Support First-Generation Students at Two-Year Colleges

This module was developed by Karin Kirk, a freelance educational writer and geoscientist.

First generation college students are, in many ways, pioneers of their families and peer groups. They strive for higher education despite the lack of immediate role models and family influences. The numbers of first-generation college students are on the rise (Ishitani, 2003), which is a hopeful trend as college education reaches a broader and more diverse audience.

But the journeys of first-generation students can be challenging. