First-gen students are struggling in college. Here’s why.


According to the  Department of Education , about a quarter of all college students are the first in their family to attend college. (File/The Daily Campus)

According to the Department of Education, about a quarter of all college students are the first in their family to attend college. (File/The Daily Campus)

According to the Department of Education, about a quarter of all college students are the first in their family to attend college. While it is no secret that first-generation students face more obstacles than others, few people know that this disadvantage goes beyond academic performance. First-generation students usually come from low-income households and some of them are undocumented or part of a mixed-status family, which means college is a serious economic burden.

Consider the following scenario: a student named Harry graduates high school and is accepted to three universities. Two are private and cost over $60,000 per year while the other is a public school which costs $30,000 per year. Harry’s parents are working-class and neither went to college so Harry decides to take a loan to cover the $15,000 that his financial aid will not cover, and he also decides to work part-time at the admissions office to close the financial gap. Harry’s friend Abigail receives the same offers but she decides to enroll at her local community college. Unfortunately, Abigail cannot receive financial aid or student loans because she is undocumented. Abigail struggles to pay $3,000 for tuition each semester so she works full-time at a local restaurant to cover the costs. Harry and Abigail feel overwhelmed by their new routines and as a result their grades go down. 

Colleges across the country are spending millions of dollars to help first-generation students like Harry and Abigail succeed in their academic pursuits through mentorship, financial aid and resource centers. Brown University for example created the First-Generation College and Low-Income Student Center (FLi Center) to address the needs of its low-income and first-generation population. Efforts like those of Brown are necessary and effective, but unfortunately not all first-generation students will be accepted into an institution like Brown and many will never even attend college. 

Providing guidance to first-generation students at the high school level would capture a larger proportion of that population. At the high school level guidance counselors can direct students through the college application process so they can be more competitive applicants for scholarships and financial aid, which would help alleviate economic burdens. Students can be advised on what classes to take based on their academic orientation and when to start preparing for standardized exams like the SAT and the ACT. Another simple way to help first-generation students is just letting them know that there is someone in the building who is aware of their needs and able to provide guidance. These are only some of the crucial gaps that exist between first-generation students and non-first-generation students. 

There are other benefits to providing guidance to first-generation students before college. College students need to be prepared to handle classes, work and other responsibilities from day one in order to have a successful college and professional careers. All of those skills cannot be taught on the first day of college, so a foundation built throughout high school is crucial to ensure a smooth transition and success from the first day. Not to mention that those skills are needed to succeed in high school too.

The reason why first-generation students are struggling in college is because they do not have the skills to navigate the education system. The best time to address those gaps is before the challenging and crucial college years. That will help first-generation students succeed in high school and in whatever post-secondary plans they pursue. Educational institutions should at the very least ensure that there is always someone to orient first-generation students. If first-generation students cannot turn to their parents for help, who are they going to turn to?

Michael Hernandez is a contributor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email

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