The first thing to know about first generation college students is that the definition is actually pretty broad. Depending on what each school or university determines to qualify as a first generation college student, it isn’t always necessary that someone in your family or your household ever attended college.
Even schools and scholarship organizations with the strictest definitions include kids whose parents may have attended school but didn’t finish a four-year degree. But some programs extend that to include kids from families where only one parent has completed a four-year degree and some students will still qualify even if a grandparent or another extended family member earned a degree.
Even if your older brother or sister has enrolled at college – and even if they’ve completed a degree – you can still qualify for academic and financial assistance targeted to first-gen college students. The same will hold true for your younger brothers or sisters as well, after you’ve graduated.
Remember, it is about your generation. As long as your family’s academic history fits a college or scholarship organization’s definition, all the kids in the family will qualify.
Challenges for First-Generation College Students
First-generation college students face many social and economic challenges in preparing for and applying to colleges. Because they are often the first in their family to pursue an education after high-school, they usually don’t have a lot of family help navigating the confusing world of standardized testing, how to select a college that is a good fit, how to apply for government- and school-provided financial aid and where to find outside scholarships, and the many other steps that are needed to successfully launch a college career.
Also, while many families of first-gen students are supportive and excited about their kids taking on the challenges of college education, the lack of first-hand experience limits the amount of help and advice they can offer.
Catching up will require work
For example, they may not recognize that the process of working towards winning a place at a college needs to start long before senior year. Figuring out which courses colleges expect to see on a transcript is the first step. If you haven’t gotten through college-track foundation courses in 9th and 10th grade, catching up will require a ton of extra work, on top of the rest of the higher-level coursework that comes along in the last two years of high school.
Unfortunately, the difficulties in navigating those challenges without a lot of family help translate into higher numbers of first-gen students who either give up before they ever get to college or leave school before they earn their degree. And that can have big consequences for students and their families.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), people with a four-year degree make around 64% more than someone who only finishes high school. In dollar terms, that means that the average worker with a bachelor’s degree will earn about $24,000 a year more than a high school grad.
Also, as more and more lower-paying jobs are automated, the employment picture for college grads is much brighter than for their peers without a degree. There are just more potential jobs out there when you’ve earned a degree.
Finding Help for First-generation Students Before College
The great news is that there are a lot of resources available to you as a hopeful first-generation college student. Start with your high-school guidance office by asking for any material they can find on helping first-gens get started. Ask your guidance department about any tutoring or study groups you can join or whether any of your teachers offer extra help.
Also, seek out any resources that can help you learn how to balance a heavier course load. It isn’t rocket science. But most kids, whether first-gen or otherwise, need help just arranging and prioritizing homework, test prep, and any outside-of-school activities, often including working to contribute to your family’s finances and, hopefully, putting aside something to help with expenses during college.
There are also many community and church-based organizations that can assist you. Many of the people who work for those groups have been through the experience themselves and can be invaluable contacts and mentors as you move through your college experience.
Ask them for help finding ways to pay for test prep courses for yourself and for other kids in similar situations. There are funds available from the federal and many state governments specifically set aside to assist first-gen and kids from lower-income families have access to help with test strategies and intensive study programs to help improve scores on the SAT and ACT tests.
A few of the Federal programs include:
- Title I – Improving the Academic Achievement of the Disadvantaged
- Title IID – Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT)
- Title IV – 21st Century Schools
- Title V, Part A – Promoting Informed Parental Choice and Innovative Programs
- Title VI, Part B – Rural Education Initiative
- Title VII – Indian, Native Hawaiian, and Alaska Native Education
- IDEA – Individuals with Disabilities Education Act
- GEAR UP – Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs
- TRIO programs – Talent Search and Upwardbound
Many parent-teacher associations and local businesses also have programs in place to help support ambitious students with finding and paying for college prep assistance.
It takes a lot of confidence to reach out to the various organizations but the payoff can be huge – and not just for yourself. Some of these resources can be used to set up free or subsidized test prep for your entire school. Playing a part in launching a program like that will be a major boost on your high-school resume when colleges are considering your applications!
You’ll be able to find help with the nuts and bolts of filling out the all-important Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form, which is the key to qualifying for many grants and scholarships awarded by schools that you won’t need to pay back, and will help you to find less-expensive government-subsidized subsidized loans that can ease the amount of debt you’ll pay back after college is over.
Make sure to get in touch with local colleges and any others you’re thinking would be a good fit, and let them know that you are a first-gen looking for advice and help. Almost every public and private college and university in the U.S. has specific programs in place to encourage first-generation college students to attend their school and, even more important, to support them once they enroll.
They want you there and will introduce you to peer support possibilities, mentorships, academic help, and other programs. Those can help ease the way for first-gen students who may not have the support available to kids whose parents and siblings attended college before them. You’ll find people are eager to share their experiences and hints about getting started and sticking with it when you hit the inevitable bumps in the road every college student encounters.
It is also very important to research the many scholarships that are available to you.
Helping First-generation Students Find Scholarships
Many of the same organizations that offer first-gen students help with the college planning and admissions process also can point you toward financial resources. But keep in mind that there are literally thousands of scholarships available, often without the need for complicated applications or a detailed essay.
Many are based on need or are intended to support kids interested in particular areas of study, and there are many scholarships targeted directly at you, the first-generation college student.
For example, check out WiseGEEK’s Scholarship for First Generation College Students.
You don’t need to be enrolled at a college yet to apply, either – this scholarship is open to both college undergraduates and high-school seniors. And remember that scholarships like this aren’t a one-time opportunity. First of all, you can apply for as many scholarships as you think you qualify for before your first year of college and you can apply for the same scholarship each year you attend college, even through graduate school.
You can do this!
First generation college students carry a lot of their family hopes and dreams, adding to the normal challenges that every young person faces as they contemplate going off to school. But, as a group, you are also among the best prepared, hardest-working, and most motivated students entering college each year.
Remember that there are thousands of first-gen students just like you who have overcome the special challenges they’ve faced and gone on to successful college and professional careers. Like them, you’ll be setting a standard for other family members to aspire to and ensuring that your own kids will have the support and guidance you may have missed out on.
Do your homework, start early, and ask for help. The advice and financial information you need is out there and you’ve got college admissions offices, peer groups, business and civic organizations, and specialized scholarship assistance organizations like Bold.org who are all pulling for you every step of the way.