Obstacles First-Generation College Students Face

First-generation college students face a host of obstacles from the minute they receive acceptance to a college or university until the day they graduate.

Heading to college as a first-generation college student is not as uncommon as one might think. According to research from UCLA and the New York Times, 20 percent of the 7.3 million undergraduates attending four-year private and public institutions are first-generation college students. On top of that, nearly 50 percent of all first-generation college students come from low-income families.

First-generation college students face a host of obstacles from the minute they receive acceptance to a college or university until the day they graduate.

A Lack of Resources

First-generation college students experience challenges in four areas: financial, professional, academic, and psychological.

These students, more so than any other student, need professional mentoring. First-generation students are more likely to work their summers in retail settings instead of working in an internship. They cannot afford to work for free and their parents do not have a professional network from which to find an internship.

Many first-generation students apply to just one college because they do not have the money to pay for multiple application fees. Most apply blindly since they have not been on college tours with their parents.

The Stigma of Being a First-Generation College Student

Even though there are many successful first-generation college students in the public eye (former First Lady Michelle Obama, Senator Elizabeth Warren, and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor), there is still a heavy stigma associated with being a first-generation college student.

Because of the stigma, many of these students attempt to remain anonymous or invisible for fear that once their status is known they will be treated or looked at differently. There’s the worry that their status will be viewed as a deficit and that they will be pitied by others.

In the most extreme circumstances, some professors and fellow students will even question the validity of the first-generation college student being on campus. With fewer resources and coming from a low-income family, many first-generation college students often become targets of discrimination.

Reduced Use of On-Campus Resources

One of the biggest obstacles faced by first-generation college students is the reduced use of on-campus resources. These resources include academic support, advisement, and health. When it comes to health, 14 percent of first-generation students report using health services, compared to 29 percent of continuing generation students.

Guilt from Leaving Family Behind

First-generation college students experience heavy guilt from leaving family behind to attend college. Mix guilt in with longing for home and feeling alone, and first-generation college students experience a mix of emotions that can be debilitating if they don’t seek help. The guilt increases when the student is the lone English-speaking member of the family. The guilt turns into a feeling of abandonment.

A Lack of Support from Home

A first-generation college student might also experience a lack of support from their family at home compared to continuing generation students. Without support from family, many first-generation college students might struggle to remain on course with their classes. At the same time, the family members at home likely don’t understand the anxiety and pressure that comes with going to college since they’ve never experienced it themselves.

Lack of Knowledge About the College Experience

A first-generation college student will struggle with a lack of knowledge about the college experience because they don’t have anyone to discuss it with in their family. Unless they have a high school teacher they can speak to, a neighbor, or a close friend who went to college; the first-generation student doesn’t have anyone to pull experiences from prior to arriving on campus.

Why Do First-Generation Students Decide to Enroll in College?

For the most part, first-generation students decide to enroll in college in an effort to meet the requirements set forth for the profession they are seeking. On the flip side, many of these students believe that by attending college, they can bring honor to their family when they become the first to graduate.

The vast majority of first-generation students decide to enroll in college in an attempt to help their families. According to a study from the National Library of Medicine, just 39 percent of students go to college to help their parents if their parents earned a degree. That is compared to the 69 percent of first-generation students who enroll to help their families.

This sentiment extends to the communities of the first-generation students, as 61 percent list wanting to give back to their communities as a reason when asked why they want to enroll in college. That is compared to just 43 percent of students whose parents have earned a degree.

First-generation college students face a myriad of obstacles both at home and at school. Some families might feel that the student is turning their back on their family history. Others will be viewed as a different person when they are home compared to when they are at school.


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