Advice to Parents Whose Child will be the First in the Family to Go to College

Mark Kantrowitz

March 26, 2012

My wife and I are looking for help in getting our son into college. He is a junior in high school. His mother and I are on disability. My wife is fighting stage four breast cancer. I was hurt at work two years ago. We would like to see our son go to college but there is no way we would be able to pay for it. My wife’s education is 11 years and mine is 7 years. We are hoping we can get some help. I was told because of our situation there would be lots of help available to us, but being uneducated ourselves it’s very difficult for us to even know how to look. My wife was given two to four years to live by her doctor at Dana-Farber in Boston. That was two years ago and we are praying for her to live to see him graduate high school and longer. Any help or advice you can give us would mean a lot to us. — Jim R.

Planning and paying for college is difficult even for parents who have been to college. It is complicated. The alphabet soup of acronyms like FAFSA and EFC can discourage and intimidate some families. Most families worry about missing something important. They often worry more about what they don’t know than about what they do know.

Do not panic. There only a few things you really need to do to get financial aid for college.

First, find yourself a “mentor” who can help you understand the steps you need to take. This should be someone who has recent knowledge and experience helping students pay for college, such as a high school guidance counselor or the financial aid administrator at a local college. It could also be a family friend, a teacher or someone you know from church. Beware of anybody who is trying to sell you a product or service, as their advice may be self-serving. It is also important that your mentor’s knowledge is based on recent experience. Friends who went to college many years ago may mean well, but financial aid changes a lot every year.

Fastweb’s College Power Bulletin is a short four-page guide that discusses in simple terms why a student should go to college and how to pay for college. (See also the Fastweb article Unique Concerns of First-Generation College Students for practical tips on making the most of the freshman year in college.)

Your son will be considered a first generation college student. A first generation college student is a student whose parents and siblings have never gone to college. In some cases a student will be considered a first generation college student if neither parent has obtained a Bachelor’s degree, even if one of the parents has an Associate’s degree or Certificate.

There are many scholarships available for first generation college students. Sometimes these are called “first in family” scholarships. The Coca Cola Scholars Foundation sponsors one of the largest scholarship programs for first generation college students through about 400 colleges. So ask each college whether they have scholarships and other special assistance for first generation college students. Also ask your church if they offer any college scholarships. Other scholarships are listed in the Fastweb article Scholarships for First Generation Students.

Additional scholarships for first generation college students are included in the Fastweb scholarship database. Create a personal background profile for your son to find scholarships for which he is eligible. This is a free service. To see scholarships for first generation college students, edit your son’s scholarship search profile by clicking on the “My Profile” link in the upper right hand corner of the Fastweb web site. Then click on “Parent Activities”. Check the box for “Didn’t Attend/Graduate College” in the list of Parent Attributes. While editing the profile, look for other relevant student and parent attributes. Students who answer the optional questions tend to match twice as many scholarships as students who answer only the required questions. For example, there’s a parent attribute for “Cancer, Survivor/Living With”. (Several scholarships for children of parents who have had cancer can be found at, but more scholarships are listed in the Fastweb scholarship database.)

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