $100,000 for heads who don’t have a college-educated parent.

  • These students are sometimes referred to as “first-generation college students.” In this report, “first generation” adults refer to the larger group who do not have a parent who has  completed  college. ↩
  • Very few adults complete a bachelor’s degree before age 22. The number of respondents in the surveys collected by the Federal Reserve is somewhat limited. An upper age range around 60 conforms to practice in other intergenerational studies. ↩
  • This pattern is also apparent in a recent  National Center for Education Statistics  longitudinal study. Among high school students who were sophomores in 2002 and had enrolled in postsecondary education by 2012, 26% of those who had a parent who had completed at least a bachelor’s degree first attended a public two-year college. If the parent had some college, 42% attended public two-year institutions. If neither parent had attended college, 46% first attended these institutions. ↩
  • The  National Center for Education Statistics  recently released educational outcomes for students who began their postsecondary education in 2012. About 59% of those who started at four-year institutions had a bachelor’s degree six years later compared with 11% of those starting at a two-year institution. ↩
  • Respondents are not self-reporting the level, control, and admissions selectivity of the college attended. The respondent reports the name and location of the college attended and then the Federal Reserve assigns the college characteristics using administrative sources. ↩
  • Admissions selectivity is based on the variable  ACTCAT  and refers to the typical ACT or SAT score of a recent entering class at a college or university. Less selective or inclusive institutions include those with open admissions (typically only requiring the applicant to have completed high school) as well as community colleges. ↩
  • Published Census household income figures are not adjusted for household size. ↩
  • Figures based on household heads age 22 to 59. ↩
  • This probably understates the wealth disadvantage of first-generation college graduates, as they are about four years older than second generation college graduates (41 years vs. 37 years) and wealth tends to increase with age at least until retirement. ↩
  • Education debt largely was in the form of student loans but also could be incurred on credit cards and home equity lines of credit and other forms of debt. ↩
  • NCES reports on the financial aid packages of 2011-12  first-time postsecondary students . Students who had a parent with at least a bachelor’s degree (44%) were less likely than other students to have a student loan (48%). ↩
  • The Survey of Household Economics and Decisionmaking inquires about outstanding education debt in ranges rather than exact dollar amounts. ↩

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first generation college graduate essay

Who is Considered a First Generation College Student?

first generation college graduate essay

When applying to college, there are some phrases that you’ll hear that seem clear, but upon second thought may be up for interpretation. Some students wonder if they qualify as “low income”, others aren’t sure how to answer questions about race, and some might wonder if they count as a first generation college student. 

In this post, we’ll take a closer look at the term “first generation college student,” discussing who qualifies for this designation, where this term is used on your application, and whether it really matters. Keep reading to learn more. 

How is First Generation College Student Defined?

The Department of Education, in the Higher Education Act of 1965 and 1998 , clearly defines a first generation college student as a student both of whose parents did not complete a bachelor’s degree, or in the case of students who live with and are supported by only one parent, a student whose only such parent did not complete a bachelor’s degree.

This may seem fairly clearcut, but it’s important to know that it is not always up to the Department of Education to decide whether a student qualifies as a first generation college student. Some colleges have their own definitions of this term. 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.  

In these cases, the college will almost always clearly define the term within the question, but if you aren’t sure, you can always contact the admissions office and ask about their specific definition. Always be certain that you know the exact definition as used by the college, scholarship, or other program to which you’re applying. 

Where Does a College Application Ask About First Generation Status?

On most college applications, there is no specific question asking if you are a first generation college student. Instead, there are general questions about your parents’ level of education. On the Common App, for example, there is a drop down menu under the family section that asks you to indicate the level of education of Parent 1 and/or Parent 2. Many college applications also have a field for you to choose the college(s) that your parents attended.

Using this information, college admissions committees will decide for themselves if you qualify as a first generation college student under their definition. That being said, if your life has been impacted by your status as a first generation college student, this can make a great topic for a personal statement or other essay. In these cases, your status will be clear through your own words. 

Does Being a First Generation College Student Impact Your Shot at Acceptance?

Being a first generation college student absolutely plays a role in college admissions. Many colleges now participate in a holistic approach to admissions, meaning that it’s not just what a student accomplishes that matters—it’s also the context of those accomplishments and who that student is as a person. 

Students who are first generation often face unique challenges that make their accomplishments even more impressive. When a college knows that you are a first generation student, your achievements may set you even further apart.

What Do First-Gen Students Need to Know About Applying to College and Beyond?

First generation college students should know that their status as such makes them stand-out in a positive way during the application process. It is nothing to be ashamed of or to hide. Instead, it’s something to be proud of and something to emphasize, if anything. Colleges value diversity, and first generation students bring a unique perspective to their schools. 

In addition, there are specific resources available to first generation college students. Many scholarships or grants are earmarked just for first-gen students, helping to ease financial burdens. The benefits don’t end at finances, though. There are often specific programs at colleges to help guide first-gen students throughout their college years. For example, at Duke, the 1G Network is a group of undergraduate, first-generation college students who meet regularly for support and knowledge development. Harvard offers a First Generation Student Union to provide resources, mentorship, and support specifically to first-gen students.

As you create a college list, keep an eye out for schools that provide resources for first generation college students. Not only might these schools help support you as a student; they are also schools that clearly value your experience and want to have students like you on campus. 

Resources for First Generation College Students

To learn more about how your status as a first generation college student may impact your application, check out these CollegeVine posts:

How Does Being A First-Generation College Student Affect My Application? 

Resources for First-Generation College Applicants

Will I Fit In at College as a First-Generation Student?

Approaching the Cost of Visiting Colleges as a First-Generation Student

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First-gen Essays from Campus


Major: Journalism

I came to Richmond to play for the football team and live the dream of being a Division-1 football player. I quickly realized that this lifestyle was not for me, and I left the team after one season. Once I was removed from the support system of the team, I began to understand what it meant to be a first-generation student and the problems that come with it. My car broke down and I had trouble finding friends because I was intimidated by the apparent comfort that everyone else seemed to have. I felt as if I was the only student who wasn’t in a fraternity, and I felt that I dressed differently than everyone else. I did not feel as if I belonged at Richmond. Soon enough, though, I got connected with some professors in the journalism department who guided me toward opportunities that changed my life. I got involved with the student newspaper and met people who had similar interests as I did. The biggest thing I learned was that I do belong at Richmond, and that although it may seem that everyone else has it figured out, they don’t.

Sunni Brown

Assistant Director of Media and Public Relations, University Communications

I was the first in my family (of seven older siblings) to receive a college degree. Though my parents were supportive when I expressed interest in going to college, I basically had to navigate the process solo. I sought out counselors, set up campus visits, and talked with friends’ older siblings who were in college. I had to make my own way among family members who didn’t really understand higher education — let alone applying for financial aid, housing, etc. It was a tough but rewarding process, and walking across the stage after graduating from a small liberal arts college is among the proudest moments of my life.

