First-Generation Students in Higher Education

Jul 11, 2021 by

Helping First-Generation Students in Higher Education

Going to college can be an insurmountable challenge. It is particularly the case for those who are the first in their family to go to a college or university. First-generation students face particular challenges in higher education. Evidence suggests that they are more likely not to complete their degrees. Higher education administrators recognize the importance of first-generation students, according to a report that 56% of newly enrolled students were the first of their families to attend higher educational institutions. While 59% were the first of their siblings to attend college (Bussey, 2020: Lee et. al, 2014). Leaders in higher education can help first generation students to overcome these barriers so that they can achieve their goals.

Challenges Facing First-Generation Students

One of the most pressing issues that face first-generation students is financial. Studies have shown that because they come from families whose members are not college-educated that they are more likely to belong to lower-income groups. According to one source, first-generation college students’ families have an average income of approximately $41,000. The average income of continuing generation students was $ 90,000 (NASPA, 2019). As a result, many first-generation students struggle to pay for tuition and to meet the costs of living on campus.  Those students who are the first of their families to enroll in college are more likely to have to work part-time. This places them at a greater disadvantage compared to continuing generation students. Having to work while in education can result in higher dropout rates and lower educational outcomes.

Another challenge facing students who have no family members who attended college is that they fail to take advantage of the on-campus centers and resources. This may be a result that they do not have a parent or sibling who attended college to provide them with guidance on how to adapt to college life. First-generation students are far less likely to use student advice services and academic support services (Bussey, 2020). In particular, they are often reluctant to engage with services that may offer financial supports. They are often unable to become part of networks that can provide them with informal social and educational supports, which can help them to achieve their goals.  First-generation students are less likely to play an active role in the learning community and this can impact negatively on their experiences in higher education. Many first-generation students perceive that they will not perform well academically (Demetriou, et al, 2017). This may be a factor in these students having lower retention rates than continuing generation students.

Helping First-Generation Students Reach their Goals

The first issue that should be recognized is the importance of first-generation students and that they have challenges that are unique to them. Higher education administrators should seek to be advocates for first-generation students.  Specific retention strategies have to be put in place for these students such as those outlined by the Academic Awareness Forum.  These could include using data analytics to identify if a first-generation student is struggling. Workshops can be established that train the faculty and staff to better support those who are the first of their family to enroll in college. Making on-campus resources visible and accessible to first-generation students (Ives & Castillo-Montoya, 2020) is a key component to their success. This could be done by alerting them by emails or texts about services or upcoming events. Inform first-generation students that the faculty recognizes their challenges and that they are legitimate, and this can encourage them to benefit from much needed services. If these students utilize these services then maybe some of the financial and other barriers they face can be overcome (Bussey, 2020). Higher education administrators can remove administrative and bureaucratic barriers. For example, making applications for financial aid more accessible and straightforward. This is important for first-generation students because they do not have a parent or sibling who can support them.  Then it could be helpful to provide online tools for students who are the first in their families to attend college, for example, the online resources provided by AAMC. These resources can enable first generation students to acclimate successfully to college life by offering advice on how to achieve their professional and personal goals.

Comment: How can a higher education administrators help to create a more supportive culture for first-generation students?

Keywords: first-generation students challenges, higher education administrators


Bussey, Thomas (2020). Understanding the Challenges Facing First-Generation College Students. Faculty Focus. Retrieved from:

Demetriou, C., Meece, J., Eaker-Rich, D., & Powell, C. (2017). The activities, roles, and relationships of successful first-generation college students. Journal of College Student Development, 58(1), 19-36. Retrieved from:

Ives, J., & Castillo-Montoya, M. (2020). First-generation college students as academic learners: A systematic review. Review of Educational Research, 90(2), 139-178. Retrieved from:

Lee, Jason and John A. Mueller. 2014. “Student Loan Debt Literacy: A Comparison of First-Generation and Continuing-Generation College Students.” Journal of College Student Development, vol. 55 no. 7. 714-719. Retrieved from:

NASPA (2019). First-generation College Students: Demographic Characteristics and Postsecondary Enrollment.” Washington, DC: NASPA. Retrieved from:

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