first in family to go to college

The Go-to Guide for Goodwin’s First-Generation Students

The Go-to Article for Goodwin’s First-Generation Students:
How to overcome obstacles for those first in their families to go to college

The article below hones in on the challenges first-generation students face and how they can overcome these obstacles to create the life they’ve always imagined. 

First-generations students are typically defined as students whose parents have not earned a four-year college degree.

First-gens typically face countless challenges during their college careers in comparison to their continuing-generation counterparts. Specific obstacles for first-generation students include:

  • Applying for college
  • Choosing which university to attend
  • Making sense of financial aid packages
  • Navigating college expectations, policies, and procedures, and
  • Picking the best major to parallel their professional goals

Those who are the first in their families to go to college may also encounter barriers like foundations of college readiness, financial challenges, and complications assimilating to collegiate life.

First-gen fact: In the fall of 2020, 61% of Goodwin’s student population were first-generation!

College readiness: Not a reality for every student

Before many first-generation students even begin their higher education experience, they encounter barriers that hinder their chances of even getting in the door.

Many first-generation students have parents who are less likely to demand that their child do well in school or help them prepare. As a result, first-gen students rely heavily on high school personnel and their peers for college guidance (Falcon, n.d.).

A high percentage of first-generation students also come from low-income families and low performing, underfunded, pre-K-12 schools. This disadvantage can be critical when applying to colleges. Many first-generation students lack college preparatory experiences that typically take place in high school, including advanced placement, extra-curricular activities, and honors courses (Falcon, n.d.).

Also, because first-gens typically figure out most things on their own, they are ultimately less likely to ask questions in academic settings and do not readily step up to seek help when needed (Banks-Santilli, 2019), (Stebleton & Soria, n.d.).

With minimal familiarity in college prep, first-generation students, on average, have lower high school grade point averages (GPAs), lower Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores, and less confidence in their academic abilities (Challenges for First-Generation 2YC Students, n.d.).

Once enrolled in college, many students fear that the first-gen label might cause others to underestimate their academic performance (Banks-Santilli,2019). Studies also showed that first-generation students tend to participate less in high impact educational events like first-year seminars and social gatherings (Stebleton & Soria, n.d.).

Did you know? Goodwin University offers academic advising services, an academic student success center, and admissions counselors to ensure learners get the most out of their higher education experience!

Financial challenges faced by first-generation students 

Lack of financial know-how and financial resources can make applying to college and taking on surmounting student loan debt that much more daunting for first-generation students.

According to research from Banks-Santilli (2019), 50% of first-generation students come from lower socioeconomic families.

One study found that the average median income for families of continuing-generation students was $90,000.00, while the median income for first-generation student families was $40,000.00 annually (Bussey, 2020).

Additionally, some first-generation students work while in school or have families that depend on their income, causing employment to interfere with their education (Falcon, n.d.).

Even on a social level, first-generation students may struggle to integrate with their peers because they do not have the discretionary funds to spend on communal outings (Stebleton & Soria, n.d.).

Have you heard? Not only does Goodwin offer pupils financial aid services, but the institution also helps parents with household costs! Students who qualify can receive two packs of diapers per month through Goodwin’s Diaper Bank. The University also extends support from the Ann B. Clark Transitions Food Pantry to help students eliminate food insecurity to better focus on their bright futures ahead.  

The first-gen struggle: Familial ties and finding where to fit in 

Intergenerational continuity refers to familial roles about community, religion, and work passed down through generations. When a first-generation student makes the brave decision to be the first in their family to go to college, this shifts the familial identity (Banks-Santilli, 2019).

Although such a feat may be a source of pride for one family, not all families feel the same. Some low-income families view college as out of reach or “too fancy” for their family unit. Relatives of first-generation students may even view the college hopefuls as arrogant and offensive to the family’s familiar ways. Instead of celebrating the first-gen pupil, families may instead be quick to label first-gens as “trying to be better than” (Falcon, n.d.).

A family’s misconception about a student’s attempt at vertical mobility can often cause “breakaway guilt” — a feeling some first-generation students acquire when the act of earning their undergraduate degree highlights feelings of leaving their family behind (Banks-Santilli, 2019).

First-generation students’ parental lack of emotional support and their shortage of understanding surrounding the commitment, focus, and the time college requires can subsequently cause many first-gens to drop out of school altogether (Falcon, n.d.).

Here are a couple of early departure first-gen statistics to consider: 

  • Nationally, 81% of low-income first-generation students leave college within six years without a degree (First-Generation Foundation, n.d.).
  • Only 11% of low-income first-generation students earn their bachelor’s degree compared to 55% of their peers (First-Generation Foundation, n.d.).