Kevin Butterfield

Kevin Butterfield

University Librarian, Boatwright Library

I was the first in my family to attend college. Leaving a small town for a Big Ten university with 30,000 students gave me a big case of culture shock. The vital and supportive relationships I built during that first year carried me through my four years there.

Myles Estey, ’17

Major: Business Administration, Management Concentration

Minor: Healthcare Studies

My experience as a first-generation student has allowed for personal development people my age don’t typically experience. My "unfortunate" experience is something I cherish because it has shaped me into the person I am today. I know what it’s like to be raised in a single-parent household while receiving government assistance, but I also know that my socioeconomic status doesn’t limit my goals and aspirations. I’m motivated to be more than just a statistic, and by attending the University of Richmond, I think I have already accomplished that goal.

Andy Gurka

Andrew Gurka

Director, Office of New Student and Transition Programs

I grew up humbly, raised by a single mom who worked hard, always emphasized education, and was my biggest cheerleader. For me, college was a means to an end — my sights were always on the end (a diploma) and not on the journey of college. My days consisted of class, work at the library shelving books, class, grabbing some lunch and studying, class, going to work giving a campus tour, dinner, hanging out with some friends, and going back to my residence hall to study.

My support structures on campus were the staff whose offices I worked in during my four years at college – all of the “second mothers” that I had — like Maxine, the administrative assistant in the admission office, and others around campus who watched out for me, encouraged me, and helped me navigate the university structures and processes.

Amy Howard

Senior Administrative Officer, Equity and Community

When I attended the hall social my first week at Davidson College I met women who had attended elite private schools and others who had spent the summer at camps where they sailed, hiked, and more. These were foreign experiences to me. I began to worry that I was already behind and lacking what I needed to succeed in college. I decided at the moment to work even harder, to dedicate myself to learning and exploring, and to keep an open mind. This mindset contributed to what turned out to be an amazing, transformative four years.

Chris Klein

Chris Klein

Associate Director of Study Abroad, Office of International Education

I grew up in a very small town and graduated with 95 other students. My family was supportive of my plans to go to college and I did my studies at a large state university. I went to the advising center when I had questions about choosing classes and to the career office as graduation approached. I generally got good advice but I now see that much of it assumed that I knew what I was doing, and that was not always true. What I needed most was a basic explanation on how to make choices so that my college years would be as helpful as possible in getting me to the life I wanted. And I specifically needed to hear this from someone who understood the “culture” of college-educated people, yet could explain it effectively to someone like me who was not yet a member of that group. I never really found that kind of “cultural informant.” I changed my major several times and missed opportunities for internships and study abroad because I was still trying to figure out the basics of college for myself. My advice to other first-generation college students is to never be afraid to ask questions, big or small, of the faculty or staff. Many people in jobs like mine, and especially those of us who have shared our stories, are more than willing to talk with you about the world of college and what comes after.

Mari Lee Mifsud

Mari Lee Mifsud

Associate Professor of Rhetoric

Director of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies

Department of Rhetoric and Communication Studies

I was the first person in my immediate family to go to college. The story of why is a long and hard one, so I’ll stay focused on the experience. School and learning was for me a life raft and going to college a survival dream come true. When I arrived, I was in awe — of the freedom, the beauty and dignity of the space, the abundance of the library, the opportunities to study and learn and become human. That’s how much power I gave to college. I saw it as the way to become more human. I studied all the time, and I had a great social life. Which meant I never slept and hardly ate. Exercise was not even on my radar. Who has time for such things, I thought! Until my body gave out. I had to change and heal. So I did. I scheduled my classes in a smarter way to allow for more "down" time. I ended my over-extension in extra-curriculars. I kept a disciplined sleep, exercise, and eating schedule, as disciplined as my studies. And I learned to take care of myself, to avoid being a supernova — burning hot and fast and brilliantly, then quickly burning out! I am still living this lesson though, as I love school so much. Being a professor is a life raft, and a survival dream come true. I am in awe of our work as a University community, and I find I want to do everything all the time. But I have to remember to reserve time to take care.

Bianca Ortiz

Bianca Ortiz

Area Coordinator for Westhampton College

I am extremely proud to be a first-generation student, as my experience has challenged me to find courage, independence, and mentors. I always saw myself as a lover of academics and education. Applying to college was exciting but tough for me to imagine as no one in my family had any experience or financial means. I relied on really great educators, such as my college career counselor to help me pay for my ACTs and college applications. He taught me my first lesson, the importance of mentors. I have had so many throughout my educational journey who never let me feel like I did not belong in college. Transitioning to college challenged me socially as I felt it hard to meet others like me, but thinking beyond what I didn’t have, I focused on what kind of experiences I wanted in college. Finding my niche in working for Residence Life created a bridge to feeling socially acclimated to the new college environment. Being a first-generation student did present some financial challenges as I did not fully comprehend the financial side of paying for college. At the end of all the challenges that came from being a first-generation student, making it to graduation was one of my proudest moments. Being able to attend university and to graduate was not only a transformative experience, for me but also for my family.

Zach Perry

Zach Perry, ’17

Major: Philosophy with a Concentration in Ethics

Minor: German Studies

Being surrounded by legacy students here at the University of Richmond definitely makes fitting in difficult. In addition to being a first-generation student, I come from a divorced family of now two handicapped parents and, as a junior, still struggle to fit in to the dynamic of the "Richmond stereotype.” While the stereotype itself is mostly a construct, having the extra baggage of finances, family burdens, and the societal pressure of "setting the first-gen precedent" creates a new kind of struggle that shouldn’t have to be fought alone. I found solace in being involved with the variety of cultural groups on campus and taking full advantage of the liberal arts curriculum here at Richmond. Music and theatre has also allowed me to express myself without feeling the need to prove I belong here and to embrace the idea of being a part of the "Spider Family."

Ann Pongsakul, ’16

Major: Health Care and Society

Not going to college was never an option. My parents always told me not to be stupid like them. It’s harsh but I always felt the need to do them justice and reach as far as I could. I had to navigate the college application process solo. Google was my best friend. I didn’t get in anywhere I wanted to because I didn’t apply to the right schools. I picked myself up and eventually landed at UR, where a wealth of opportunities opened up. But with that came challenges. I never knew transferring could be so emotionally and academically difficult. But I sought the help that I needed and still tried to put myself out there. The best present UR gave me was letting me study abroad in Switzerland for a year. Up until today, I’ve felt lost and helpless plenty of times. But I’m proud to say that I’m independent and strong, and my future is bright because I’m in control of it. Who knows, maybe I’ll live in Europe again one day.

