What Is a First-Generation College Student?

They Face More Challenges Than Other College Students

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Generally speaking, a first-generation college student is someone who is the first in their family to go to college, but people define the term differently. It usually applies to the first person in an extended family to go to college (e.g. a student whose parents, and possibly other previous generations, did not go to college), not to the first child in an immediate family to go to college (e.g. the oldest child out of five siblings in the same household).

But the term "first-generation college student" (aka first-gen) can describe a variety of family education situations. Students who had a parent enroll but never graduate or one parent graduate and the other never attend can be first-gens. Some definitions include students whose biological parents did not attend college, regardless of the education level of other adults in their lives. 

More than one person within a family can be a first-generation college student, too. Say your parents never went to college, you're one of three children, your older sister is in her second year at school and you're just now filling out college applications: You're a first-generation college student, even though your sister went to college before you did. Your younger brother will be considered a first-generation college student if he decides to go, as well.

Challenges Facing First-Generation College Students

Many studies show that first-gens, no matter how they're defined, face more challenges in college than students whose family members have attended school. For example, first-gen students are less likely to apply to and attend college in the first place.

If you're the first person in your family considering going to college, chances are you have a lot of questions about higher education, and you might be unsure where to get answers. The good news is, many college admissions offices are dedicating to recruiting more first-gen students and there are many online communities dedicated to first-gen students. When you're looking at schools, ask about how they support first-gen students and how you can connect with other students in similar situations. 

Opportunities for First-Gens

It's important for colleges to know if you are the first in your family to pursue a college degree. Many schools want to have first-generation college students make up more of their student body, and they may offer financial aid specifically for first-gens, as well as peer groups and mentor programs for those students. If you aren't sure where to start learning about these things, talk to your academic adviser or even the dean of students. On top of that, search for scholarships geared toward first-gens. Seeking out and applying for scholarships can be exhausting and time-consuming, but they're worth the effort if you're short on funds or are planning on taking out student loans to pay for college. Remember to look at local organizations, any associations your parents belong to and your state for scholarship programs, as well as national offerings (which tend to be more competitive).