The Challenges of First-Generation College Students

By Gene Beresin and Khadijah Booth Watkins, The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds

Currently, around half of all students attending college are the first in their families to do so. First-generation (first-gen) students have many strengths, as shown in the research. They tend to have higher satisfaction in college compared with non-first-gen peers, increased learning gains, and a greater ability to overcome setbacks of all kinds.

Still, there are many challenges that first-gen students encounter in college. They often face psychological, academic, financial, and social challenges, and about one in three leave college within the first three years.

Challenges Faced By First-Gen Students

Psychological Challenges

  • Family conflicts and guilt. First-generation students often experience guilt over leaving their families and possibly their financial responsibilities at home. Many first-gen students feel badly that they have an opportunity other family members did not have, as well as guilt over feeling as though they are rejecting their past and community.
  • Shame. First-gen students commonly feel embarrassed, as though they are “imposters” on campus. Without long family traditions of going to college, this is common and understandable. However, this makes it harder for them to feel like they fit in with peers.
  • Confusion. First-gen students may be less knowledgeable about how to navigate the resources available to them, including healthcare options, work-study programs, internships, and counseling. Their peers who have family members that have attended college often get guidance from their parents or older siblings about these resources.
  • Anxiety. The college life experience is filled with excitement and enthusiasm, but it can also be laced with anxiety about academic achievement, social inclusion, and financial worries, such as paying back loans.

Academic Challenges 

  • Arriving Prepared. Some first-gen students may come from less rigorous secondary schools or have lower scores on standardized tests. This can lead to them having less confidence in academics than their non-first-gen peers.
  • Difficulty Navigating the Academic System. The academic system can be overwhelming and complex. First-gen students often have difficulty dealing with bureaucracy. They can also have difficulty finding mentors. Mentors are particularly important, as they serve to support students and help them navigate the system. First-gen students can’t rely on hearing about the college experience of their parents or other family members to help them face these barriers, as other students often do.

Financial Concerns

  • Lower Family Income. First-gen students may come from families that have less income than other students. As such, they may need larger loans and scholarships. In addition, they may have to take on jobs during college in order to meet their financial obligations, which can contribute to greater stress and take time away from their school work. Data show that financial burdens are the primary reason first-gen students leave school.

Social Challenges

  • Greater Social Isolation. The feelings of insecurity and fear about acceptance may result in isolation among first-gen students. Fewer available financial resources may limit their ability to participate in campus-based social events and remote opportunities, such as spring break, which adds to the feeling of isolation.
  • Stigma and Discrimination. Racial or ethnic minority groups make up more than a third of first-gen students. As such, they have to overcome racial disparities and discrimination. They may be the targets of prejudice in reference to both their minority status and lower socio-economic status. These experiences can lead to alienation, isolation, marginalization, and loneliness, which can negatively impact their mental health and academic performance.

What Can You Do As A First-Gen Student?

Seek Support for Yourself and Your Family. Seek the guidance of supportive peers, faculty, and administrators in order to manage the academic, social, and economic stresses of college. Family support and assimilation into the college community are the two factors most positively associated with graduation. 

Have Conversations About Your Experience. Great relief can come from talking with other first-generation students about your concerns. It’s valuable for students to have conversations with others who are experiencing similar circumstances, to share stories, and provide support. Senior students can be supportive mentors. Student mentors, along with mentors within the faculty and the administration, can help with difficult questions.

Access College Resources. Many resources exist for academic, financial, and psychological assistance for students. These resources are confidential and may help in successfully dealing with all sorts of issues.

What Can Allies Do?

Confront your own biases. Examine the prejudices or preconceived ideas you might be holding onto.

Don’t make assumptions. Don’t assume that someone is or is not a first-generation student based on another aspect of their identity, and don’t assume that a first-gen student is or is not economically disadvantaged. Everyone’s background is different.

Treat all people with respect. Be open to learning from students about their backgrounds. Don’t judge people for having or not having first-gen status. Speak up if you hear someone else being disrespectful.

Students, persevere – you are not alone!

Despite the challenges, first-gen students should remember that they are not alone! Almost half of their peers are in the same boat.

And there are great examples showing that the challenges can be met. Former first lady Michelle Obama and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor were both first-gen college students, among many other national leaders.

First-gen students should also remember that they overcame multiple social, economic, and academic barriers to get into college. This was the result of hard work, perseverance, and emotional strength.

Successfully getting through college will vastly increase knowledge and enrich both personal and professional life. It will also increase competence and confidence, and be a great source of positive self-esteem and pride. It can open doors to the future and pave the way for individual and family well-being.

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