Brittney Quinones

Brittney Quinones, ’13

I didn’t know where to start. I was the only Latina in all honors classes. I thought I was on the right path. I was involved, getting good grades, working; simply self-motivated. Everything I heard about college was hearsay from my friends and their families from extensive college visits. Finally, the summer after my junior year, my mom and I took one trip and Richmond just happened to be on the list. How’d I find Richmond? The College Board matchmaker. In a big public school, you have to fend for yourself. Let’s just say, there’s much more to finding the right college than what you see on the websites. Somehow, after about 1,000 phone calls, we figured it out. It all seemed perfect until the beginning of my second semester at school. I felt alone, like I was the only one who felt unprepared for Richmond’s academic rigor. I didn’t fit in with the people who looked like my friends from home and I didn’t have money to eat outside of the dining hall basically ever, etc. It didn’t make sense to me. Why was everything so different here? I called home and my mom continued to remind me how good that Richmond degree would be. So, I kept pushing myself. I made an effort to build relationships wherever I went. I looked for opportunities and kept inserting myself everywhere until I finally found the right people — friends, club advisers, and even professors who helped everything make a little more sense.

Laura Runyen-Janecky

Laura Runyen-Janecky

Professor of Biology

One of the strongest memories of college orientation is my parents being overwhelmed, not because they were anxious about leaving their first-born child at college (though I suspect that was part of it), but because they were in awe of all the prospects that laid before their daughter. Although both of my parents attended community college, obtaining a bachelor’s degree was not an option for them. Thus, I was the first in my family to attend and graduate from a four-year college. As such, there were certainly many challenges – much of them financial, some logical, and others social. But there was an unexpected benefit of being the first in my family to attend a four-year college, which I began to recognize on orientation day as I watched my parents marvel in all that this small college in Texas had to offer their daughter. That benefit was a deep appreciation that college held opportunities that others (like my parents) did not have, and this is what I used as motivation when times were tough. It never occurred to me to skip class (well, almost never), grumble about the food, or complain about all my homework on top work-study jobs. How could I, when my parents would have relished the chance to have this college experience! As a college professor, I’ve worked with many first generation college students who have found their own, personal “unexpected benefit” of a first-generation college experience, and used that to accomplish great things. Here’s to you finding yours….

Rosanna Thai

Rosanna Thai, ’17

Majors: Biology and Psychology

Being a first-generation student means that I have had to grow up faster than anyone else. I had to translate for my parents and file FAFSA by myself. My parents were absent for many of my events, such as family weekend. At the beginning of my time at college, I had many problems. I often felt isolated by my peers because our socioeconomic statuses and our experiences were different from one another. I also felt unloved because my parents never called or visited; however, I soon learned that their love is different from others’. They work almost every day in order for me to have enough money to accomplish my dreams here at UR. As the oldest, I try to be the American parent to my siblings so they do not have to go through what I went through. I appreciate all the things my parents have done for me, and I have grown an independent spirit because of my experiences.

University of Notre Dame

Fresh Writing

A publication of the University Writing Program

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Thriving Diversity: Support for First-Generation College Students

By Rosa Vega Rodriguez

Published: October 04, 2023

2nd place McPartlin Award

a sprout growing out of pile of pennies

“This is so easy,” a voice from the other side of the table says. I can feel the blood rushing to my cheeks. My ears feel warm. I try to focus on the paper in front of me. I can’t seem to understand a single word. This is my first tutorial class. We have been given a problem set to solve, and this is the first time–followed by many, many others–that I felt behind and isolated. I decide to seek help. I arrive on a Thursday afternoon in the Math Help Room. The room is packed. The small space is dense and warm from all the students crammed into one spot. Students stand lining the walls. Eyes exhausted but searching desperately for answers. Everyone has a laptop open. Calculus homework is pulled up on every webpage. Two tutors are quickly jumping between the small, connected classrooms. Students walk in, tired from a long day of lectures. They scan the room and leave. Desperation, exhaustion, and panic envelop the room. Students want help, yet they do not receive it enough. As a first-generation student, seeking help is hard, but finding adequate assistance has been harder. The University of Notre Dame should be providing more support for students, especially those who are the first in their families to attend college.

In this essay, I argue that Notre Dame should give more financial assistance to support programs for first-generation students, such as the Transformational Leaders Program (TLP), the Office of Student Enrichment (OSE), and the Learning Resource Center (LRC). Placing priority on these kinds of programs is important not only because they would help first-generation college students succeed academically, socially, and financially, but because it would open opportunities for more diversification of the university. First, I will outline the problem created by limited resources for first-generation students. Second, I will explain the positive effects of support programs for these students. Third, I will suggest that Notre Dame provide more funding for the expansion and improvement of these programs.

Separation from family for the first-generation college student is a double-edged sword. On one hand, a family may be proud of their member going to college. On the other hand, the student may feel coerced to always do their absolute best. In the article, “How First-Generation College Students Adjust to College,” researcher Melinda Gibbons of the University of Tennessee writes of a participant's struggle with feeling motivated yet pressured by her family: “My mom and dad had worked so hard going through multiple jobs just to put me and my three other siblings through school. I am the first one to actually go to a university … so it’s really on my shoulders. I can prove that all their work is not in vain” (500). A tremendous amount of pressure arises from being a first-generation college student. Many students refrain from reaching out for help for fear of disappointing their parents.

Additionally, most first-generation college students are ill-prepared for college expectations. In The Hidden Curriculum , a sample revealed that 44 percent label themselves as “less academically prepared” than their peers in their second year (Gable 28). Rachel Gable–director of institutional effectiveness at Virginia Commonwealth University, author, and graduate of Harvard University–noted that universities, especially those held in high prestige and made up of a significant number of legacy students, have a hidden curriculum. A hidden curriculum is a certain set of indirect rules that people follow to succeed in college. The hidden curriculum is not concrete, but rather “a site of contestation concerning what the institution represents, whom it serves, and how it defines success” (Gable ix). Since first-generation college students are the first in their families to attend college, they often lack the necessary knowledge for succeeding. According to Dr. Paul Thayer’s article, “Retention of Students from First Generation and Low Income Background,” first-generation college students “have limited access to information about the college experience, either first-hand or from relatives” (4). They are also “likely to lack knowledge of time management, college finances and budget management, and the bureaucratic operations of higher education” (4). In accordance with this, the article, “First-Generation College Students: A Literature Review” states, “[Low-income, minority, and first-generation students] often do not understand the steps necessary to prepare for higher education which include knowing about how to finance a college education, to complete basic admissions procedures, and to make connections between career goals and educational requirements” (Tym 3). First-generation students have a hard time adapting to college and learning the necessary habits to succeed. Although first-generation students struggle to learn the rules of the hidden curriculum, most non-first-generation college students have the privilege of having this set of rules passed down to them from their parents. Whether it is directly or indirectly, academically educated parents set an example for succeeding that their children learn and replicate to the family’s advantage.

