About 30 percent of college students are the first in their families to attend, according to research from the Center for First-Generation Student Success, an advocacy group. But this group struggles to graduate, with only a quarter of them going on to earn a degree, compared with about two-thirds of students with a parent who attended college.
Why? To start with, first-generation college students tend to be less academically prepared. According to research by the College Board, first-generation college students score lower on their SAT exams and are less likely to take advanced placement courses and exams in high school. They are also less likely to score a 3 or higher (on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest) on those exams than non-first-generation college students are.
In addition, they may feel guilty about leaving behind parents or siblings who depend on them. They may not be able to afford to apply to multiple schools. They may not understand how to fill out Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) forms and their parents may not, either. (Related: Big changes for the FAFSA)
Despite the academic and emotional challenges, there are ways for first-generation college students to cope and learn, according to the experts.
Know all the options for schools to attend
“One of the biggest challenges facing students who are the first in their family to go to college is that they typically focus on the local university or community college as their only option,” said Janice Harper, a former college professor who taught thousands of undergraduate students and is the author of How to Get into Grad School (Even If You’re Broke, Dimwitted or Spent Your Undergrad Years So Smashed You Can’t Even Spell GPA) .
Indeed, first-generation college applicants may be oblivious to the possibilities.
“The reason students tend to stick close to home is because no one tells them that there are other options out there for them,” said Esther Lee, 826CHI development associate and senior mentor at Admissionado, a college admissions counseling company based in Chicago.
Lee graduated from Emory University in 2009 and is a first-generation college graduate as well as a first generation American. “No one tells them how to search for financial aid or scholarships, no one helps them identify their strengths so they know what they can and should pursue in college, and there’s no one there to push them to conquer the many steps in the process, because, as first-gen kids, their parents don’t often know what those steps are.”
This limited view can hurt these students in several ways.
It can be harder to get into the local university than to get into one in another state because many universities limit the number of in-state students so that they can increase out-of-state and international students, which brings in more tuition dollars and increases rankings, Harper said in an interview. (Related: Choosing a school)
Further, the liberal arts college a student might assume is too expensive may have an excellent endowment that allows it to offer substantial financial aid, which can make it less expensive than the local research university — a university where students may have trouble developing the relationships with faculty that are crucial to graduate school applications and job references. Lower-level classes at these schools often have hundreds of students. (Calculator: How much do I need to save for college?)
At a liberal arts college, Harper said, ambitious students can more easily develop relationships with faculty right from the start thanks to smaller class sizes, and the instructors may be better because demonstrated teaching effectiveness is key to getting hired.
Harper said that while community colleges are stigmatized, their faculty members may be as good as or better than those at large public universities. Further, students can transfer to a larger university after the first two years.
“The bachelor’s degree will come from the large university, not the community college, and no one is likely to even know that the student went to the community college early on,” she said.
The savings can be substantial: tuition for community college costs an average of $3,800 per year, while tuition at a large public university costs an average of $10,570 per year for in-state students, according to the College Board. That cost increases if the student lives on campus at the state school, which isn’t an option at the community college.
First-generation college students who need help figuring out where to apply might consider working with an independent college admissions counselor. Many do pro-bono work for low-income families or offer a sliding fee scale. (Related: The cost/benefit of college admissions counselors)
Develop skills to succeed beyond the classroom
“First-generation students often lack information about intangibles,” said Mitchell Langbert, associate professor of business administration at the Brooklyn College School of Business in New York, in an interview. Historically, the school’s mission has been to offer access to higher education to first-generation and otherwise underprivileged students. About a third of its come from families where neither parent attended college, and many students are immigrants or children of immigrants.
These intangibles, according to Langbert, include the importance of networking, interpersonal skills, internships, and relationships. He said that for 13 years he taught part-time at NYU Stern, where the students were mostly from more affluent backgrounds, and a key difference he noticed was that the NYU undergraduates were more aggressive in pursuing internships than the Brooklyn students.
He said he encourages his Brooklyn students to pursue informational interviewing and to become active in professional organizations so they can meet practicing professionals and build long-term relationships in the industries where they want to work.
“First-generation students should be aware that getting ahead requires more than a degree,” Langbert said. “Often, they are proud of the achievement of the degree, but neglect the intangibles, the internships, the aggressive networking, the image, the relationships, and the writing skills that are needed to get the best jobs.”
Build a support network to overcome low graduation rates
“Now, there’s recognition and more support for students who are first in their families to attend college. But growing up as an immigrant’s kid and with many others who were, it was just normal to navigate college on our own. We were each other’s support,” Lee said in an interview.
Extra support is indeed available for first-generation college students. But they still must be proactive if they want to overcome their unique challenges and get the most out of their college experience.
Lee described herself as “pretty self-motivated” during college and said her department advisor and her friends formed her support network. She talked to classmates who had taken a similar course load or gone through the job application process. She also met with her professors regularly, especially during her last year of college. Out of those meetings came a recommendation that she pursue her interest in politics by volunteering with a political campaign.
“I wound up doing voter registration training in the city, and got connected to other civically active students and young professionals,” Lee said. “Through those connections, my first job out of college was working at the state party doing voter outreach for the gubernatorial race.”
Most first-generation college students do not have as much success as Lee.
“It is important for first-generation students to find a mentor who can help guide them throughout their college career,” said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Cappex.com, a college and scholarship search website, in an interview. “A good mentor can provide emotional support and financial advice in addition to academic counseling. Choose a mentor who has graduated from college and who is willing to talk to you at least once a week.”
Some universities, such as the University of Southern California and the University of Chicago, offer programs to connect first-generation college students with mentors. Stand-alone organizations such as America Needs You and the First Generation Foundation are another potential source of support. Students can also ask adults in their social, religious, and academic circles — friends of parents, members of their faith group, even professors, student advisors, upperclassman, and graduate students — to mentor them or help connect them with a mentor.
Students who cannot find a suitable mentor can emulate Lee, who got by without one, learning the ins and outs of the system on her own.
“I just tried to stay very observant of what other students were doing and took my cues from them,” Lee said. “For example, I knew to apply for internships my sophomore and junior year because that’s what my upperclassmen friends did at the time.”
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This article was first published in October 2016. It has been updated.