5 Big Challenges for First Generation College Students

One of the favorite checkmarks on college applications for admissions directors to see is "first-generation college student." Much energy and money is spent on outreach to this portion of the applicant pool as schools seek to diversify their student population and give bright students from families with no history of college degrees the chance to aspire to something bigger and better than their parents may have. Along with opportunity, there are challenges for first-generation college students.


Lack of Knowledge About the College Experience

african american male college student

Steve Debenport / Getty Images

Parents and family who went to college have plenty of information and lots of stories about their college experiences to share with their children. Though many things may have changed since they were in school, the essential process of leaving home, living in a dorm and being responsible for oneself is the same. For first-generation college students, that information is simply not available. The motivation to attend college when neither parent has done so is far less as well. ​

Four times as many first-generation college students will drop out of college compared to their peers with at least one parent who pursued higher education.



College students

Hill Street Studios / Getty Images

Leaving family behind to attend college far from home isn't easy for any freshman student, but for first-generation students, homesickness and loneliness are often intermingled with guilt. Especially for students from immigrant families who are sometimes the sole English speaker in their household, there can be the unnerving and difficult feeling that they have abandoned their family.

As with all college students who leave home, finding new friendships and relationships at college is an important part of integrating into campus life.

According to Tomorrow's Professor's Postings at Stanford University, first-generation college students often need advice on how to handle this kind of pressure, and many times they have to decide what and whom they must leave behind.

Students sometimes have to learn how to create distance or establish boundaries between themselves and their friends from home who want personal relationships to remain as they were before college.


Finances and Social Life

Student transferring money for college

DragonImages / Getty Images

According to The New York Times, The proportion of freshmen at elite campuses who are first-generation—11 percent at Dartmouth, 12 percent at Princeton, 14 percent at Yale, 15 percent at Amherst, 16 percent at Cornell, 17 percent at Brown—nearly matches that of their low-income Pell grant recipients.

At Ivy League schools and other elite campuses across the country, tuition, room and board, and books are often covered by scholarships, grants, and other sources for first-generation students. To participate in the campus social life, however, can often cost hundreds or thousands of dollars more. Whether the school has an active Greek community or students spend their weekends and vacations traveling, there are many ways that first-generation, lower-income students are left out of the college experience.

Because entertainment and social life can cost a lot of money, this can add to the feeling of being an outsider, especially at smaller colleges in more remote locations where alternate activities are not available.


Support From Home

Lack of support from family and friends at home, as compared to other students around them, can make first-generation college students feel abandoned and without the ​encouragement they may need to stay the course. To be fair, those who did not attend college may not understand the pressures and anxieties these students are facing and may not know the right words to say to keep them on track and focused. There are organizations with mentors and volunteers that can fill this need for first-generation college students:

First generation college students sometimes feel abandoned and without the ​encouragement they may need to stay the course.


Fitting in on Campus

Group of women studying in a dorm room

Hero Images / Getty Images

One of the important aspects of any college campus is how it welcomes new students and what opportunities there are for getting involved on campus. This is particularly important for first generation students, who may be far from home for the first time in their lives. Before deciding upon a school to attend, college applicants should make a point of visiting the campus and getting a feel for the atmosphere, the demographics, and the overall environment to see what a typical day on campus is like.

Students should investigate if there is a first generation student organization, like this one at Harvard.

The goals of the Harvard First Generation Student Union (FGSU) are:

  • To facilitate the transition to college for first generation students through initiatives such as providing mentorship networks and sharing academic and social resources among members
  • To build a community among first generation Harvard students
  • To provide the first generation student community a platform to express its voice and to advocate for themselves.
4 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Mitchall AM, Jaeger AJ. Parental influences on low-income, first-generation students’ motivation on the path to collegeJ High Educ. 2018;89(4):582-609. doi:10.1080/00221546.2018.1437664

  2. Stanford University. Stanford Tomorrow's Professor Postings. Internal psychology of first-generation college students - The importance and impact of personal relationships.

  3. New York Times. First generation students unite.

  4. Wilbur TG, Roscigno VJ. First-generation disadvantage and college enrollment/completion. Socius: Soc Res Dynamic World. 2016;2. doi:10.1177/2378023116664351

By Sharon Greenthal
Sharon Greenthal is a writer and editor who specializes in parenting, midlife, empty nesting, and marriage.