At Notre Dame, nearly 20 percent of the student body does not have this advantage, because they are “First generation/Pell/<$65,000 household income” ( Undergraduate Admissions ). While considering the importance of support programs for underrepresented and underprivileged students such as first-generation students, it is crucial to reflect upon the University of Notre Dame’s mission statement. In the mission statement, it states, “The intellectual interchange essential to a university requires, and is enriched by, the presence and voices of diverse scholars and students . . . What the University asks of all its scholars and students, however, is not a particular creedal affiliation, but a respect for the objectives of Notre Dame and a willingness to enter into the conversation that gives it life and character” ( Mission ). Through this mission statement, Notre Dame is implying the need for different people to bring about new ideas, conversations, and an inclusive environment on campus. In providing more resources for first-generation students, more people of different backgrounds will not only begin to see Notre Dame as a possibility but will be willing to go through the process knowing that they will gain support when admitted. Appealing to these programs for first-generation students will help the university diversify. After all, most first-generation students are low-income or from a minority background. Melinda Gibbons states that “[first-generation college students] represent about one-quarter of all traditional college-aged students and they present with unique needs and strengths. They are more likely to be students of color, tend to be from lower-income families, and have higher attrition rates from college” (489). In supporting programs, the University of Notre Dame will be providing encouragement and assistance to a growing diverse student population.

A current program that seeks to diversify Notre Dame and highlights mentorship support is the Transformational Leaders Program. The mission statement explains that this program “serves students’ academic, social, and spiritual development” by making sure students know about different resources that fit their individual needs. The mission’s aim is to assist students in achieving their academic goals while “staying healthy, grounded, and connected” ( Transformational Leaders Program ). Through this program, students of Notre Dame are able to gain a mentor. The groups of students under mentors’ supervision are called cohorts. Mentors often organize events for these cohorts in which students can meet new people. This program also has tutoring for a wide array of classes throughout the week. One of the biggest problems thus far is the mentor-to-mentee ratio. My current cohort is about 40 students. This means that one mentor has to guide 40 students of all kinds of backgrounds with all kinds of problems, stay up to date, and actively seek out opportunities for all 40 students. In addition, this high volume of students may make it difficult for all students to participate in one-on-one meetings. By providing more funding, Notre Dame will allow the Transformational Leaders Program to hire more mentors. Perhaps the reason this isn't already happening is that Notre Dame underestimated the number of students that would accept the invitation to join TLP. However, if Notre Dame wants to live up to its ideals of supporting increasing diversity, then it will invest more money in the Transformational Leaders Program. In turn, more students will be able to receive guidance and support and mentors will be able to be more involved in counseling students.

Like the Transformational Leaders Program, the O ffice of Student Enrichment supports low-income students, but in a financial way. The mission statement for this program is “to enrich the student experience of limited-resource Notre Dame students through informing, including, and investing in developmental programming and financial access” ( Office of Student Enrichment ). For example, OSE helps students purchase necessary materials, such as calculators and winter clothing, and also encourages involvement in social campus community events by paying for football tickets and club dues. The Office of Student Enrichment also has special events, such as FLI week, which is a week full of activities in support of first-generation low-income students. Notre Dame should continue to provide adequate funding for OSE so that the program can continue providing students with the materials they need to succeed academically and the experiences they need to succeed socially. In addition, with proper funding, the events that the Office of Student Enrichment leads will increase awareness of first-generation low-income college students.

Another major resource that Notre Dame should further support is the Learning Resource Center for tutoring. The struggle with tutoring can be summarized by a participating student who talked about her advanced curriculum. She mentioned not needing tutoring in high school, because understanding the content “just sort of came naturally.” However, in college where she was “learning things that are so far beyond [her] comprehension,” tutoring was a necessity now to understand her classes. It was hard for her to find a tutor that worked with her schedule and was in her discipline (Gibbons et al. 494). Despite the fact that LRC is an ally to students who need assistance, there is not enough availability. The Notre Dame Learning Resource Center website states that “students can register for only one 1:1 private tutoring session per week” ( Center for University Advising ). With students balancing up to five or more classes, having to choose one class to receive help on for one hour may not be helpful. On the good side, there are other options available such as drop-in tutoring which consists of study hall or “math rooms.” However, these areas can get easily packed and chaotic and it may be hard to receive help among a crowd of students. It is likely that Notre Dame has overlooked this issue since there are so many tutoring centers and study halls. They may not be aware of those that are exceeding a reasonable capacity. Notre Dame needs to recognize that tutoring is in high demand, especially for core classes. The university should closely track the use of these tutoring rooms. Once they collect the data, they can see that they need to devote more resources to provide the crucial help that students need. By discovering how many students are using tutoring the university can properly budget according to the demand. If the university wants to help students learn, then it will ensure that LRC receives more funding, so that more tutors can be hired and availability can increase.

Some may argue that since a student was accepted, they should have arrived at the university with the requirements necessary for a successful higher education. They may say that in filling out applications, prospective students are declaring that they are skilled and knowledgeable enough to succeed despite the rigor. Additionally, many of the universities that are held in high prestige are research universities, such as the University of Notre Dame. If research is the main goal of a research university, why should it place its money on teaching students instead of using it to fund investigations and experiments? Students should be responsible for their own education. They accepted this responsibility in applying for a university.

All great researchers start somewhere. In creating an environment for curiosity and encouraging students who want to learn, the University of Notre Dame will be nurturing the researchers of the future and opening doors for many people. There is a reason such a large emphasis is placed on diversity. Encouraging diversity brings about new people, new ideas, and new perspectives. In the article “The Benefits of Diversity,” author and researcher Daryl Smith points out that “Students in environments that are structurally and curricularly diverse develop more complex and critical thinking skills and actually learn more. [Studies] found that the presence of diverse students enhances the educational experience of all students, leading to the broadening of perspectives, increased exposure to alternative viewpoints, and more complex discussions and analysis” (19). In providing programs that welcome students of contrasting backgrounds, Notre Dame is creating a campus of students that are more aware and analytical, which are essential traits of a good researcher.

In order to better support first-generation students, Notre Dame should provide more funding and advertising for programs like the Transformational Leaders Program, the Office of Student Enrichment, and the Learning Resource Center tutoring. These three programs cover the three critical aspects of providing an environment for first-generation college students to flourish. Through TLP, Notre Dame advances mentorship. In terms of educational support, Notre Dame should consider making larger spaces for tutoring. An example of this is the Math Room. Additionally, hiring more well-trained tutors will in turn create more availability. The funding and increased awareness of these programs will ensure that first-generation low-income students get the support they need.

