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What is a First Generation College Student? (And Why it Matters)

By Maria Geiger

Maria Geiger is Director of Content at Scholarships360. She is a former online educational technology instructor and adjunct writing instructor. In addition to education reform, Maria’s interests include viewpoint diversity, blended/flipped learning, digital communication, and integrating media/web tools into the curriculum to better facilitate student engagement. Maria earned both a B.A. and an M.A. in English Literature from Monmouth University, an M. Ed. in Education from Monmouth University, and a Virtual Online Teaching Certificate (VOLT) from the University of Pennsylvania.

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Reviewed by Bill Jack

Bill Jack has over a decade of experience in college admissions and financial aid. Since 2008, he has worked at Colby College, Wesleyan University, University of Maine at Farmington, and Bates College.

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Updated: February 7th, 2024
What is a First Generation College Student? (And Why it Matters)

One of the first questions on the Common Application asks about the educational history of the applicant’s parents. This information, along with other information (such as income and/or Pell Grants), helps colleges and universities decide who is a first generation student. 

In this post, we’ll explain who is considered first generation by whom, and how that determination might affect admission chances, financial awards, and overall college experience.

Jump ahead to:

If you are looking for scholarships, you can check out our top list of scholarships for first generation students!

What is a first generation college student?

To begin, let’s start at the federal level Higher Education Act of 1965 and 1998 defines first generation students as follows:

  • An individual both of whose parents did not complete a baccalaureate degree 
  • In the case of any individual who regularly resided with and received support from only one parent, an individual whose only such parent did not complete a baccalaureate degree

Seems clear enough, right? By this definition, the educational level of the parent(s) who lived with the student should be counted. Let’s look at the following example:

A student’s mother has a four-year degree, but the student was raised by their father without a degree. Therefore, they are technically considered first generation by the government.

Sounds straightforward? As far as federal guidelines, yes. However, individual colleges and universities use their own formulas to determine first generation status.

Different colleges define first generation differently 

Some colleges/universities consider students first-generation only if :

  • No one in their family ever attended college
  • Their siblings did not attend college
  • Basically, zero education after high school for all family members

Yet, other colleges/universities state that:

  • If the parent(s) attended college, but did not graduate from a four-year college or university, students are first generation
  • Only the parents educational status matters, not grandparents or siblings

For example, at Marquette University, even if your grandparents graduated from Ivy League schools, but your parents did not graduate with four-year degrees, you would still be considered first generation. 

The definition of first-generation is a work in progress

In 2017, the New York Times cited a study by a professor at the University of Georgia. Analyzing the term “first generation” as applied to 7,300 students, the research revealed that the number of students who could be defined as first-generation ranged from 22 percent to 77 percent.

Obviously, a more general definition of first generation is needed. This is something that policy makers are and continue to work on.

Related: Top scholarships for adopted and foster children

Why does first generation college student status matter?

Recognizing that first generation students may be at a disadvantage compared to their peers, universities take steps to provide extra support. These three advantages include:

Admission & scholarship advantages

  • Shows that despite exposure to higher education, the first generation student attained their goals
  • When all other factors are the same, being first generation might be the tipping point for admissions or scholarships

Monetary first generation advantages

In addition to academic and social campus support, some colleges are more financially friendly to first generation students. This includes:

Support on campus

Being first-generation, students may feel that they are at a disadvantage when navigating the campus experience. Some colleges and universities offer special programs for first generation students that help them:

  • Adjust to the expectations of university life, including social aspects
  • Connect with other first-generation college students and share experiences
  • Handle the pressure of being the first in their family to attend college 

For example, Princeton University offers the “Scholars Institute Fellows Program” for low-income first generation students. This program offers a support network of faculty, staff, and students who mentor and offer academic enrichment and support. 

FAFSA reminder!

Whether you are a first generation student or not, all financial aid starts with the FAFSA, so fill out yours ASAP! Each year, only 65% of high school seniors complete the FAFSA, with first-generation and low-income students less likely to do so. 

Related: When is the FASFA deadline for your state?

Final thoughts on first-generation status

Remember, when evaluating your applications, the main criteria for evaluations will be your academic performance, essays, recommendations, and extracurricular activities. As we have seen, whether or not you are declared a first generation student or not by the admissions team can be arbitrary. 

Truthfully informing colleges/universities of your family educational history will only help you. If you are a high achieving student who did not benefit from the guidance of college educated family members, it is only going to make you look all the more impressive to also be first generation.

Key Takeaways

Key Takeaways

  • The federal definition of “first generation” is a student who was raised by a parent(s) who did not complete a baccalaureate degree 
  • Colleges and universities have differing definitions of first generation students 
  • Being recognized as a first generation student has advantages when it comes to admissions, financial aid, and support on campus
  • Always fill out the FAFSA as soon as it opens in your state!
Key Takeaways

Frequently asked questions about who is a first generation student

Am I first generation college student if my grandparents went to college?

According to the Education Act, first-generation college students are defined as individuals whose parents did not complete a bachelor’s degree. If your grandparents went to college, but your parents did not, you are a first-generation college student, as your immediate parents did not obtain a college degree. However, higher education institutes often have their own definition of what makes a student “first generation” so always confirm.

Are you first generation if only one of your parents went to college?

“First generation” typically refers to students who are the first in their immediate family to attend college. It usually means that neither parent earned a college degree. However, definitions vary by institution, so always check with the colleges or universities you plan to apply to if in doubt.

Are there scholarships especially for first-generation students?

Yes! Some scholarships are offered specifically for first-generation students. Two well-known first generation scholarships are the Coca-Cola Scholarship and the Gates Millennium Scholars Program.

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