First-generation students are those whose parents don’t have a college degree. Oftentimes, they’re also the first ones in their families to ever set foot on campus as a student. Because of this, they have little to no guidance when it comes to navigating things like college admissions, financial aid and undergraduate coursework, making it harder for them to achieve postsecondary success. However, attending college is still worth it; a college degree opens the door to more jobs and higher incomes over time.
Key first-generation college student statistics
- One-third of all college students in the U.S. are first-generation students.
- Roughly 60 percent of first-generation students were also the first sibling in their family to go to college during the 2015-16 academic year.
- The median age of first-generation college students is 23, while more than one-third of them are over the age of 30.
- Only 21 percent of Gen Z students are first-generation students.
- First-generation students are more likely to attend public two-year institutions than their peers, accounting for almost two-thirds of all students enrolled at these institutions. In 2015-16, first-generation students also made up 72 percent of the entire student body at private four-year for-profit institutions.
- Most first-generation students attend college part time.
- Sixty-six percent of first-generation students worked while in school in 2015-16, compared to 61 percent of continuing-generation students.
- It is estimated that 30 percent of first-generation students had dependents while in college in 2015-16, versus 16 percent of continuing-generation students.
- Only 27 percent of first-generation students finish college within four years.
- Business and social and behavioral sciences are some of the most popular fields of study among first-generation students.
- Fewer than half of first-generation graduates have a job that requires a bachelor’s degree one year after finishing school.
- The median household income of a first-generation college graduate is $99,600, compared to $135,800 for households of continuing-generation graduates.
What is a first-generation college student?
According to the Center for First-Generation Student Success, a first-generation student is one whose parents did not complete a four-year college or university degree — even if other members of the family have.
However, the definition may vary from one institution to the next. For instance, some colleges may consider you a continuing-generation student (aka not the first in your family to go to college) if either of your parents attended a postsecondary institution, regardless of whether they actually got their degrees.
Although these distinctions may not seem like a big deal, they are. Being a first-generation student means that you may have access to additional tools and resources to help you succeed that aren’t available to other students. That’s why it’s so important to check with your admissions office whether you fall into this category and whether you qualify for these unique opportunities.
Challenges first-generation students face
First-generation college students face a unique set of challenges, including balancing several identities, working one or multiple jobs and managing family obligations — all while trying to get an education to further their career.
But Sarah Whitley, vice president of the Center for First-Generation Student Success, says that first-generation students’ biggest hurdle for a successful college experience is their lack of understanding about how higher education works as a whole.
“Institutions can be such complex bureaucratic and jargon-filled entities it can be difficult for first-generation students to access the support and resources imperative to their success,” Whitley says. “First-generation students are often academically prepared and very talented — it’s just that sometimes they lack the information and resources needed to select the best institution for them, to understand the admissions and financial aid process, and to know the right questions to ask along the way.”
First-generation students by demographic
First-generation students come from different backgrounds, with the majority of them identifying as white, Hispanic/Latinx or Black/African American, according to the Center for First-Generation Student Success. This breakdown is similar to that of continuing-generation students. Additionally, as with continuing-generation students, the first-generation space is predominantly female, with only 40 percent of first-generation students identifying as male.
Although there isn’t much information in terms of age distribution, we do know that first-generation students tend to be older than their peers — the Postsecondary National Policy Institute found that first-generation students have a median age of 23, compared to 21 for those whose parents have at least one bachelor’s degree.
First-generation students’ household incomes
A data analysis published by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation found that households headed by high school graduates earn about 31 percent less a year than those who have an associate degree and 56 percent less than those who have a bachelor’s or another advanced degree. In other words, there’s a significant wealth gap between first-generation and continuing-generation students’ households, which could make the transition into college trickier for first-generation students.
|Educational attainment of household head||Median household income (2020)|
|Bachelor’s degree or higher||$106,936|
|High school diploma||$47,405|
|Some high school||$29,520|
|Less than 9th grade||$29,609|
Source: Peter G. Peterson Foundation
First-generation students’ success rates
Having parents who attended college increases the likelihood of graduating college, as students are better prepared to navigate our complex higher education system. In fact, among adults whose parents have no college experience, only 20 percent completed their degrees, versus 60 percent of those who had at least one parent with a bachelor’s degree.
First-generation student loan debt
When it comes to borrowing money to pay for college, first-generation students tend to borrow more than their peers with college-educated parents — but not by much. Pew Research Center estimates that 65 percent of first-generation students owe at least $25,000 in student loans, compared with 57 percent of continuing-generation students.