In order to provide more funding to these programs, the University of Notre Dame can add first-generation support as a designation to its donation website. In the past, Notre Dame has reached out to parents of current students at Notre Dame, alumni, and other supporters asking for “gifts” or donations to support the student body. There are currently three different funds: Notre Dame Fund, Rockne Athletics Fund, and Financial Aid. There are also smaller sections called “Giving Societies” ( Give to ND ). In order to support first-generation programs, Notre Dame could add a fund with that title or could make subsections for the three current programs that most support first-generation students. Additionally, in the past, Notre Dame has offered shamrock pins, collector’s lanyards, and bumper stickers as incentives for people to donate. Clubs, like 1st-G ND, which support first-generation students, can design different donation gifts for donors. These donation gifts could even be sold on campus to fundraise and increase awareness of first-generation college students. Through this method, the University of Notre Dame can receive direct donations for the Transformational Leaders Program, the Office of Student Enrichment, and the Learning Resource Center. In addition, people may be more likely to donate or make larger donations since they are able to identify where their money is going, and they may relate to or feel empathy toward first-generation college students.

In providing academic, social, and financial aid, the University of Notre Dame will be opening doors to people of various backgrounds. Since its mission is to create a diverse environment, Notre Dame should advocate for resources that help students who are struggling. A final and perhaps the most major goal for Notre Dame should be to increase its awareness of the people that need help. They need to realize that their goal of diversification requires more than just acceptance letters. This goal requires programs that will help those who are accepted succeed.

Works Cited

Center for University Advising . The University of Notre Dame. . Accessed 3 Nov. 2022.

Gable, Rachel. Chapter 7. The Hidden Curriculum : First Generation Students at Legacy Universities . Princeton University Press, 2021. Accessed 18 Oct. 2022.

Give to ND. The University of Notre Dame. . Accessed 5 Nov. 2022.

Inclusive Campus Survey Results . The University of Notre Dame, . Accessed 25 Oct. 2022.

Mission . The University of Notre Dame . Accessed 1 Nov. 2022.

Office of Student Enrichment . The University of Notre Dame, . Accessed 25 Oct. 2022.

Rondini, Ashley C., et al. Chapter 5. Clearing the Path for First Generation College Students : Qualitative and Intersectional Studies of Educational Mobility . Lexington Books, 2018. Accessed 13 Oct. 2022.

Smith, Daryl G., and Natalie B. Schonfeld. "The benefits of diversity what the research tells us." About campus 5.5 (2000): 16-23. Accessed 23 Oct. 2022.

Thayer, Paul B. "Retention of students from first generation and low income backgrounds." (2000).Accessed Nov 9, 20222.

Tym, Carmen, et al. "First-Generation College Students: A Literature Review." TG (Texas Guaranteed Student Loan Corporation) (2004). Accessed 13 Oct. 2022.

Undergraduate Admissions . The University of Notre Dame https:/ . Accessed 25 Oct. 2022.

Undergraduate Career Services First Generation . The University of Notre Dame, . Accessed 25 Oct. 2022.

University Counseling Center First Generation . The University of Notre Dame, . Accessed 25 Oct. 2022.

Watts, Gavin W., et al. “Experiences, Supports, and Strategies of First-Generation College Students.” College Teaching , vol. ahead-of-print, no. ahead-of-print, 2022, pp. 1–11, . Accessed October 15, 2022.

How does Rodriguez’s personal experience not only inform the argument, but serve as an effective rhetorical device?

Examine Rodriguez’s bibliography. Discuss the sources, their genres, and the way they inform her argument.

  • Identify Rodriguez’s topic sentences. How does she transition between ideas, while also establishing a line of reasoning?

Notice Rodriguez’s prose. Where does she use imagery and to what effect? Where does she choose to embed, unembed, and paraphrase evidence, and to what effect? How are the length of her sentences varied?

first generation college graduate essay

Rosa Vega Rodriguez

Rosa Vega Rodriguez is from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma and currently resides in Welsh Family Hall. She is studying Neuroscience and Behavior and Latino Studies. As a first-generation student, she wanted to raise awareness of the lack of resources–as well as the lack of assistance for current resources–for students like her. Through her argumentative essay, “Thriving Diversity: Support for First-Generation College Students,” Rosa acknowledges these current issues with the hope to inspire action. This essay analyzes three programs that help enable the success of first-generation students: the Transformational Leaders Program, the Office of Student Enrichment, and the Learning Resource Center. It also provides methods for the improvement of these programs. Rosa would like to thank Professor Damian Zurro for his creativity in helping her get through all her writer’s blocks. She would like to thank her Writing and Rhetoric professor, Professor Jessica Thomas, for her unceasing care and support. Finally, she would also like to thank her parents, Guillermo and Noemi, who continually choose to make sacrifices that have blessed her with many opportunities.

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Dear First Generation Student…

First-generation college students often face challenges with college readiness, familial support, financial stability and, o nce enrolled, adjusting to college life, according to a study published by Innovation Showcase. At Niche, we’re chatting with first-gen students about how they became the first in their families to attend college. Their stories are at once awe-inspiring and eye-opening, familiar-feeling yet very much their own. Let’s listen. 

“Being the first person in your family to go to college can be challenging.

Going through the college application process as a first-generation student can be overwhelming.

But no matter where you come from, being a first-gen student in college is something you should be proud of.

I remember how anxious I was when I applied to college a year ago.

Coming from a low-income family and knowing that my parents did not even have the option of getting into high school motivated me to apply to college.

Since I was 7 years old, I dreamed of going to university and becoming a great professional, even the president of my country. However, when I started the application process, I found myself in difficult situations where I felt like I was not ready to take this step.

I asked myself, what am I doing?

People used to tell me that because my parents did not have a degree, it would be impossible for me to get one. This led me to wonder so many times if I was right in thinking that I could get into a good university.

I remember one day I came home and started crying over my ACT books thinking it would be easier for me to give up. But then I remember why I wanted to go to college in the first place.

Knowing that going to college would be the best way to help my family motivated me to continue writing my essays.

Knowing that if my little sister saw that I was in college, she would realize that she can achieve her goals too, was the reason why I got up early every morning to study for my exams.

Knowing that getting into college would empower other girls from underprivileged communities like mine to study and set high goals for themselves motivated me to click the submit button in the Common App.

Now that I am in my first semester of college, I’m proud to say that I’m a first-generation international student in the United States.

I am proud that I did not give up.

I am proud that I did not listen to the people who underestimated me.

I am proud to have achieved it.

After going through what I describe as one of the most challenging processes of my life, there are three things I would like to say to all first-generation students in college:

  • If you have a goal, make a plan to achieve it.
  • Follow that plan and do not give up.
  • Do not listen to people who say you cannot do it. Do not listen to people who tell you that you do not belong here.
  • You belong here. You worked for it, you achieved it with your effort, talent, and perseverance.

Celebrate and be proud of what you have accomplished. Remember all the struggles you went through and celebrate this great achievement. Stay true to yourself and your goals and every time you feel like you want to give up, remember how proud everyone is of you.

Remember that you are important, your efforts are important, your future is important. Take care of yourself, and love who you are. We are proud of you and all your hard work.

