What Is a First-Generation College Student?

The portrayal of first-generation students varies, creating a nuanced landscape. Coined by the Council for Opportunity in Education in 1980, the term needs a uniform definition. Some institutions would label students as first-generation if neither of their biological parents attended college. In contrast, others adhere to federal support program criteria, considering students first-gen if their parents didn't graduate from college.

Navigating Definitions: A Complex Web

Intricacies arise when campuses adopt diverse definitions. For instance, one campus may categorize a student with parents graduating from community college as first-gen. At the same time, another may not extend the label to those with parents who took a single postsecondary class. This fluidity poses challenges, with first-gen students qualifying for support at one institution rather than another, emphasizing the need for standardized definitions.

The First-Gen Demographic: Numbers and Characteristics

First-gen students comprise a substantial portion of the undergraduate population despite definitional complexities. In 2020-21, nearly 350,000 out of 1.15 million Common App users identified as first-gen. According to Naspa’s Center for First-Generation Student Success, 24% of undergraduates have parents without postsecondary education, and 56% lack bachelor’s degrees, totaling an estimated four million first-gen students.

Profiling First-Gen Students: Beyond Academia

First-gen students often defy traditional demographics. They tend to be older, with nearly one-third having dependents. Juggling part-time classes or combining studies with full-time employment is common. Financially, they face challenges, with a median parental income of $41,000, significantly lower than the $90,000 for non-first-gen undergraduates.

Intersectionality: A Layered Identity

First-gen students' identities are often intersectional. Over half of graduates from certain ethnic backgrounds, such as American Indian, Black, Hispanic, or Pacific Islander, are first-gen. Even among veterans, 62% identify as first-gen. Research highlights their obstacles in accessing, succeeding, and graduating from higher education.

The Crucial Role of Support for First-Gen Students

Their unique challenges underscore the significance of supporting first-generation students. While higher education increasingly focuses on this demographic, barriers persist. One-third of students with parents who didn't attend college drop out, emphasizing the need for tailored support.

The Cost of Aspiration: Financial Hurdles

Although a college degree is often seen as a gateway to the middle class, it comes with a hefty price tag. Approximately 74% of first-gen students in the class of 2015-16 borrowed money for college, compared to 64% of their peers. The default rate is higher for first-generation students, especially low-income individuals, accentuating their financial struggles.

Overcoming Barriers: The College's Role

Colleges play a pivotal role in dismantling barriers. To strengthen the pipeline, educational partnerships, workshops on financial aid, and eliminating fees are essential. Communication strategies, including social media outreach and virtual tours, ensure that information reaches first-gen students. Early introduction programs, academic support, and faculty connections are critical for their persistence and success.

Navigating Through a Pandemic: First-Gen Students and Covid-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified challenges for first-generation students. The debate on standardized testing's role, focusing on student well-being, and personalized outreach have become crucial aspects of navigating these unprecedented times.

Strategies for Holistic Support: Fostering a Sense of Belonging

Institutions must focus on the "whole student" to facilitate their educational journey. Combatting "imposter syndrome" through centralized information hubs, student organizations, and community-building events fosters a sense of belonging. Initiatives like necessity funding and addressing unexpected costs further contribute to a supportive environment for first-generation students.

In conclusion, supporting first-generation students is not just a goal but a necessity for higher education institutions. As they continue to navigate challenges and strive for success, fostering a sense of community, dismantling financial barriers, and providing personalized support are key to unlocking the potential of these determined individuals.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

1. What defines a first-generation student?

Definitions vary across campuses. Generally, it refers to students whose parents did not attend college or did not graduate.

2. How many first-gen students are there?

Approximately 30% of Common App users in 2020-21 identified as first-gen, totaling around 350,000. An estimated four million first-gen students exist.

3. What challenges do first-generation students face?

They often need help accessing, succeeding, and graduating from higher education due to the lack of a parent's college experience.

4. Why is support for first-generation students crucial?

First-gen students face unique challenges, and supporting them is essential for broadening enrollment, improving access, and fulfilling educational missions.

5. How do colleges support first-gen students?

Colleges offer educational partnerships, need-based aid, communication strategies, early introduction programs, academic support, and faculty connections.

6. How has COVID-19 affected first-gen students?

The pandemic has prompted reevaluating standardized testing policies, focusing on student well-being, and personalized outreach efforts to address challenges.

7. What holistic strategies are in place for first-gen students?

Institutions foster a sense of belonging through information hubs, student organizations, community-building events, and initiatives like necessity funding.


Supporting first-generation students in higher education is not just a trend; it's a crucial mission for colleges and universities. With unique challenges and diverse backgrounds, these students bring valuable perspectives to enrich campuses. By addressing financial, cultural, and academic obstacles, institutions can empower first-generation students to excel academically and confidently enter the workforce. The commitment to fostering a sense of community and providing personalized support is key to unlocking the full potential of these determined individuals and contributing to a more inclusive and successful higher education landscape.

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