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First Generation College Students

Updated: May 27, 2021

By Marielle Byhouwer, CEI Intern


Common Obstacles for First-Generation Students

There are many reasons for the lack of first generation college students from lower income families. The most obvious reason is that students simply do not apply. Also,

  1. Other responsibilities outside of school, such as working part time jobs or looking after siblings or family members, leave little room for these students to apply for college.

  2. Other barriers include a lack of motivation, poor academic self-esteem and a lack of information regarding the college process and its importance (Petty, 2014).

  3. One of the biggest disadvantages for first generation college hopefuls is that their parents do not have experience with the college process to help their children to apply and prepare successfully.

Disparities. For many students of middle to upper class families, learning and guidance for the college process goes well beyond the classroom. Access to private tutoring, SAT prep classes and a cultural environment in which most attend college provides these students an advantage. While college guidance counselors contribute to student’s success in this process, middle and upper-class parents who have attended college or university are able to lead from their own experience. More often than not, they understand the importance of college tours and interviews. They are more likely aware of what forms must be completed. These are outside resources to which first generation college hopefuls don’t have access, and that is why educators must work to bring them into schools.


Improving the Situation – Counselors and Other Supports 

One way to increase the number of first generation college students is to prepare students for college much earlier. Currently, most college guidance counselors enter into student’s lives in 11th or 12th grade (MacAllum, Glover, Queen, & Riggs, 2007). But by this time, students have completed at least half of their high school career, with GPAs reflecting their success and work ethic that college admissions will evaluate critically. The average GPA of first generation low-income students is about 2.5 (Buddin, 2014). By introducing the idea of college and its importance to students at a younger age, before high school, in 7th and 8th grade, students may become more motivated to do well in school. “… Low SES students who regularly consulted with a counselor were more likely to attend college” (MacAllum et. al., 2007). By working more closely and regularly with college guidance counselors, first generation college hopefuls will absorb the information and strategies they need to for success.

Navigating Challenges. Providing resources and access to information about the college process can increase the number of applications and acceptances. However, schools’ involvement in the college process shouldn’t stop there. Schools can provide crucial help in avoiding “Summer Melt” (2013). According to Lindsay Page, a researcher at Harvard cited in NPR’s Morning Edition (2013), 20% of children from lower income families who are accepted to colleges, “… don’t actually show up in the fall” (Greene & Vedantam, 2013). It is generally assumed that the process is complete once a young person receives their college acceptance letter, but without further guidance and support from schools over the summer, many kids just don’t make it: “low-income families seem to have a harder time navigating… challenges… finishing paperwork financial aid” (et. al., 2013). Involvement and continued support from schools over the summer can help to ensure that students complete that final step to become first generation college students.

Educators can help build self-confidence and problem solve. Lastly, students must believe in themselves. Schools can push children in the right direction but low academic self-esteem and poor confidence are barriers that stand in the way of motivation and success (MacAllum et. al., 2007). Educators can help their students by encouraging them and chatting with them about their hopes for their future. Having a role model who believes in you is just as important as a solid GPA and it helps provide the often missing cultural context and supportive expectation that every child will go to college.

By providing more outside resources, educators can assist vulnerable children of low-income families, increase the number of first generation college students, and give them a more equal opportunity for success.


(K. MacAllum, D. M. Glover, B. Queen, & A. Riggs, Comps.). (2007). The National Postsecondary Education Cooperative: Deciding on Postsecondary Education: Final Report.

Greene, D., & Vedantam, S. (Producers). (2013, July 16). Why Poor Students’ College Plans ‘Melt’ Over the Summer.

Opidee, I. (2015, March). Supporting First-Gen College Students.

Robbins, T., Stagman, S., & Smith, S. (2012, October).Young Children at Risk.

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