You belong!”

— Diana Vicezar , Niche student ambassador

Want more student insight? Catch up with @dianavic_ and follow @nichesocial for more student stories, advice and giveaways.

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Author: Diana Vicezar

Diana Vicezar is a freshman at Pitzer College in Claremont, California. Over the past few years, Diana has represented her country, Paraguay, in various international exchange programs. In her free time, she likes to share information about these types of academic opportunities and uses her Instagram account (@dianavic_) as a platform to motivate other international students to apply to these programs.

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first generation college graduate essay

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First Scholars Network Phase Journey

Are You A First-generation Student?

If you’re not sure, you’re certainly not alone. While roughly fifty percent of students identify as first-gen , many are unaware of their first-gen status until they reach college, which can make accessing resources difficult. 

This page will help you to figure out your generational status and provide tips that will assist you as you apply to and attend college.


Faq: first-gen definition.

Am I first-gen student? It depends on who you ask. This section may help you to determine whether you're a first-gen student. Click the plus sign next to each question to reveal the answer!

While the definition can be complicated , being a first-gen student means that your parents did not complete a 4-year college or university degree. Some colleges and universities use a different definition, so be sure to ask your admissions counselor, academic advisor, or a faculty member to learn more.

If your parents took a few college classes or even completed community college, you will often be considered first-gen. Check in with a campus resource in admissions, academic advising, or student services to learn more!

Yes. Being a first-gen student means that your parent(s) did not complete a 4-year college or university degree, regardless of other family member’s level of education. Older siblings and family members who attended college may be a great resource as you navigate your college journey!

Many colleges and universities are beginning to consider students with parents who attended international universities as first-gen. We suggest contacting your admissions counselor, academic advisor, first-gen student programs office, or a trusted person on your campus to learn more.

Center Banner Image Students

About the Center

The Center for First-generation Student Success helps colleges and universities to help you to succeed as a first-gen student. While we do not work with first-gen students directly, we want to help you navigate your institutions and locate more information that will allow you to succeed. Check out the sections below to get started.

Valuable Articles For All First-Generation College Students

first generation college graduate essay

Congratulations. You Got Into College. Now What?

A blog about needing to provide academic, financial, social and emotional mentorship and support to first-generation college students.

How to pay for college

College’s First Test: How to Pay for It

Don’t be dazzled by fat offers of financial aid if the cost of the school is so high that it will still be a stretch for you to attend.

first generation college graduate essay

Four Things I Wish I Knew When Entering College

A first-generation college student recounts four things that he wish he knew prior to attending college.

If You’re a Student Struggling With Impostor Syndrome, Try This

If You’re a Student Struggling With Impostor Syndrome, Try This

First-generation student filled with excitement for first-year at UCR, but was not prepared to experience “Impostor Syndrome.”

first generation college graduate essay

A Professor’s Pointers for Success in College (2.0): 23 Easy-to-Follow Tips

This article outlines the advice of a professor to students as they embark on a new academic year.

Dwaine Collier Jr. Cal State Marcos grad

Graduate beats odds, leaves mark on Cal State San Marcos

First-generation student, Dwaine Collier Jr., made the most of his college experience.

group of students sitting

Community Support for First-Generation Graduate Students

We cannot assume that just because they successfully navigated their undergraduate years they will smoothly sail through graduate training.

first generation college graduate essay

How to Build Your Network as a First-Generation Student

Author Aimée Eubanks Davis shares tips for early career professionals to build their network.

Tips For High School Students

Are you currently a high school student considering college? Check out this helpful page to learn new terms and then read below to learn more about the college admissions process.

How do I apply to college?

High school guidance counselors, trusted teachers or administrators, and even family members can provide excellent info on finding and applying to colleges.

You can also get started using CollegeBoard's Applying 101 !

Who can I ask for help with college outside of my school and family?

Look into community-based programs for college or university support. Your guidance counselor may be able to point you in the right direction, but you can also research options yourself by using the CCID registry as a guide !

How do I find schools to apply to?

There is no single best practice for identifying schools to apply to. It may be helpful to begin by identifying the different criteria folx use to select schools. Once you do this, you can identify which characteristics are important to you, and you can then use this list of criteria to narrow down possible "good-fit" schools.

This may sound like a lot (because it is!), but BigFuture's College Search Step-by-Step guide can help!

How well do I need to do on the SAT and/or ACT to get into a school?

Each college or university will have different score requirements. The institution's admissions website is often the best place to find this information, but you should also feel free to contact the admissions office, ask questions at college fairs, seek the help of teachers and guidance counselors, and even ask older students who are attending that college or university for guidance.

You can also review the Compass Education Group's chart of test policies and score ranges  to get a general idea of requirements.

How do I prepare for the SAT and/or ACT?

Your high school might offer free  PSAT , SAT , and ACT preparation. Ask your guidance counselor or high school front office if any college preparation programs are available and how you might get involved. If your high school publishes a regular newsletter, the information may be there as well! 

Additionally, Khan Academy and College Board offer free Official SAT practice here .

How much will college cost?

While college can seem expensive, most students pay far less for their education than the advertised price at their institution. Grants, scholarships, and education tax benefits may render a previously out of reach school rather affordable.

Learn how to calculate your net (actual) cost of attendance with BigFuture's Understanding the Cost tool here .

What is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and how do I fill it out?

  • FAFSA is the application you complete to determine the amount of Federal Student Aid that you may qualify to receive through the government. Filling out the FAFSA can be confusing, and there are a lot of associated deadlines, but this guide from Form Your Future can help !
  • It’s a good idea to get help with your FAFSA. Your high school likely offers free workshops to help you learn the steps. You can also check with the colleges or universities to which you are applying, as their financial aid offices are usually glad to offer assistance. 

Where can I find scholarships to pay for college?

Your high school guidance or college preparation office should have a list of scholarships. Also, don’t forget to check out local civic organizations (e.g., Ruritans, Jaycees, Lions, Veterans of Foreign Wars) or corporations (e.g., Porch ) for scholarship opportunities. Never hesitate to reach out to the financial aid office at your top-choice college or university to ask about scholarship opportunities, as well.

You can use the Tuition Funding Sources (TFS) Scholarship Search  to get started, too!


Are you currently a college or university student? Check out this helpful page to learn new terms and then read below for tips about navigating your campus community.

What resources does my school offer to first-gen students?

Many institutions offer first-gen-specific student clubs, peer and/or faculty mentoring programs, student support services (SSS), TRiO programs , financial wellness/FAFSA workshops, residential/living learning communities, research opportunities, and study away programs.

Search your school’s website or ask your resident advisor/assistant (RA), orientation leader, or peer mentor if your school offers any of the above. Once you find options, stop by the office, introduce yourself, and get involved!

Where is my campus' Financial Aid Office? What can they help with?

