The definition of a first generation college student can vary with state and institution but the underlying common characteristics that make up this group show perseverance and rigor. And a four-year degree can do miracles for them.

If you’re unsure whether you fall into this category or why this distinction might matter, you’re in the right place. In this article, you’ll uncover the basics of what it means to be a first-gen student, figure if you’re one of them, why is support imminent for such individuals, and how to excel as one.

A first generation college student is the first in their family to attend a college or university. This means that neither of their parents have completed a bachelor’s degree.

These students often face unique challenges, such as lack of familiarity with college culture and processes, financial difficulties, and balancing family expectations with academic responsibilities. But they often bring diverse perspectives and resilience to their academic communities.

Some institutions or programs may consider a student to be first-generation even if one parent has some college experience, but did not earn a degree. Always check with the specific institution for their particular definition.

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Please note that different colleges and universities may have slightly different definitions of what constitutes a first-generation college student. It’s always a good idea to check with the specific institution by contacting their admissions counselor or academic advisor.

Are You a First Generation Student?YesNo
If your parents started college but couldn’t complete the degree
If your immediate family members, including siblings, grandparents, and step-parents received a degree before you
If your parents received a degree outside of the U.S. and came to the U.S. at a later time in their lives
If your parents graduated college in another country but got their master’s degree in the U.S.
If one or both of your parents went to a trade school and received a diploma (not a degree)
If one or both of your parents received their bachelor’s degree after you were born
If your parents went to a two-year community college and graduated
If both of your birth parents did not go to college, but your adoptive mother and/or father did go to college
If your parents have an associate degree
NOTE: Many institutions adopt the ‘first generation student’ definition from the 1998 Higher Education Act Amendments, which specifically refers to students whose parents have not earned a bachelor’s degree. However, some institutions equate an associate degree with a college education and thus, exclude such students from the ‘first generation’ category.
If your parents are currently in college or planning to graduate either the same year or the year after you graduate

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First-generation college students make up 20% of the total enrollment in Harvard University’s Class of 2027. A large number of colleges and universities value the wide range of life experiences first-gen students bring to the table.

Without family members who have navigated higher education, first-gen students may lack the necessary familiarity with college processes and expectations. Being the first in their family to attend college can create significant pressure to succeed, necessitating emotional and psychological support services.

They may face academic challenges due to different levels of preparation and access to pre-college educational resources. Moreover, they may not have the same “cultural capital” that can be beneficial in a college setting, such as understanding informal norms and networking opportunities.

First-gen students often come from backgrounds where the financial burden of college can be particularly daunting, making support for scholarships and financial planning critical. And they benefit from additional guidance in career planning and exploration, as they may not have the same support systems at home to help with these decisions.

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Colleges are increasingly recognizing the unique challenges faced by first-generation students and are implementing supportive measures to ensure their success. This support extends beyond the classroom, encompassing social and financial aspects of college life. 

Institutions are offering specialized programs such as summer bridge programs, first-generation cohorts, and faculty mentorship initiatives to create a nurturing environment. 

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Tips for High School Students

As a high school student preparing for college, it’s essential to consider not only the academic reputation of a college but also the support it offers to first-gen students. Engage with admissions officers and current students to understand the available resources. 

Be proactive in seeking out financial aid opportunities, including filling out the FAFSA and exploring scholarships tailored for first-gen students. Additionally, investigate any hidden costs associated with your intended major, and budget accordingly.

Related: How to Pay for College Without Loans

Summer Bridge Programs

Summer bridge programs are a valuable resource for easing the transition into college life. These programs, which usually span two to four weeks during the summer, offer an in-depth orientation, family communication, academic advising, and noncredit courses. They are designed to help first-gen students and their families acclimate to the college environment and prepare for the academic year ahead.

Related: Summer Jobs for College Students

Tips for College Students

Upon entering college, first-gen students should take advantage of on-campus resources such as food pantries, textbook banks, and school-sponsored transportation to manage living expenses. 

Joining mentorship programs and student organizations can provide a sense of community and connection to peers with similar backgrounds. 

If specific first-gen programs are unavailable, seek out other affinity groups and establish relationships with faculty members who can guide and support you throughout your college journey.

In conclusion, being a first-generation college student is a badge of honor that comes with its own set of challenges and opportunities. It represents a significant milestone not only for you but also for your family, often setting a new precedent for your future generations. 

First-gen students pave the way for their siblings and relatives, demonstrating that higher education is within reach, despite the obstacles they may face. The sense of accomplishment in overcoming these hurdles is profound and serves as an inspiration to others in similar situations.

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What is considered 1st generation?

A 1st generation college student is someone whose parents have not earned a bachelor’s degree, meaning the student is the first in their immediate family to attend college.

Do first generation college students have an advantage?

As a first-generation college student, you may be considered for more scholarships and grants, and your background may compensate for less competitive grades or test scores. Colleges seek diversity, valuing the different perspectives you offer. Your hard work and achievements, despite potential challenges, can significantly impress admissions officers. They look for students who contribute to a rich campus community, considering holistic factors beyond academics.

Am I first generation college student if my parents are immigrants?

Yes, if your immigrant parents did not complete a four-year college degree in the U.S., you would be considered a first-generation college student.

How do colleges know if you are first generation?

Colleges typically ask for your parents’ educational background on the application forms, such as the Common App. Your responses help them determine if you’re a first-generation college student.

Am I first generation if only one parent went to college?

No, if any one of your parents went to college and received their degree then some schools in the U.S. may not consider you to be a first generation college student.