First Generation College Student

First Generation College Student Career Resources

First Generation and Low Income Students

If you are the first person in your family to navigate the college world, or if you’re not quite sure how you’ll fund it, but you know you want to go, please know that there are more people out there who share your situation than you think, and that there are also a lot of amazing resources and people who are out there to help you figure it out.  According to the First Generation Foundation in 2017, around half of college students in the United States are first generation.  So  that puts you in good company! You don’t have to go it alone.


The number one piece of advice is ASK QUESTIONS.  No one expects anyone to know everything, and if you don’t have immediate family who are familiar with the process, it’s ok. Your guidance counselor, job supervisor, teachers, coaches, parents…all can be great sources of information or can help you find someone who does have an answer, even if they don’t.


A lot of colleges and universities have specific support for first generation students, whether that’s a special orientation program, scholarships, advisors, or other resources, and finding them fast and using them to your advantage can make a major difference in your college experience.


If money is an issue, start at a community college.  You’ll do your general education courses for much cheaper than you would at a 4-year institution (and you’ll still get a great education), then you can transfer to a 4 year school for your more specific major coursework.  Or check into 3 year programs which enable you to get a degree in a shorter amount of time, cutting out a whole year’s worth of student loans.  Do your research, talk to your guidance counselor, and ask the financial aid office about any opportunities for scholarships—they exist across so many different areas and you can be eligible because you live in a certain town, have been involved in sports, have relatives in organizations like Rotary or the Masons, or potentially even because you are a first generation student.


As with any student, you should also get familiar with your career center (or if you’re in high school, your guidance office).  They can do everything from talking through your values, ideas and skills, to getting you ready for job applications and interviews.  They also offer a lot of exploratory programs if you’re not quite sure what you want to do or even what your options might be.  Start exploring early.  Get advice about how to gain experience and try things out.


You might not have a direct pipeline to the answers through your family, but you do have the resources to find out everything everyone else does, to create a network of people to give advice and assistance, and to learn about whatever career you might want to pursue.  There’s always the internet too—don’t underestimate the power of Google!


General Resources:

Here are some resources which can help to break down some of the things you might not know, point you in the direction of answers and support networks, and give you a foundation of knowledge to build on as you enter college/the world of work.


Professional Organizations:

Professional organizations are usually national organizations who research and advocate on issues related to their target demographic.  The organizations below can offer resources, information and advice on legal rights, and opportunities for networking, job searching and education.

  • First Generation Foundation-- encourage first-generation college students to pursue academically rigorous postsecondary educational experiences.
  • Rise First-- An online community for first-generation achievement

Employers and companies offer diversity initiative and trainings.  Look for programs which are aimed at your demographic, and you can gain professional development, leadership skills, networking opportunities and internships.

  • Capital One First Gen Focus  First-Gen Focus is a program designed specifically for first-generation college students as part of Capital One’s broader effort to engage students earlier in their college careers to create access to financial education and skill-building workshops to help them be more successful in their college careers and beyond.
  • Year Up Partners with companies to provide opportunities for young adults to gain
    the skills, experiences, and support that will empower them to reach their potential
    through careers and higher education.
  • Fortis Fellowship-Over three years, the Fellowship provides mentorship from high-level professionals, individualized internship and career advising, leadership training workshops, and access to a worldwide network of exceptional student leaders.
  • First Generation Civil Rights Fellowship Program, or FirstGEN, is a paid summer program for undergraduate students who are the first in their immediate families to attend college and who intend to pursue careers in social justice.

Supporting First-Generation and Low-Income Students, From the official blog of the US Department of Education

For first-generation and low-income college students, being accepted into a college is a major accomplishment that opens the door to numerous possibilities, such as having higher average salaries and healthier lifestyles. However, there needs to be more support for first-generation and low-income students throughout college, not just to the acceptance letter, for them to enjoy the benefits of obtaining a college degree.

