Overcoming challenges as a first-in-family college student

A first-in-family student smiles and looks upward.

Learn ways to use your discipline and determination for applying to, paying for, and thriving in college. Experts from the nonprofit Center for First-Generation Student Success share their guidance.

First of all, congrats! Being the first in your family to go to college means you possess strengths such as discipline and determination. But as you embark on a new journey of attending college, help from others could also play a valuable role.

Below, you’ll find information about the steps involved and useful resources that could benefit you and those who support you as you seek to accomplish this memorable family milestone.

Thoroughly review all financial aid available

Have you narrowed your college choices? Concerns including how much college can cost and how many students are applying to get financial aid may have you limiting your options, even before you begin applying. According to a report from the Brookings Institute, first-generation college students are much more likely to enroll in less selective institutions not because they can’t win admission to selective schools but because they have concerns about college costs, financial aid, and being able to work while attending school at a selective school.

“A lot of first-generation students tend to underestimate which colleges would be a good fit and where they can apply. Sometimes they aim lower than they should,” says Valerie Popp, Ph.D., Senior Director at the Center for First-Generation Student Success. That could mean students are selling themselves short due to a lack of confidence or knowledge.

One study, for example, showed that 20% of students eligible for federal Pell grants simply did not apply. “There is often a misunderstanding — people think they are not eligible for this type of aid; that is often not the case,” says Sarah Umbarger-Wells, Associate Director at the Center for First-Generation Student Success. Look around and be aware of all the options. “Some states will also provide aid to students who are classified as DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals).”

One of the most useful resources available to low-income, primarily first-generation high school students is the federal Upward Bound program, which offers college preparation in the form of academic and cultural enrichment as well as information on the full range of Federal Student Financial Aid programs and benefits available via the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). High school counselors can help qualifying students find local chapters in their area.

The U.S. Dept. of Education’s Federal Student Aid Estimator website can also help you determine eligibility and projected amounts for federal tuition aid. This tool helps you prepare a budget by allowing them to determine how much they will need to contribute out of pocket via parents, working, scholarships, etc., to pay for schooling. Wells Fargo’s Scholarship Resource Center provides access to billions of dollars in higher education funding, plus strategies and tools to help you find them.

The College Scorecard, a website developed by the US Department of Education, provides information on the college cost, graduation rates, debt, and post-graduation salaries. This can be a great tool to assess a variety of schools.

Other resources to consider include staff at your local public library because they have experience helping applicants — including those without home computers — complete online form submissions and other digital paperwork related to the loan application process. Or perhaps finding an older peer from your church, your neighborhood or your social media networks who recently completed the college application process who can help walk you through it.

Learning the ins and outs of applying for college

With a lot of steps involved, such as writing essays, obtaining letters of recommendations and meeting certain deadlines, applying for college can be challenging for any student. “There’s a lot of nuance to college searching and to applying — a hidden language that most of us just don’t speak,” says Sarah Umbarger-Wells, Associate Director at the Center for First-Generation Student Success. “First-gen students, both the individuals and the families, may not be familiar with any aspect of that process.”

If you’re in high school, consider working with your counselors, who are experienced at navigating what can seem to be an intimidating process that can vary depending on where you apply.

“When you think about just the college application process itself, each individual institution has their own way of completing that application,” Umbarger-Wells says. “Some of them use a common app, some of them don’t.” She says a counselor can help you sort it out.

Though family members may not be familiar with the process, they can still play an important role in ensuring all the information needed is provided in case you overlook something that can boost your enrollment eligibility, such as information on your parents’ education experience. “Make sure to include family members, whether that is parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, or older siblings,” she says.

Thriving at college as a first-in-family student

Once in college, you’ll strive to navigate in a new environment, keep up your grades, and financially support yourself alone or with other resources. That could include putting a budget together with a combination of work, use of credit cards, and borrowing the approved amount in student. Additional financial help could come in the form of federal Parent PLUS Loans, something many parents of first-in-family students use to bridge any gaps.

For you and your family, it’s also being mindful of how much debt you could accumulate so it doesn’t become overwhelming.

One way that counselors and organizations can help first-in-family students address some of these concerns is to help increase their financial literacy. A great place to start is Hands on Banking®, a free online program that offers resources and how-to info. about financial institutions related topics. Designed for young adults, you can learn more about important concepts such as budgeting, comparison shopping, and weighing needs versus wants. English and Spanish-language versions are also available.

Tapping into first-in-family students’ inner strengths

Applying to and paying for college can be particularly challenging for first-generation families. But these students have already shown they’ve got what it takes: Courage, strength, and resilience to see them through. “At the center, we see students as having the capacity to succeed, and the cultural wealth that they need to navigate these challenges,” says Umbarger-Wells.

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