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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:
- What is a first generation college student?
- Different colleges define first generation differently
- Why does first generation status matter?
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, which 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.
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:
- Fee waivers when applying to colleges/universities
- Scholarships (partial and full) just for first generation students
- Free books and computers
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
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.