What Is a First-Generation College Student?

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Generally speaking, a first-generation college student is someone who is the first in their family to go to college. However, there are variations in the way first-gen is defined. 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" 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 considered 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. 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. Most importantly, 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 find answers. The good news is that many college admissions offices are committed to recruiting more first-gen students, and there are online communities dedicated to first-gen students as well. When you're looking at schools, ask 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 balance their student body with more first-generation college students, they may provide peer groups and mentor programs for these students, as well as offer financial aid specifically for first-gens. If you aren't sure where to start learning about opportunities for first-generation students, talk to your high school academic advisor or even the dean of students at a college you're considering.

In addition, try researching scholarships geared toward first-gens. Seeking out and applying for scholarships can be time-consuming, but it's worth the effort if you're short on funds or are planning to take out student loans to pay for college. Remember to look at local organizations, associations your parents belong to, state scholarship programs, and national offerings (which tend to be more competitive).