Obtaining a college degree can be an exciting, challenging, and sometimes frustrating experience for any student. For undergrads who are the first in their families to pursue a higher education, though, the process oftentimes involves greater amounts of stress and uncertainty.
Common issues weighing on the minds of first-generation college students – frequently defined as students from families in which their parents did not earn a four-year degree -- include:
- Paying tuition and expenses
- Feeling like they don’t belong
- Worrying that their academic background is insufficient
- Lacking role models and others who can offer advice based on experience
- Handling familial pressure to succeed, or at the other extreme, to quit
All of these things add up – to the tune of a graduation rate of only 34 percent among first-generation college students as compared with 55 percent of the general student population. How might this figure improve? Here are some strategies for first-generation college students as they navigate the world of higher education:
- Understand the financial aid process.
A variety of ways exist to pay for college. Don’t be afraid to consult early and often with the financial aid counselors at your academic institution. You aren’t bothering them – it’s their job to help!
The first thing they will likely advise it to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This form involves providing information regarding your finances and that of your parents if you are a dependent. Results are used to help determine how much money you can reasonably afford to pay for college vs. how much it actually costs.
You might turn out to be eligible for federal or institutional grants, which is money that does not have to be repaid. Or, you might qualify for a student loan with a desirable interest rate. You might be presented the chance to hold a campus job, known as a work-study.
Note, too, that various organizations give out scholarships to students based on factors such as need, talent, ambition, cultural heritage, or career aspirations. Checking out scholarships for first-generation students is a great place to start.
- Look for support.
Think everybody around you comes from a long line of college graduates? Think again. Roughly a third of undergraduates in the United States are first-generation. Connect with them and you’ll find people who share many of your concerns. Numerous schools have student clubs specifically for bringing first-gens together.
Also, note that colleges often run summer bridge programs that allow certain students to get an early start on campus. Such set-ups allow extra time to navigate the campus, learn study skills, meet advisory staff, and form friendships with other attendees.
During the schoolyear, approach professors for academic assistance. They want you to succeed, and asking for help is not a sign of weakness. Likewise, take advantage of free services such as tutoring.
- Cut yourself some slack.
Finally, take pride in the fact that you’re going to college. Higher education opens up a world of possibilities, and a degree will serve you well for life. However, realize that the road to graduation can get a bit bumpy at times. Just because you messed up one test or wrote a lackluster paper does not mean you’ve let down your family or don’t have what it takes to succeed. College is about more than grades – it’s about growing and persevering. Learning how to stay confident in the face of obstacles will make you not just a better student now but also a better person for a lifetime.