Search “financial aid” on your college or university website or ask your resident advisor/assistant (RA), orientation leader, or peer mentor for help finding the financial aid office. 

Consider scheduling a one on one meeting with a Financial Aid Officer to:

Better understand your financial aid package, bills, and important deadlines

Receive help in completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)

Identify scholarship/financial aid opportunities

How often should I complete the FAFSA?

You need to complete the FAFSA every year if you want to receive financial aid. The application process opens on October 1 each year.

Get FAFSA tips and learn how to avoid common mistakes here!

Why is it important to connect with faculty?

While it may feel uncomfortable at first, your faculty will appreciate getting to know you! Making an introduction allows your faculty to learn more about you, will make it easier to ask questions, and may result in exciting research/internship opportunities. Connecting with faculty in your major is especially important!

Learn more about connecting with faculty and sending professional emails !

How do I find an on-campus job?

You can find on-campus jobs by:

Visiting the career services or financial aid offices at your school

Asking other students (including resident advisors, orientation leaders, and peer mentors)

Connecting with faculty/staff members in departments in which you’d like to work

Checking virtual and physical bulletin boards around campus

Searching your college or university’s website for “student jobs”

Many on-campus jobs will require you to submit a resume and/or cover letter and complete an interview . Your campus’ career services office can help you with all of these!

Who do I talk to if I have questions about my schedule, major/minor, or future courses?

Getting in touch with your academic advisor and scheduling a meeting is a great way to receive some assistance. If you do not know who your academic advisor is, you can find out by:

Asking a professor, your resident advisor, orientation leader, peer mentor, or friend how to find out

Searching your college or university’s website for more information

How do I get involved on my campus?

The following offices may offer paid or unpaid ways to get involved:

Campus Activities

Student Health and Wellness

Student Counseling

The Learning Center/Academic Support/Tutoring Services

Center for Service/Volunteering

Campus Recreation

To find ways to get involved, you can search your school’s website or talk to your resident advisor, orientation leader, peer mentor, or friends.

How do I find an internship?

Your school's career services office, future alumni network organization, major/minor-specific student clubs and organizations, and faculty members can be great resources for helping you to find paid and unpaid internships.

You can also find internship opportunities online. Check out Forbes' "The 10 Best Websites for Finding An Internship" for a list of good places to start your search!

Where can I learn more about navigating medical school?

The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) maintains a page with tools and resources dedicated to first-gen medical students. You can check out their robust guide here .

Resources for "First-gen plus" Students

A student's first-gen status often represents only one facet of a complex identity . The resources below may help as you navigate your campus as a student with multiple identities, but we encourage you to reach out to a trusted advisor for more information on support for "first-gen plus" students (e.g., your campus' multicultural center).

Application/Affordability Resources

  • A list of postgraduate resources for minority students hits the mark


  • The Black First-gen Collective
  • The Comeup Collective Podcast
  • Preparing Black First-generation Students for Graduate School Success
  • 30 Things Every First-Generation Latino College Student Should Know
  • Through the Eyes of a First-Generation Latino College Student
  • Lessons From a First-Gen, Working-Class Latinx Student
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first generation college graduate essay

Edward Colmenares


Imagine being tasked with setting the precedent of success for your entire family at 17 years old. No matter the personal cost, it is now your responsibility to lift your family out of poverty. This is the crucial promise many first-generation Latine college students make when they head off to higher education. Once they reach college, however, these students only uncover a disheartening reality. They were set up to fail from the start.

Stricken with discouragement when comparing childhoods with their wealthier peers, these first-generation Latine students recognize that university was not intended for them. Since the inception of higher education institutions, and up until a couple of generations ago, there was no reasonable path for these students to even attend university, and the few lucky enough to enroll could only do so under the demeaning conditions of systematic racism.

From K-12, Latine students are at a disadvantage. Born to immigrant, working-class parents, Latine children begin their educational journey with a lack of socioeconomic privileges that their peers have become accustomed to by pre-school. Often, neither parent in the household speaks English fluently enough to teach their child(ren) the language. Spanish is all these kids know, as they suddenly enter an environment where they will be excluded because of the simple fact that they speak a different language that isn’t English. Thus, a striking 82 percent of all students K-12 situated in California English language learning programs are Latine. 

Any English learned at school then becomes a tool for the parents and family as these students commonly become a resource for translating, whether spoken in a movie or present in billing letters. It is important to note that a large portion of Latine parents did not make it past high school due to a lack of educational resources in their home country, so it is particularly difficult for them to learn English upon reaching the U.S.

Many Latine children are familiar with poverty. Representing 17 percent of the American workforce , Latine families are actively working to improve the lives of their children but can commonly only do so through exhausting manual labor. In agricultural, construction, or housekeeping occupations, the Latine population composes over half or close to half of the labor force . However, the unreliability and unlivable wages of these jobs severely limits the financial capacities of these working families.

As a result, Latine children in California K-12 schools account for 71 percent of all economically disadvantaged students and 73 percent of all homeless students. Considering that these same Latine children make up over one-half of all California students, it is an unfortunate reality that poverty strikes these children at disproportionately high rates.

When looking at Latine high school seniors graduating and potentially enrolling in the University of California (UC) or California State University (CSU) system, only 44 percent would even be eligible to apply. In order to qualify for either of these public institutions, a series of A-G courses must first be completed in high school, but the low-income school districts where these students are from are not sufficiently informing or preparing them for the admission requirements of higher education. 

Getting into a four-year university is simply not a possibility for a majority of first-generation Latine. Out of 1,391,503 Latine undergraduates in California, 72 percent enroll in community colleges optimistically planning to transfer after two years. However, after six years, only about a third of these students actually end up enrolling in four-year colleges or universities while the rest drop out or postpone their education indefinitely. 

The good news is that Latine students who are lucky enough to attend a major California four-year institution do tend to be first-generation. In both the UC and CSU system three out of four Latino students are the first in their family to reach higher education, which is over double that of other races. This luck has a limit though, as these students will face certain struggles the rest of the student body does not.

First and foremost comes the stress of paying for higher education, and Latine communities are granted less state and federal financial aid when compared to other races. Furthermore, expected contributions from parents and family members are significantly lower. On average, families of Latine students are expected to pay $5,911, compared to $13,319 for white families .

To make up for a lack of family funds, a majority of Latine students find employment to cover tuition and the cost of living. At the expense of academic performance and social participation, about 32 percent of all employed Latine students are working full-time with the rest being employed part-time. It is discouraging that so many of these Latine students must work long hours while trying to maintain a reasonable commitment to school, and this stress contributes to higher dropout rates.

Each year, the amount of Latine students entering higher education rises, so it’s not all bad news. However, proportional to the number of other races, Latine are at a severe disadvantage on all academic grounds, especially those who desire to be the first in their families to attend college. Without proper accommodations and consideration, beginning from grade school, Latine students will commonly find themselves unable to reach any adequate mantle of success for their families and will continue in poverty.

