How to Prepare a First-Generation Student for College

  (Updated May 24, 2022)
Michelle Bouslog
Michelle Bouslog
EdTech teacher; M.A.Ed. in EdTech, Concordia University St. Paul, MN

Around half of all students currently attending college are a first-generation student — the first in their families to do so. This is very exciting for the student and their families as well! However, there are some difficulties that these students can face.

What exactly is a first-gen college student? What challenges do they typically face regarding college? How has the pandemic presented challenges for first-gen students approaching college? And finally, how can educators prepare these first-generation high school students for college and career readiness?

What is a First-Generation Student?

Center for First Generation College Student Success explains that a first-generation student’s parents did not complete a four-year college or university degree. This could still mean they have taken a few collegiate classes. A first-generation student is also still considered one even if another family member (such as an aunt or uncle) has obtained a college degree.

What Challenges Do First Generation Students Face Regarding College?

First-generation college students can face many challenges.

Guilt

For starters, there can be some guilt. They may feel like they should stay home to start earning money to support their family. A first-generation high school student can feel bad leaving siblings and not being around to care for them. Others may feel guilty that they can have this opportunity when their parents did not.

Confusion

Some first-generation high school students also feel less adequate than their peers. They may not know how to navigate resources such as work-study programs, financial aid, or their healthcare options as easy as everyone else. They may not be as used to advocating for themselves. Since their parents have not been through this collegiate process, first-generation students may not know who to turn to for advice in these areas in which they are unfamiliar.

Financial Struggles

First-gen students may come from families with lower incomes than their peers. Because of this, they often walk away with more considerable student debt. Some have to take on one or more jobs throughout college to help pay for their schooling. These students can have greater stress and time taken away from their studies with this financial obligation; this financial burden is one of the most common reasons first-gen students drop out and walk away from their college education.

What Challenges Did COVID Present First-Generation High School Students Approaching College?

Where first-generation college students already have difficulty paving the way to get a college degree, the COVID-19 pandemic made that road even harder. Some were on their way to college readiness and becoming first-gen college students, but had to change plans and stay home in order to protect themselves or their family. Some even had to work to make up for their parents, who had to stop going to work due to health-related issues.

Others were overwhelmed with the pandemic itself, and the thought of entering into another unknown was entirely too overwhelming. Now that the world is learning how to live with COVID and we are aware of the other challenges first-generation students face, what are some ways educators can prepare first-gen students for college?

How to Prepare First Generation Students for College 

Financial Aid Conversations

One area that can be confusing to navigate are the options available for financial aid. In order to set first-generation students and their families up for success, it can be very beneficial to make sure everyone understands what it means to receive financial aid and the options out there.

Schools can hold a family night where representatives of financial aid institutions come host an informational meeting and allow time for questions that can help parents think about how they will fund college. It is always better to have no surprises, especially with such a massive investment like college. Getting everyone on the same page can help everyone feel more comfortable on the path ahead for funding a college education.

College Visits

College visits can also help students feel more comfortable and familiar with their future college campus. Taking the time to bring students to campus and tour it can eliminate some stress they will feel when they arrive there. Once they have their list of first semester classes, attending another campus visit and locating where each building is on campus can also help students feel prepared for their first day.

Critical Thinking Projects 

Educators can help prepare first-generation students for college by incorporating critical thinking projects into their curriculum. Critical thinking lessons are essential for students to learn how to make good decisions, understand the consequences of their actions, and become problem solvers.

These skills allow students to think one step ahead and know that their choices have actions and reactions. It helps prepare them for their future college courses that will involve many types of critical thinking projects.

Work Ethic 

Teaching students what a good work ethic is and how it can play a role in success is an important concept to teach. Working hard is not always rewarded immediately, but understanding how it can contribute to future career success and obtaining goals can help students understand their road ahead. Presenting different scenarios to students or bringing in guest speakers from the community can help students gain a perspective of what it takes to get where they want to be.

Many students currently in college are the first ones in their families to attend a post-graduate school. This is very exciting to be a first-generation student but can come with many challenges. Educators can help prepare students to be college ready, comfortable, confident, and competent as they enter the next stage in their educational journey.

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*Updated May 2022
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