Whether due to lack of college prep, lower-income disparities, or other factors, first-generation students often report feeling uncomfortable in a college atmosphere. The feeling of discomfort could lead to limited communication with faculty and peers due to the perceived absence of similar interests, experiences, and resources (Falcon, n.d.).

Without feeling connected to an educational community, first-generation students are more likely to feel isolated. Feelings of not belonging can lead to higher rates of loneliness, depression (Stebleton & Soria, n.d.), and earlier departure rates in educational settings (Falcon, n.d.).

So how do we decrease the first-gen dropout rate and ensure students’ educational success?

The following are a few strategies and solutions specifically for first-generation students.

  • If future first-generation students are able, studies show that participation in high school college readiness programs have a high impact. Experiences with academic and social integration inspire students to connect with professionals, surround themselves with like-minded people, and get first-generation students more acclimated to ask for help and advocate for themselves (Falcon, n.d.).


  • First-generation students may want to consider enrolling in smaller universities. First-generation challenges can sometimes be exasperated when enrolling in larger institutions where class sizes are more significant, and professors’ interactions tend to be less frequent (Stebleton & Soria, n.d.).


  • When visiting college campuses and getting a feel for the atmosphere, first-generation students should be cognizant of the school’s support servicesAre all of the institution’s offerings accessible and visible? Are educators encouraging engagement and having open discussions about the first-generation experience? Professors, faculty, and staff should be proactively reaching out to first-generation students and not assume that all learners know about the support systems readily available (Bussey, 2020).


  • First-generation students should make a substantial effort in getting to know their professors and peers. Positive interactions with professors and school personnel help create confidence in first-generation students in their college transition. First-generation students are also in need of college mentors since their parents cannot relay their own higher education experience or help them connect to professional advisors (Banks-Santillio, 2019).


  • To increase positive academic and social assimilation, first-generation students should be especially aware of their institutions’ psychological resources, specifically for those struggling with mental health. Psychological resources can reinforce to first-generation students that they belong in the collegiate community. First-gen students who have a sense of belonging have been shown to succeed at higher rates, leading to feelings of validation. Psychological resources can also set students up for strong self-efficacy skills, a person’s belief in themselves to succeed. (Challenges for First-Generation 2YC Students, n.d.), (Stebleton & Soria).


  • First-generation students should practice metacognition and self-regulated learning. If a student pays attention to their learning approaches, how they work toward their goals, evaluate their performance, and think about their thinking, they will, in turn, be more prepared for a path of lifelong learning (Challenges for First-Generation 2YC Students, n.d.).


  • Personal characteristics also push first-generation students forward. First-generation students with confidence and persistence have higher academic performance (Falcon, n.d.) — setting an example that a first-gen student’s attitude truly goes a long way.


Helpful hint: To make sure that students feel welcome, fit in, and find a home at Goodwin, the University offers career and counseling services and a whole team of student engagement professionals to ensure that learners feel included and inspired in our inclusive community. 

If first-generation students can follow the above suggestions, compared to continuing-generation students, they will report higher satisfaction with the college experience than their peers (Challenges for First-Generation 2YC Students, n.d.).

First-generation graduates are also more likely to give back. Sixty-nine percent of first-generation college students say they want to help their families, compared to 39% of those whose parents have earned a degree. Additionally, 61% of first-generation students want to give back to their communities compared to 43% of their peers with college-educated parents (Banks-Santilli, 2019).

First-gens should use their status as the first in their families to go to college as a source of strength, drive, and dedication. Those who lead the way in higher education learning should continually remind themselves of all they’ve overcome.

If first-generation students can use what they’ve tackled as a means to make their professional goals possible, they will forge their way to reinvent their identity, reposition their families, and make their professional dreams a reality.

Still need to see that first-generation success is possible? 

Read below to discover a few first-gen graduates who made their dreams come true.

Famous and inspirational first-generation graduates include:

  •  Albert Einstein, Theoretical physicist
  • Bill Clinton, 42nd United States President
  • Colin Powell, Former United States Secretary of State
  • Dr. Ben Carson, United States Secretary of Housing and Urban Development
  • Elizabeth Warren, United States Senator
  • Gerald Ford, 38th United States President
  • Howard Schultz, Former CEO of Starbucks
  • Jimmy Carter, 39th United States President
  • Joan Rivers, Former actress, author, and comic
  • John Lewis, former United States Representative and civil rights activist
  • Larry King, American television host
  • Michelle Kwan, American figure skater
  • Michelle Obama, American attorney, author, and former First Lady of the United States
  • Oprah Winfrey, American talk show host, television producer, and philanthropist
  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States
  • Samuel L. Jackson, Actor
  • Sonia Sotomayor, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States
  • Tennessee Williams, American playwright 
  • Thurgood Marshall, Former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States
  • Viola Davis, American actress
  • Walt Disney, American entrepreneur

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