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UVA Law Students Boost First-Generation College Applicants With Essay Help

UVA Law students (left) offered feedback to local students (right) on their college application essays. Photo illustration by Warren Craghead

When Ariell Branson, a second-year student at the University of Virginia School of Law, learned there was an opportunity to help high schoolers from first-generation backgrounds like her own with their college application essays, she was all in.

She earned an English degree from Virginia Commonwealth University, and had successfully shared her narrative before with college admissions officials. What’s more, she could empathize with the aspiring scholars, she said.

Branson was among about a dozen UVA Law students who helped 19 Charlottesville High School students last fall with their college essays. All of the high schoolers were accepted to institutions of higher learning.

One of the students received a full ride to Syracuse University. In addition, five of the youths received the Charlottesville Promise Scholarship, which also considers students’ personal statements and provides up to $13,000 for students with financial need.

This school year was the first in which members of the Virginia Law First-Generation Professionals student group, the Student Bar Association and other interested law students partnered with the local AVID college preparatory program.

“It meant a lot to be able to offer some of the insight I have gained since I was in their position,” Branson said. “I had limited information when I was applying to colleges, and I was very grateful for the chance to help students develop their narratives.”

Chelsea Park, the AVID coordinator, said the partnership simply made sense.

“By having first-generation law students reviewing the essays of young adults who were the first members in their own family to apply to college, we were able to build a connection between individuals who could relate to one another in a unique and special way,” Park said.

Law students offered constructive feedback about how the essays could be presented in the most powerful ways.

Branson said her most useful advice was on how to weave the first-generation college student narrative into the applications, and how to emphasize why that makes for a strong, determined learner.

Charlottesville senior Adiba Khaydari was accepted to 11 schools, including Penn State and George Mason University.

“I liked how easy the process was, to just share my essay and receive helpful and nice comments on how to improve it,” Khaydari said.

Colin Lee ’21, a co-chair of the SBA Community Engagement Committee, spearheaded the effort. While the high schoolers varied in terms of their family incomes and backgrounds, some of their stories were dramatic.

“I was so impressed by the students and their willingness to share their stories,” Lee said. “With the two essays that I read, one student discussed sleeping on a bamboo bed and having a single outfit to wear each year, and the other discussed his experience as a refugee from Nepal. It really puts things in perspective as an essay reader.”

Other law students who provided essay recommendations included Armina Manning ’21, Atifah Safi ’22, Dean Dixon ’21, Kaylen Strench ’21, Juhi Desai ’23, Joseph Romero ’21, Kelli Finnegan ’22, Lindsey China ’23, Sean Blochberger ’22, Nicole Pidala ’21, Niko Orfanedes ’22 and Page Garbee ’21.

Professor Bonnie Gordon of the Department of Music, in her capacity as faculty director of UVA’s Equity Center, helped AVID by reaching out to Professor Anne Coughlin for advice on identifying law students who might want to assist. Coughlin contacted Lee because of his SBA role.

“This is a high-impact project, and we should express our gratitude to Colin and his cohorts,” Coughlin said. “They are local heroes.”

Park said she anticipates the Law School partnership will continue into the next school year.

Branson said she’s eager to help again — and noted that her mom will receive her own bachelor’s degree in two weeks.

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Alumni give $350K to create professional development opportunities for MHA students

Endowed funds will expand program’s national visibility

Cunz Hall with flowers in the foreground

College of Public Health’s Master of Health Administration alumni Bill Considine ’71 , Mark Neaman ‘74 and Ned Zechman ‘74 have pledged a collective $350,000 to support student professional development, creating a permanent source of funds for MHA students to attend conferences and case competitions, and seek other opportunities for networking and career growth.

“These gifts will transform the student experience and increase our program’s presence across the country. The generosity of these health care trailblazers will provide future generations with the tools needed to chart their own paths in the health care sector,” said Aram Dobalian, associate dean of graduate studies and division chair of health services management and policy.

The new fund has made an immediate impact on MHA students and is “an exceptional way to kick off the tenure of Kelly Scheiderer, our fantastic new program director,” said Interim Dean Karla Zadnik.

Scheiderer, a two-time Ohio State graduate including an MHA, took on the role of program director in January and lauded the trio’s generosity and commitment to MHA students. 

“These alumni have addressed a critical need within our program,” Scheiderer said. “Knowing we’ll have dollars devoted to these opportunities from this day forward is a huge win and will strengthen our ability to recruit and support students throughout their educational experience.”

Neaman, a former chairman of the American College of Healthcare Executives, said: “Learning how to network, think critically and work in teams are foundational components of an education in health administration. But the costs associated with conference attendance, travel, lodging – they add up.” 

“When a prospective student comes to Ohio State, we want them to see that they will be supported every step of the way in and outside of the classroom,” he added.

The new funds have already helped send four students to the UCLA Center for Healthcare Management Case Competition to compete and network with programs across the country. 

“Their impressive third place finish is a testament to the fact that Ohio State MHA students belong at these events,” Scheiderer stated. 

Considine made his gift in honor of his Class of 1971, the MHA program’s first graduating class.

“From the very beginning, our class recognized the critical role alumni needed to play for our program to thrive,” he said. “The MHA program set the foundation for our careers, and I think it is our duty to pay it forward to the next generation of health care leaders.”

MHA alumni have a strong history of supporting the college’s needs to enhance student experience and build on the program’s strengths. 

“With an outstanding new leader taking the helm of our program, we want Kelly to know that we’re as invested as ever to continue this program’s rich history,” Zechman said. 

“When the program came to us with this need to ensure every student has the opportunity to attend transformative educational opportunities across the country, it was a done deal,” he said. “We know that alumni play an important role in making Ohio State’s MHA program one of the best in the country.”

This first-of-its-kind fund is supported through gifts by Bill Considine ‘71 MHA, former president and CEO of Akron Children’s Hospital; Mark Neaman ‘74 MHA, former president and CEO of NorthShore University HealthSystem in Evanston, Illinois; and Ned Zechman ‘74 MHA, former president and CEO of Children’s National Medical Center and Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.

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About The Ohio State University College of Public Health

The Ohio State University College of Public Health  is a leader in educating students, creating new knowledge through research, and improving the livelihoods and well-being of people in Ohio and beyond.  The College's divisions include biostatistics , environmental health sciences , epidemiology , health behavior and health promotion , and health services management and policy .   It is ranked 22 nd  among all colleges of public health in the U.S. by  U.S. News and World Report , and also includes the  top 8-ranked MHA degree program .  The college’s epidemiology specialty was ranked 19 th . The College provides leadership and expertise for Ohio and the world through its Center for Health Outcomes and Policy Evaluation Studies (HOPES) and Center for Public Health Practice (CPHP).

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