Barriers to Student Success

Despite the progress, there are still many difficulties for first-generation and low-income college students after they complete their college applications and are admitted to an institution. For instance, first-generation and low-income students:

1. Miss out on financial aid they are eligible for.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), only around 65% of high school seniors complete a FAFSA each year, and first-generation and low-income students are less likely to complete an application. By not filling out the FAFSA, first-generation and low-income students are missing out on financial aid that can help them pay for and pursue higher education.

2. Receive inadequate support with understanding financial aid offers.

A study by New America and uAspire found that in financial aid offer letters, many colleges use inconsistent terminology and jargon, do not include information on the cost that the institution is charging, and group different types of financial aid, like grants, Federal Work-Study, and loans together. These practices make it difficult for students to understand and compare aid offers when deciding on which school best suits their financial needs and increases the chance of a student attending a school based on inaccurate financial information. For instance, a student may expect to receive Federal Work-Study as a lump sum grant if it is grouped with grants on the offer letter.

3. Experience greater likelihood of not completing postsecondary education.

First-generation students are more likely to leave postsecondary education without earning a postsecondary credential compared to students whose parents had earned a bachelor’s degree according to a study by the NCES. Similarly, low-income students are more likely to leave a two-year or four-year institution before receiving a degree. Dropping out without completing the degree can have serious financial impacts for students because they may be required to pay back grants and loans for attending college without reaping the benefits of earning their degree.

4. Have a lack of mentors and professional networks.

First-generation college students tend to lack guidance about college and career development from family members and have to build a professional network from scratch, adding pressure to students on top of managing academic coursework.

How We Can Better Support First-Generation and Low-Income Students:

1. Organize mentorship programs during high school and college.

Since first-generation students may lack mentors who can advise them on the college process and career development, schools should organize a mentorship program and make sure all students have a mentor they can trust and ask questions to anytime, such as alumni, faculty members, or even experienced upperclassmen. Mentors can also introduce students to important resources and help them make smart decisions about their future.

2. Provide more informational workshops about financial aid early and regularly.

First-generation and low-income students may not be aware of all the financial aid opportunities that are available to help them afford college. To address this, schools should host informational workshops starting before students apply for college on how to qualify and apply for financial aid. Some topics schools should mention include:

a. Understanding the cost of college
b. How to estimate financial aid and how to complete the FAFSA
c. The types of Federal Aid (including their differences and requirements)
d. Where to find and how to apply for scholarships and grants
e. When to take out loans and how to be a smart borrower (including the types of loans, how much money to borrow, and repayment plans)

3. Standardize and improve transparency of financial aid offer letters

On top of ensuring first-generation and low-income students are aware of the financial aid options available, colleges should make it easier for students to interpret the financial aid offers they are receiving. Colleges should follow standardized templates and terminology, which helps students compare different offer letters. The U.S. Department of Education provided suggested templates for schools to follow, and research from New America suggests that colleges should always include the cost of attendance, distinguish between grants and loans, provide the net price calculation, and state the next steps for the student in the offer letter.

4. Improve accessibility and increase awareness of school resources.

Many colleges already have resources available for first-generation and low-income students, but not all students are aware they exist. Thus, schools should make a greater effort to ensure students know where to find help if they need it. For instance, schools can introduce all campus resources during orientation, provide a list of resources in dorm buildings and classrooms, and list the resources on the school website. Some of these resources may include the career center, alumni center and network, the financial aid office, and any organization that supports first-generation and low-income students. Schools should also not assume every student will receive guidance on essential career development skills, such as how to write a resume and cover letter, and offer accessible presentations on career development skills that every student can attend, such as through the career center or at orientation.

First-generation and low-income students overcome many barriers in the process of applying and being accepted into colleges, but their struggles do not stop there. More can be done to ensure that these students succeed throughout college and obtain their degree, opening the door to more opportunities and a greater chance of financial stability.

From the official blog of the US Department of Education,