First-generation student median salary
A study by the Pew Research Center found that there’s often a wealth gap between first-generation and continuing-generation students even after they graduate. The median household income for graduates who have at least one college-educated parent was $135,800 in 2019, compared to $99,600 for graduates whose parents didn’t attend college — a a 36 percent difference.
But although first-generation graduates lack this economic advantage known as the “parent premium,” which puts them in a better position to build wealth, they do get a larger salary boost from their degrees, according to the Federal Reserve.
Tips to succeed as a first-generation college student
Although the road to college as a first-generation student may be tougher compared to that of students who have someone to guide them through the process, Whitley says that there are three things you can do for a more successful college experience.
Embrace your first-gen identity
Many first-generation students keep their status to themselves — sometimes out of fear of acceptance — which in turn holds them back from taking advantage of the unique opportunities that are available to them.
“Embracing this part of your identity can open doors to experiences and resources, so don’t keep it a secret,” Whitley says. “It is important to identify as first-generation during the admissions experience so resources and opportunities can be opened to you. There are many institutions with dedicated first-generation resources – over 275 have the Center’s First-gen Forward designation – and it is important to look for those options when shopping for colleges.”
Don’t be afraid to ask questions
One of the main hurdles that first-generation college students face is their lack of knowledge when it comes to how college works. That’s why it’s so important ask questions and reach out for help if you ever need it.
“Many campuses have support and resources available for first-generation students like TRIO. Some of these are stand-alone and others are incorporated into offers for other intersectional identities,” Whitley says. “There’s also learning and writing centers, advisors, tutors and student success initiatives to which any student can access and, most often, at no cost.”
Find a mentor within your community
One of the best things about going to college is that you’ll meet a very diverse group of people — including other first-generation students — whom you can connect with and who can guide you based on their own experiences.
Additionally, Whitley points out that many professors and other staff publicly identify as being first-generation, and they are usually happy to connect with others with similar experiences. She says that finding a faculty or staff person to serve as a resource and mentor is one of the top ways first-generation students report being more successful in college, so it’s worth giving it a shot.
While 64 percent of students whose parents attended college graduated within six years, only 50 percent of first-generation students earned their degrees in that time frame.Why is it difficult for some first-generation students in college? ›
First-generation students often experience guilt over leaving their families and possibly their financial responsibilities at home. Many first-gen students feel badly that they have an opportunity other family members did not have, as well as guilt over feeling as though they are rejecting their past and community.How many college students are there in the United States in 2022? ›
In Spring 2022: 15.9 million students were enrolled at a postsecondary institution. About 11.6 million students, or 73%, were enrolled in an associate or bachelor's program.Are you a first-generation college student Yes? ›
Being a first-gen student means that your parent(s) did not complete a 4-year college or university degree, regardless of other family member's level of education. Older siblings and family members who attended college may be a great resource as you navigate your college journey!What are the statistics of first generation college students? ›
One-third of all college students in the U.S. are first-generation students. Roughly 60 percent of first-generation students were also the first sibling in their family to go to college during the 2015-16 academic year.Do First Gen students have an advantage? ›
Do students who will be the first in their families to attend college have an advantage in highly selective college admissions? You bet they do! America's elite universities love to admit students whose parents did not attend college, to serve as pathways for these young people to socioeconomic mobility.What are barriers for first generation college students? ›
- College Readiness. ...
- Financial Challenges. ...
- Racial Disparity. ...
- Lack of Self-esteem, College Adjustment, and Family Support. ...
- College Assimilation and Family Support. ...
- Personal Characteristics and Self-efficacy.
- Work (34%)
- Paying expenses (34%)
- Family and friends (30%)
- Online classes (21%)
- Parking on campus (21%)
According to the Pew Research Center, schools consider learners first-generation students if neither of their parents earned a bachelor's degree. Most colleges and universities welcome first-generation students, with many offering scholarships and financial support specifically for first-gen students.Are less students going to college 2022? ›
According to preliminary data released Thursday, U.S. colleges and universities saw a drop of just 1.1% of undergraduate students between the fall of 2021 and 2022. This follows a historic decline that began in the fall of 2020; over two years, more than 1 million fewer students enrolled in college.
