What Is A First Generation College Student?

What may seem like a simple question at first – “What is a first generation college student” - becomes complex based on the many different definitions schools and the government use for “first-generation” students.

What defines “first-generation”? Does this mean neither parent attended college? What if only one parent attended? What about parents who attended but didn’t receive a degree? What if one parent received a degree, but didn’t raise the student? In this case, does the degree type make a difference – for example Associate’s versus Bachelors? How should biological versus step-parents affect first-generation status?

 One college’s definition of a first-generation student may differ from another’s.

One college’s definition of a first-generation student may differ from another’s.

The Higher Education Act amendment of 1998 defines a first generation college student as “(A) An individual both of whose parents did not complete a baccalaureate degree; or (B) In the case of any individual who regularly resided with and received support from only one parent, and individual whose only such parent did not complete a baccalaureate degree.”

However, when it comes to college admissions, schools can use their own criteria to determine what constitutes “first generation”. Some colleges will be actively seeking students and will develop a broad definition while other colleges will only want to help the most disadvantaged students and will narrow the definition.

While “first generation” may be connoted with low income or minority students, there are of course middle and high income families whose parents did not attend college.

Impact on College

Why do we bother defining and classifying students as first gen? Obviously students who choose to attend college without having parents or others in their family attend can be a very big achievement and is something to be proud of. However, for education policymakers, the desire is to find underserved students and to help them succeed in their college career.

Studies show that first gen students are less likely to attend college, have a harder time succeeding academically and tend to have much higher dropout rates compared to multigenerational students.

For example, in a report published by the US Department of Education titled “First-Generation Students: College Access, Persistence, and Postbachelor’s Outcomes”, 58% of first gen students had enrolled in college immediately after graduation. This is significantly lower than students who had parents with a bachelor’s degree – 78%. This implies first gen students are less likely to attend college.

Students are also less likely to stay in college if they are first generation. Students whose parents never attended college had a 33% drop out rate after three years versus 26% of students whose parents had some college education and only 14% of students whose parents had obtained bachelor’s degrees had dropped out.

Tips on Success

The tips to be a successful first generation college student will be much the same of a multi-generational college student.

There are several things you can do to increase your chance of success. First up – finding the right college and major for you. With College Factual, you can create a profile and answer several criteria on what you find the most important aspects of college. Should it be near your home? What about school size or cost? Once you fill out your profile you will receive top recommendations that you can further evaluate.

The most successful and happy students attend the college that best fits their needs. You will not be successful if you hate the environment you are living or working in. Be sure to think long and hard about what you want out of school and what criteria are most important to you.

Once you narrow down your top picks of school, be sure to put some work into the application process. Be sure you’ve taken as many AP/Honors courses as you can in high school and make sure you take the SAT or ACT tests multiple times throughout high school. Use the Common Application website to help you apply to your top schools. The Common App is accepted at over 800 colleges and makes your life easier by using a single app to apply to multiple colleges.

Once you are in school be sure to take advantage of first generation resources such as counselors and student groups so you can learn the ropes of your college. Be proactive and be sure to take advantage of office hours with teaching assistants and professors. The more you push yourself the quicker you will learn the ropes and learn what works best for you. Take pride in your first generation status but don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it!

Still trying to decide which college is the best for you? Or are you not sure where to start? Try College Factual’s College Matcher for free!