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Understanding the First-Generation College Student Experience

Studies show that 40% of college dropouts in 2014 fall under the category of first generation, or the first to attend college from their family. Not because they are inferior or incapable of success, but rather due to obstacles that can affect first generation students on a deeper level than non-first generation students. This is a rather staggering statistic because it suggests that first generation college students only have a 60% chance of graduating from a four-year university.

My question is why.

Why is this the case and what types of struggles do first generation college students face?

How is it that a student who had parents attend college before them makes such a significant difference in terms of graduation rate and overall college experience?

These are the types of issues and questions that you should keep in mind when discussing all of the circumstances and considerations that first gen students have to think about. We must first recognize that there is no single answer or reason as to why one first generation college student may be more successful as opposed to the next. Students all over the country face a variety of circumstances, some of which they have absolutely no control over. For now, we will be discussing the top 3 most prominent issues that first gen students face when going to college.

  • Lack of Perspective

  • Financial Troubles

  • Distorted Social Stigmas and High Expectations for Self

Lack of Perspective

At the very beginning of the college application process, students typically develop a list of schools to choose from where they then narrow down their schools into one and make a final decision. Studies show that parents who have also been through the college application process typically suggest to their children their Alma mater because they know what to expect in terms of how well put together the curriculum is, campus life and activities etc. The disadvantage for first generation students is that they don’t have that same perspective offered by their parents. Their parents cannot provide any insight on what college is like or even make useful suggestions about which schools are better for the goals that their kids are trying to reach. As a result, first gen students are forced to make these decisions on their own. College is difficult enough to navigate your freshman year. Not having any guidance from someone who has experienced college is the opposite of helpful.

Financial Troubles

In 2020, Secondary Success and Beyond took a poll of first generation college students at Northern Illinois University to find out what factors were the most important when considering which college to attend. 63.6% of them told us that the cost of tuition was a factor when deciding where to go to college. Now, you would probably think that anyone who doesn’t come from a

well-off family or has earned a significant amount of money in scholarships or grants, could potentially struggle with paying for college. The difference here is that statistically, those who went to college and got their degrees generate more money annually than those who didn’t. This in turn means that first generation students who come from a home where their parents or guardians did not get a college degree have a higher chance of struggling to pay for school. Students often find themselves having to work to help offset expenses. 81.8% of students polled indicated that they had to work during their four years in undergrad and they all indicated that at times work interfered with their ability to do well in their classes.

Distorted Social Stigmas and High Expectations for Self

Ever heard of imposter syndrome? This phenomenon can often be felt by people of color at predominantly white institutions (PWIs) for example. First gen students can most definitely feel it too when they’re on a college campus. They may feel like people look down on their family or like they don’t belong in classrooms filled with people that they believe have the upper-hand on them. These thoughts are detrimental to students’ success when they consume the focus and progress of their college careers. Because of these thoughts and attitudes, some students begin to experience mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, or extreme levels of stress. While it is possible for anyone to experience these conditions and deconstructive mindsets, it is more likely in first generation college students because they typically do not have the same support systems that second and third generation students do. Over 90% of students polled at NIU told us that they often felt pressure to be a successful college student from their families. One student stated, “My biggest concern was being able to do well in my classes academically. The transition from high school to college was immense, and I was worried that I wouldn't do well, and as a first generation student when I did begin to struggle I didn't really know who to turn to because my single-mom wouldn't really understand what I was going through. As a first generation student there is a lot of pressure to do well because your whole family may be counting on you to do well and may see you as an opportunity for the whole family to move forward in life”. For many first generation students it’s not just about making a successful life for themselves, but for their families too. Carrying that weight of responsibility can be stressfully exhausting to say the least.

Being a first generation student isn’t all doom and gloom though. Being a first generation student is something to be proud of. Hopefully you see it as an opportunity to do something amazing for yourself and your community. Despite all of the things you may be up against as a first gen student, you can still attain your goals. There are resources available to help you leap over those hurdles. SSAB is one of them. Check back next week to see how mentoring can help bring you up to speed and make you competitive amongst your peers.

Written by: Kameron Brown, Journalism and Marketing student at NIU


Authors, Various. “Overcoming First Generation College Students' Struggles.” University of the People, 26 Oct. 2021,

Banuelos, Megan Bahr and Jessica, et al. “First Generation College Students: The Struggle to Graduate .” Universe Narratives, 21 Apr. 2017,

Greenthal, Sharon. “5 Big Challenges for First Generation College Students.” Verywell Family, Verywell Family, 12 Jan. 2022,

Smith, Kaylee. “10 Struggles of Being a First Generation College Student.” The Odyssey Online, 12 Nov. 2018,



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