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First Generation College Students: Challenges and Advice

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Going to college has become more of a necessity than a luxury. At some large corporations, even entry-level jobs require bachelor’s degrees. But many high school students out there—even those with good grades and a desire to succeed—question whether or not they “deserve” to attend or if they’re even “college material.” These students are often the first members of their families to go to college, and they face unique challenges as a result.

Planning and Preparing for College during High School

Some students begin planning and preparing for college as early as their freshman and sophomore years of high school, especially if both of their parents went to college and “know the drill” or they want to attend one of the most prestigious schools in the country. They take the PSAT to practice for the SAT, attend college fairs or visit the schools their older siblings are already attending.

But students whose parents (or aunts and uncles, siblings, cousins, or other relatives) didn’t continue their educations past high school are at a disadvantage, particularly if they attend crowded schools with less-than-stellar guidance departments. Chances are, no one at home even mentions college, let alone asks where they want to go and how they’re preparing for it.

Many low- and middle-income families—or even high-income families whose members did not go to college for one reason or another—simply don’t discuss education at home. The parents might have misconceptions about college or fears about paying for an education.

Speaking with a trusted teacher or family friend who did go to college, or setting up a meeting with a high school guidance counselor is a step in the right direction. So is doing some online research or checking books out at the library. These can lead to a variety of helpful things, including:

  • Taking career tests that can help suggest possible careers
  • Learning about potential earnings and job opportunities for those careers
  • Educational requirements and training
  • Planning a high school schedule that includes college preparatory classes
  • Learning the difference between community colleges, trade schools, colleges, and universities
  • Understanding accreditation and its importance
  • Scheduling standardized tests
  • Applying to colleges
  • Searching for scholarships
  • Applying for and understanding types of financial aid

Problems Adjusting to College Life

Some students are able to get the above-mentioned assistance, graduate from high school—often with honors—and enroll in college, only to flounder and drop out after a semester or two. According to The Chicago Tribune, a 2010 study by the National Center for Education Statistics found that just 40 percent of students whose parents never went to college actually earn a degree. Comparatively, the same study found that 69 percent of students whose parents had degrees also graduated from college.

Many first generation college students are unable to adjust to college and the challenges it presents. College campuses are larger than high schools. Classes are harder. Some professors mistakenly assume that all incoming students went through particular experiences or had access to various resources throughout their lives, things that many first generation students do not understand or did not have for financial or cultural reasons.

It’s tough for most new college students to feel like they fit in with everyone else. The challenge is even worse for those who grew up in families that spoke different languages, lived in poor neighborhoods, or attended bad schools. Many must enroll in remedial classes; many don’t have spare money for necessities let alone going out with friends. Adjusting to a college schedule—classes that meet at sporadic times throughout the week—can be difficult to get used to.

Students who still live at home rather than in the dorms may receive little or no support from their families. Sometimes it’s unintentional; parents and siblings may not understand what’s going on, or they might assume “school is school” without realizing that there are big differences between college and high school.

Knowing Where to Find Help

USA Today reported in 2010 that 25 percent of low-income first generation college students drop out of school within their first year and 89 percent quit before earning a degree within six years. Schools are catching on to this trend, and many colleges and universities are making an effort to combat problems facing first generation college students by forming special programs and even special housing just for them.

Special orientation programs are being held at the start of the semester, and mentoring programs are being formed. Professors and staff members who were also the first in their family to further their educations are sharing their own stories and struggles with students. Advisors are scheduling mandatory meetings with first generation students to help them keep on top of things. Residence halls that are exclusively for first generation students, a group who has a lot in common, offer a sanctuary of sorts.

And the programs appear to be helping. When the USA Today article was published, eleven of the 14 students who moved into the University of Cincinnati’s special first generation housing facility when it opened in 2008 and all 24 students who moved into the house in September 2009 are still are in college.

If you’re not sure if your college—or the college you’re considering attending—offers such resourses, a trip to the academic advising office is probably the best place to begin. If “official” programs aren’t in place, request to speak with someone who can help you find a mentor, or ask a professor that you like and trust if he or she is willing to meet with you on a regular basis. These relationships can help make or break your college experience—as they say, it’s who you know. Speaking up when you need help is one of the biggest keys to success in college.


Melissa Rhone+

Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.

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