SAGE 2YC > Support First-Generation Students > Challenges for First-Generation 2YC Students

Challenges for First-Generation 2YC Students

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The outlook for a first-generation college student is at once promising and daunting. Being the first in one's family to purse a college education is a source of pride and satisfaction, and can expand career opportunities and lead to financial stability. But the task is not without peril. Compared with students whose parents have pursued higher education, first-generation college students are at a disadvantage in many regards. From culture shock to academic readiness to financial difficulties, the path is likely to be populated with challenges. Not surprisingly, the graduation rate for first-generation students is substantially less than that of continuing-generation students.

This page discusses specific challenges encountered by first-generation college students in both 2-year and 4-year college settings. Understanding these concerns can help faculty and administrators to be alert for potential difficulties and develop strategies to support first-generation students.

While the obstacles can be substantial, there is also cause for optimism. First-generation college students report higher satisfaction with the college experience than their peers (Nomi, 2005). Research shows that first-generation students achieved better learning gains in writing skills, greater preference for higher order thinking tasks, and more accurate attribution for academic success. Most importantly, these improvements illustrate the ability of these students to overcome setbacks as they strive to fulfill their educational aspirations (Pascarella et al., 2003). There are also a range of successful strategies for helping first-generation students overcome their challenges.

Family Challenges

Families can be a source of strength and purpose for first-generation students, but they can also create challenges that the students must overcome to be successful.

  • As the first ones in their families to attend college, first-generation students cannot rely on their family culture to set the stage for higher education. This includes expectations of academic performance, familiarity with the academic culture, and parental guidance toward college (Darling and Smith, 2007).
  • First-generation students are more likely to have dependents than continuing-generation students. Thus they experience considerable demands on their time and attention, and they take fewer courses and credit hours (Nomi, 2005).
  • Students from cultures that emphasize family interdependence need to balance the expectations from their families with the demands of college (Dennis et al., 2005).
  • As first-generation students begin to change and grow from their college experiences, they may find that their traditional role in the family is challenged. This can lead to feelings of guilt, shame, and confusion (Darling and Smith, 2007).
For example -

I have had experiences where families expect their child to skip school to babysit for a younger sibling. Consider that the families of first-generation students will need to adjust to this new life, just as the students do. Families have to "let go" and allow school to take priority over family chores, but this may not be a natural or easy transition.

- Professor Reviewer 1, Some Community College

Academic Challenges

For example -

Often, students find our higher ed systems challenging to navigate. Faculty can go out of their way to ask students if they have questions, even about bills or forms that their families might not be able to assist them with. A student might feel more comfortable asking his/her teacher rather than waiting in a long line at the financial aid office, only to talk to a stranger about an unfamiliar process.

Since faculty are instrumental in the retention of students, we can make more of an effort to share our accumulated knowledge with our students.

- Professor Reviewer 2, Some Community College

First-generation students enter into the higher-education system with little knowledge of how to navigate the intricacies of college life. The college application process, financial aid, and the general bureaucracy of a college campus are all unfamiliar to first-generation students.

  • First-generation students often come in with weaker academic preparation than continuing-generation students. For example, two studies found that first generation students, on average, had lower SAT scores, lower high school GPAs, and less confidence in their academic abilities (Ishitani, 2003; Darling and Smith, 2007)
  • Once enrolled in college, first-generation students take fewer courses, spend less time studying, and spend more time working (Pascarella et al., 2003).
  • First-generation students showed smaller learning gains in science reasoning, and take fewer courses in math and science (Pascarella et al., 2003).
  • In their first year of college, first-generation students tend to have lower GPAs than continuing-generation students. Beyond that, the research yields mixed results; while some studies show first-generation students have lower grades than their peers, others show no significant difference (Ishitani, 2003).
  • As illustrated by the figure on the right, first-generation students have a higher likelihood of leaving college without a degree. A study by Ishitani (2003) at a 4-year institution showed the college attrition rate for first-generation college students was 22% greater than for students with two college-educated parents. Attrition is particularly acute during the first year of college, when first-generation students had a 71% greater risk of departure than those with college-educated parents.
  • One forth of first-generation college students obtain a bachelor's degree; compared to two-thirds of continuing-generation students (Majer, 2009, from Chen 2005).
  • In some cases, first-generation students perceive faculty and administrators to be indifferent to them (Darling and Smith, 2007).

