Who Is a First-Generation Student?

 A first-generation student is typically defined as someone who is the first in their family to attend college or university, meaning neither of their parents or guardians obtained a four-year degree. This definition may vary slightly depending on the context or institution, but the common thread is that first-generation students are breaking new ground within their families by pursuing higher education. These students often face unique challenges and may require additional support as they navigate the college experience.

Estimating the Population of First-Generation College Students:

 Of the more than 1.15 million students who submitted at least one application through the Common App in 2020-21, 30 percent — almost 350,000 — self-identified as first-gen. Twenty-four percent of undergraduates have parents with no postsecondary education, and 56 percent have parents who did not have a bachelor’s degree, according to Naspa’s Center for First-Generation Student Success. That adds up to a conservative estimate of at least four million first-gen students.

Demographic Overview-Socioeconomic Background:

Many first-generation students come from low-income households, facing financial barriers to higher education.

They may be eligible for need-based financial aid programs to support their academic pursuits.

Ethnic and Racial Diversity:

First-generation students come from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, reflecting the broader diversity of the student population.

Certain minority groups, such as Black and Hispanic/Latinx students, are disproportionately represented among first-generation college students.

Geographic Location:

First-generation students are found in both urban and rural areas, although access to educational resources and support may vary based on location.

Rural first-generation students may encounter unique challenges, such as limited access to college-preparatory resources and fewer higher education institutions nearby.

Academic Preparedness:

Some first-generation students attend under-resourced schools with fewer advanced placement (AP) or honors courses, potentially impacting their academic readiness for college.

Academic support programs aimed at bridging the gap in preparation are essential for first-generation students to succeed academically.

Characteristics of first-gen students:

First-generation college students often exhibit a range of characteristics shaped by their unique backgrounds and experiences. While individual traits may vary, common characteristics among first-gen students include:

Determination and resilience: Many first-generation students demonstrate a strong sense of determination and resilience in pursuing higher education despite facing various obstacles and challenges.

Motivation to succeed: First-gen students often have a strong desire to succeed not only for themselves but also to make their families proud and to serve as role models for future generations.

Resourcefulness: Due to limited familial knowledge and support regarding the college application process, first-generation students often develop resourcefulness in seeking out information, guidance, and support from alternative sources, such as school counselors, mentors, or community organizations.

Cultural diversity: First-gen students come from diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds, contributing to the rich diversity of the college community. They may bring unique perspectives and experiences that enrich the academic and social environment.

Financial need: Many first-generation students come from low-income households and may face financial challenges in affording college tuition, textbooks, housing, and other expenses associated with higher education.

Academic readiness: While some first-gen students may enter college with academic strengths and achievements, others may require additional academic support to bridge gaps in preparation, particularly if they attended under-resourced high schools.

Sense of belonging: First-generation students may experience feelings of impostor syndrome or a lack of belonging in the college environment, especially if they perceive themselves as different from their peers who have college-educated parents. Building a sense of community and support is essential for fostering their sense of belonging on campus.

Leadership potential: Despite facing various challenges, many first-gen students exhibit leadership potential, resilience, and determination, qualities that can contribute to their success in college and beyond.

First-generation students often have parents who have not completed a bachelor's degree or higher.

Family support and guidance in navigating the college application process may be limited, leading to greater reliance on school counselors and external resources.

Why is support for first-gen students important?

Support for first-generation college students is crucial for several reasons:

Breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty: Providing support for first-gen students enables them to access higher education, which can serve as a pathway to economic mobility and opportunities for future generations. By obtaining a college degree, first-gen students can break the cycle of intergenerational poverty and contribute positively to their families and communities.

Addressing unique challenges: First-gen students often face a range of challenges, including limited familial guidance, financial constraints, and a lack of familiarity with the college application process. Support programs tailored to their needs can provide resources, guidance, and mentorship to help them navigate these challenges successfully.

Promoting diversity and inclusion: Supporting first-gen students contributes to creating a more diverse and inclusive higher education environment. By ensuring that students from all backgrounds have access to educational opportunities and resources, colleges and universities can enrich the academic community and foster a culture of diversity and inclusion.

Increasing retention and graduation rates: First-gen students are more likely to face academic and social challenges that can impact their retention and graduation rates. Providing support services such as academic advising, tutoring, counseling, and mentorship can help first-gen students overcome obstacles and persist to graduation.

Fulfilling academic potential: Many first-gen students possess significant academic potential but may lack the resources and support necessary to fully realize it. Support programs can help first-gen students develop their skills, talents, and interests, enabling them to achieve their academic and career goals.

Building a stronger workforce: By supporting first-gen students in obtaining college degrees, society can benefit from a more educated and skilled workforce. First-gen college graduates bring diverse perspectives, experiences, and talents to the workforce, contributing to innovation, productivity, and economic growth.

Ways Colleges Are Empowering First-Generation Students:

Dedicated Support Programs: Colleges are establishing specialized support programs tailored to the unique needs of first-generation students. These programs often provide academic advising, mentorship, tutoring, and workshops on college readiness and navigating the campus environment.

Peer Mentorship Programs: Many colleges have implemented peer mentorship programs where upperclassmen or alumni who were also first-generation students provide guidance and support to incoming first-gen students. Peer mentors offer valuable insights and encouragement, helping first-gen students navigate the challenges of college life.

Financial Aid and Scholarships: Colleges are increasingly offering financial aid packages and scholarships specifically targeted at first-generation students. These financial resources help alleviate the financial burden of attending college and make higher education more accessible to students from low-income backgrounds.

Cultural Centers and Community Spaces: Some colleges have established cultural centers or community spaces dedicated to supporting first-generation and underrepresented students. These centers provide a sense of belonging, cultural affirmation, and opportunities for community building among first-gen students.

Academic Support Services: Colleges offer academic support services such as tutoring centers, writing labs, and supplemental instruction programs to help first-generation students succeed academically. These services provide additional resources and support to enhance student learning and academic performance.

Orientation Programs: Colleges organize orientation programs specifically designed for first-generation students to familiarize them with campus resources, academic expectations, and support services available to them. These orientation programs help first-gen students transition smoothly into college life and feel more confident about their academic journey.

What strategies work for the “whole student”?

To help counter “imposter syndrome,” the First-Generation Student Gateway at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor provides a centralized space for information and community-building. At Florida Atlantic University, the Office of First-Generation Student Success created a student organization, First and Proud, to foster a sense of belonging.

Strategies that focus on the "whole student" aim to address various aspects of students' well-being, including their academic, social, emotional, and physical needs.

Holistic Support Services, Integrated Learning Experiences, Student Engagement and Leadership Development, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Initiatives, Academic and Career Support, Faculty and Staff Support and Development.

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