Community college freshmen increased by 6,000 students or 3.1%, after a decline the previous spring of 23,000 students, a 10.7% loss. Public four-year colleges reported an increase in freshmen of 7,300 students, a gain of 10.8%.Why does the Fafsa care if my parents attended college? ›
The federal student aid program does not take parental education status into account when awarding aid. However, some states and colleges do. First generation college students may qualify for special grants or scholarships. So make sure to list your parents' highest level of education on the FAFSA.Do I count as a first generation college student if my parents went to college in a different country? ›
If your parents went to community college ONLY, or a technical school, or to a NON four year school in another country, you are still a first-gen. If your parent *did* go to college but they passed away and you lived without them for more than half of your life, then you are a first-gen.What does Harvard consider first generation? ›
1 We consider you a first-generation college student —or “first-gen” for short— if you will be in the first generation of your immediate family to graduate from a four-year college or the equivalent.What percentage of white college students are first generation? ›
Hispanic children are the most likely to be first-generation in college (74%), followed by Black (63%), and all other races (48%), which includes American Indian, Asian, and Multiracial. White children are the least likely to be first-generation in college (36%).What is a 1.5 generation student? ›
What Generation 1.5 students have in common is that they share characteristics of both first and second generation immigrants (hence the title Generation 1.5), but they do not fall into traditional categories of English as a Second Language students. They are U.S. educated but do not have English as a home language.What are three 3 struggles commonly faced by college students? ›
- Social anxiety, general anxiety, test anxiety, or panic attacks.
- Family expectations or problems.
- Depression, lack of energy or motivation, hopelessness, being overwhelmed, low self-esteem, homesickness, loneliness.
lack of motivation as the number one barrier to students' success in college. Lack of motivation has various symptoms: students arriving late to class or being absent, assignments turned in late or not at all, work done sloppily, appointments missed, offers of support ignored, and students not participating in class.What do first-generation students struggle with? ›
First-generation students often experience guilt over leaving their families and possibly their financial responsibilities at home. Many first-gen students feel bad that they have an opportunity other family members did not have and guilt over feeling as though they are rejecting their past and community.What is the greatest challenge today's students face 2022? ›
- Children Living in Conflict Zones. ...
- Unprecedented Global Hunger. ...
- Two Years of Disrupted Education. ...
- Climate Change. ...
- Children Crossing Borders. ...
- Child Mortality Due to COVID-19.
Put another way, each constituency group in our study — first-year students, graduating students, faculty, administrators, parents, trustees, young alums — ranks mental health as the biggest problem on the college campus.What is the biggest problem college students face? ›
Problem: To afford the high price of college tuition, many students must get jobs. Juggling a job, 15 to 18 credits, relationships, and extracurricular activities is extremely difficult. Many students try to cram all of these activities into one day and do not get enough sleep.How do colleges verify first generation? ›
One of the first questions on the Common Application asks about the educational history of the applicant's parents. This information, along with other information (such as income and/or Pell Grants), helps colleges and universities decide who is a first generation student.Is Gen Z less likely to go to college? ›
According to the Pew Research Center, Gen Z is the least likely to drop out of high school and the most likely to go to college, compared with older generations. As learners, Gen Z prefers interactive experiences over traditional passive learning environments.What are the Top 5 reasons students drop of college? ›
- Financial concerns. Here's a troubling statistic: 89% of students from the first generation in low-earning families tend to drop out of college. ...
- Don't have time. ...
- College social life. ...
- Lack of support. ...
- Academic disqualification.
If you are wondering, will it be easier to get into college in 2022? the answer is no. In fact, the class of 2026 college acceptance rates is at a record low. This is especially true for Ivy League colleges.Is college enrollment increasing or decreasing? ›
To be sure, undergraduate enrollment was falling even before the pandemic, but remote learning — coupled with the sky-high cost of college — triggered a nosedive. The number of undergraduates enrolled in college nationwide is now down 9.4% compared to two years ago — a loss of nearly 1.4 million students.Why are fewer kids going to college? ›
There are 4 million fewer students in college now than there were 10 years ago, a falloff many observers blame on Covid-19, a dip in the number of Americans under 18 and a strong labor market that is sucking young people straight into the workforce.What race goes to college the most 2022? ›
- 55% of enrolled college students are White.
- The enrollment rate of Native Americans dropped by 13%.
- The enrollment rate of Black Americans dropped by 8.8%.
- The enrollment rate of White Americans dropped by 8.5%.
- The enrollment rate of Latin Americans dropped by 7.3%.
- The enrollment rate of Asians dropped by 4.8%.
A 2022 EAB report found a steady increase over the last seven years in the average number of applications per student. "Applications being up just means students are applying to more schools.