Financial Challenges

  • For first-generation two-year college students, as for all 2YC students, the cost of college is the single most important factor in selecting a college (Nomi, 2005).
  • First-generation students are likely to be from a low-income family, and are likely to be working full time and taking classes part time (Nomi, 2005 and Darling and Smith, 2007).
  • Financial aid is essential for many first-generation students; and the availability of financial aid plays a large role in choosing a college (Nomi, 2005).
  • Data from the Pell Institute (shown below) illustrates the profound effect of income on attrition rates. First-generation, low-income students have a 47% dropout rate, compared to 23% for continuing-generation, higher-income students.

Cultural Challenges

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Adjusting to the culture of a higher education institution can be particularly challenging for first-generation students as they are likely to be from underrepresented minorities and/or have little or no direct experience with their new context.

  • Over one-third of first-generation two-year college students are members of ethnic or racial minority groups. The majority of Hispanic students and over 40% of African American and Native American students are first-generation students (Nomi, 2005).
  • First-generation students can have conflicted feelings over the cultural transition to college life. They often feel marginalized by the college culture as well as by the familiar culture they are leaving behind (Darling and Smith, 2007).
For example -

Faculty can take time to explain the concept of office hours to students. Sometimes students can feel shame, or can feel like they're bothering faculty when they ask for help or clarification. This can be especially true for students from other cultures, so be sure to emphasize that student visits during office hours are truly encouraged.

- Professor Reviewer 2, Some Community College

  • Because first-generation students often have family responsibilities, off-campus jobs, and are older than traditional college-age, they are less likely to spend non-class time on campus. They tend not to immerse themselves in the college experience. Yet, this connection to campus life has been found to help students get more out of their college experience and overcome challenges (Darling and Smith, 2007).
  • Social support from both parents and peers is related to the ability of ethnic minority students to adjust to college life. A perceived lack of peer support was linked to poor college outcomes for minority first-generation students (Dennis et al., 2005).


Chen, X., & Carroll, C. D. (2005). First-Generation Students in Postsecondary Education: A Look at Their College Transcripts. Postsecondary Education Descriptive Analysis Report. NCES 2005-171. National Center for Education Statistics.

Darling, R. A., & Smith, M. S. (2007). First-generation college students: First-year challenges. Academic Advising: New Insights for Teaching and Learning in the first year. NACADA Monograph Series, (14), 203-211.

Dennis, J. M., Phinney, J. S., & Chuateco, L. I. (2005). The role of motivation, parental support, and peer support in the academic success of ethnic minority first-generation college students. Journal of College Student Development, 46(3), 223-236.

Ishitani, T. T. (2003). A longitudinal approach to assessing attrition behavior among first-generation students: Time-varying effects of pre-college characteristics. Research in higher education, 44(4), 433-449.

Kuh, G. D. (2008). High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter. Association of American Colleges and Universities. Read excerpt

Majer, J. M. (2009). Self-efficacy and academic success among ethnically diverse first-generation community college students. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 2(4), 243.

Nomi, T. (2005). Faces of the Future: A Portrait of First-Generation Community College Students. American Association of Community Colleges.

Pascarella, E. T., Wolniak, G. C., Pierson, C. T., & Terenzini, P. T. (2003). Experiences and outcomes of first-generation students in community colleges. Journal of College Student Development, 44(3), 420-429.

The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, 6-Year Degree Attainment Rates for Students Enrolled in a Post-Secondary Institution. Updated Dec 14, 2011. Accessed Jun. 23, 2015.

See the complete list of all references used in this module.