There’s a lot to consider when it comes to going to college, from choosing the right major to figuring out how to balance schoolwork with a social life.
But for first-generation students, navigating the college experience can be even more complicated.
First-generation college students, or students whose parents have not earned a four-year degree, face unique financial and cultural challenges that make the college experience even more difficult. This puts them into a position where they're far less likely to graduate than their peers with college-educated parents. For example, 33% of first-generation students drop out within three years, as opposed to only 14% of students whose parents have a bachelor’s degree.
In this article, we’ll explore some of the most influential non-academic challenges that first-generation students are likely to face as they pursue a degree at your institution.
Nationally, of the 7.3 million undergraduates attending four-year public and private colleges and universities, about 20 percent are first-generation students. About 50 percent of all first-generation college students in the U.S. are from low-income families.
Students from lower-income families often need larger loans and scholarships. Financial burdens are one of the primary reasons first-generation college students leave school.
Students with little or no family collegiate history may enter college with limited knowledge or guidance about the college student experience. This means that they’re less likely to have help navigating important resources, including financial aid, scholarships, healthcare options, work-study programs, internships, and more. These factors may prevent first-generation students from fully engaging in college and may contribute to early departure from the school.
Notably, almost half of first-generation college students are either Hispanic or Black. For Hispanic students, the primary language spoken at home is often Spanish, adding to the challenges faced by the students and their families in navigating complicated forms and documents.
To pay for their education, many first-generation students must work while they are enrolled. This can take time away from school work, prevent their participation in extracurricular activities that make them a part of the on-campus community, and contribute to greater stress.
Although leaving family and friends to attend college away from home can be hard for anyone, it can be especially difficult for first-generation students. Many first-generation students feel a sense of guilt leaving their families – and their familial financial responsibilities – to pursue an education. This feeling can be even more acute for students who come from immigrant families and are their household’s primary English-speaker.
In addition, cultural divides can cause emotional rifts. Many first-generation students may be pressured by family and friends to return home often, send money, and may receive conflicting messages about their changing identities (e.g., wanting to succeed, but not wanting to reject their past and community).
A first-generation student’s decision to pursue higher education can come at a cost to their sense of identity and community. Perceived as different at home and different at school, first-generation college students often feel like they don’t belong in either place. For example, while at school, feelings of insecurity and fear about acceptance may result in isolation among first-gen students.
Additionally, fewer available financial resources may limit their ability to participate in campus-based social events and community-building opportunities, which can add to their feeling of isolation and difference.
It’s important to note that even when first-generation students graduate with their degree, the effects from the above challenges can linger into post-college life. For example, a lack of finances and other resources during college can limit students’ access to unpaid internships and study abroad opportunities – experiences that build professional connections and make resumes more competitive. This can reinforce social structures and limit first-generation students’ economic mobility in society.
While these challenges are a reality facing first-generation college students across the country, there are ways your institution can help. To start, your college must first understand its first-generation students’ realities. Then it can take steps to provide both the financial and cultural support that these students need to academically thrive – both to graduation and beyond.
Are you working to streamline your school’s processes for offering students emergency aid or basic needs assistance? Contact Edquity to learn about our equitable, compliant solutions.