In fact, the single fastest-growing segment of the student population is the proportion of students aged 25 and older. While the total population of college students increased by 41 percent between 1970 and 2000, the population of students older than 25 boomed by 170 percent.What is the success rate of college students? ›
College Graduates by Age
63.8% of college students who enroll in bachelor's programs at age 18 years or younger graduate within 5 years. 59.9% of those who enroll in bachelor's programs at age 19 years graduate within 5 years. 29.4% of 20- to 23-year-olds who enroll in bachelor's programs graduate within 5 years.
Data Summary. Between 2019 and 2020, about 24% of first-time, full-time undergraduate first-year students dropped out of college. In 2021, 31.6% of students who enrolled in 2015 were no longer enrolled six years later and had not received their degree.At what age does FAFSA stop requiring parents? ›
Declare Yourself Independent for Financial Aid. A student age 24 or older by Dec. 31 of the award year is considered independent for federal financial aid purposes.How much money can my parents make to qualify for FAFSA? ›
The FAFSA uses several factors to calculate your expected family contribution (EFC). You could qualify for maximum financial aid if you or your parents make less than $27,000. A student can make up to $7,040 before it affects their FAFSA. Explore multiple ways to pay for college beyond federal student aid.At what age can you stop putting your parents on FAFSA? ›
You can only qualify as an independent student on the FAFSA if you are at least 24 years of age, married, on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces, financially supporting dependent children, an orphan (both parents deceased), a ward of the court, or an emancipated minor.Am I considered first-generation college student if my sister went to college? ›
Yes. Being a first-gen student means that your parent(s) did not complete a 4-year college or university degree, regardless of other family member's level of education. Older siblings and family members who attended college may be a great resource as you navigate your college journey!Are you first-gen If only one of your parents went to college? ›
Being a first-generation college student means that you are the first person in your immediate family to attend college. In other words, neither of your parents has a college degree. Of course, a lot of questions come with being a first-generation college student.Is college harder for first-generation students? ›
Still, there are many challenges that first-gen students encounter in college. They often face psychological, academic, financial, and social challenges, and about one in three leave college within the first three years.What does Yale Consider first gen? ›
At Yale, being “first-generation” (commonly shortened to “first-gen”) is defined by identifying as a student whose parents did not attend college, whether a 2-year or a 4-year institution, making them (and, if applicable, their siblings) the first generation in their families to attend college.
Share of first-generation students in Ivy League schools in the Class of 2026.
|Characteristic||Share of first-generation students|
MIT is proud of its commitment to First Generation students. First Generation students, those whose parents do not have college degrees, comprise 16% of the MIT student population, approximately 800 students in total (undergraduate and graduate).Do colleges like first-generation college students? ›
According to the Pew Research Center, schools consider learners first-generation students if neither of their parents earned a bachelor's degree. Most colleges and universities welcome first-generation students, with many offering scholarships and financial support specifically for first-gen students.What percentage of first-generation college students graduate from college? ›
Highlight: Among students who graduated with a bachelor's degree in academic year 2015–16, 42% were first-generation college graduates, and 58% were continuing-generation college graduates.What are some college success tips for first-generation students? ›
- Utilize spaces, resources, and connections. Taking advantage of the opportunities around you is essential when it comes to navigating college. ...
- Don't let Impostor syndrome bring you down. ...
- Give yourself grace. ...
- Don't be afraid to ask for help. ...
- Stay true to yourself.
As we've gone over, being first-generation is unlikely to hurt your chances of admission to a competitive college. In fact, your first-generation status may not only attract the attention of admissions officers, but also cause your application to be viewed more positively.What percentage of Ivy Leagues are first-generation? ›
Share of first-generation students in Ivy League schools in the Class of 2026.
|Characteristic||Share of first-generation students|
20.3% of those admitted into the 2022-23 freshman class are first-generation students. Admitted students hail from all 50 States in the U.S. and 98 countries.What percentage of white college students are first-generation? ›
Hispanic children are the most likely to be first-generation in college (74%), followed by Black (63%), and all other races (48%), which includes American Indian, Asian, and Multiracial. White children are the least likely to be first-generation in college (36%).What do first year college students struggle with? ›
New friends, new home, new classes, new routine... exciting and overwhelming at the same time. If you experience feelings of sadness and loneliness, don't worry-these feelings are normal and usually pass within the first few months of school.
1. Skipping Class. While skipping class to sleep, study, or socialize may tempt students, attendance often comprises a key part of course grades. Any missed classes can lead to students falling behind in coursework.