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Unique Concerns of First-Generation College Students

By Bridget Kulla

June 04, 2008

While some students’ eyes may glaze over when their parents recall their college days, these students have an advantage. First-generation college students who are the first in their immediate family to attend college face a unique set of challenges.

Challenges of First-Generation Students

Without guidance from a parent who experienced college, first-generation students are at a disadvantage. From filling out applications to searching for financial aid, navigating the application process is complicated even for those familiar with it. High school students whose parents never enrolled in college are less likely to be academically prepared for college and, even those who are prepared, are less likely to enroll in postsecondary education, according to a (NCES) report.

First-generation students who enroll in postsecondary institutions have lower degree completion rates. While 56 percent of students whose parents have a bachelor’s degree attain a degree within five years of enrolling, only 44 percent of first-generation college students earn a degree, according to an report.

Students who are the first in their family to attend college may also experience culture shock. Family and friends who haven’t experienced college may have difficulty understanding what first-generation students encounter. These students may lack the knowledgeable support networks of more college-savvy families.

Help for First-Generation Students

With a little extra preparation, first-generation students can be as successful completing their degrees as their peers. If you’re the first in your family to head to college, use these tips to make college easier.

* Get Your Parents Involved

Since this is your parents’ first time navigating the college process, make sure you involve them. The better your parents understand what you’re experiencing, the more able they’ll be to give you support. Students whose parents participated in college preparation activities are more likely to enroll in college, according to the NCES.

The importance of parent support doesn’t end after you’ve enrolled. Once you arrive on campus, your parents may be less capable of understanding the pressures college students face. Keeping your parents updated on what your life is like at college will make it easier for them to be supportive.

* Enroll in a Bridge Program

Bridge programs help first-generation students become more comfortable on campus and can make up for a lack of college preparation during high school. These programs usually take place the summer before freshman year and can make the transition to college smoother. For example, the summer bridge program at the is a five-week residential program for entering college freshmen which combines academic preparation with life-skills seminars to familiarize students with campus culture.

* Know Your Counselors

Since first-generation college students can’t always turn to their parents for advice on college matters, develop a relationship with your academic and college counselors. During high school, your counselor can help make sense of the complicated application process and give you advice on selecting a college.

Since first-generation students tend to be less prepared for college than students whose parents attended college, explore academic support resources on campus. At college, tutoring centers, mentoring programs and academic advisors help first-generation students adjust to college more easily.

* Get Involved on Campus

Get involved with campus activities, and form a support network of friends and professors. First-generation students who are unfamiliar with college life may need a stronger support network on campus. A network makes the college experience smaller, more manageable and gives first-generation students a place to go for advice.

* Take a Light Load Your First Semester

Even if you excelled academically in high school, consider taking a lighter load during your first semester at college. College-level coursework is more challenging than what you’re used to in high school and the demands of campus life take some getting used to. Make time to settle in and get into the college routine before you jump into a heavy academic load.


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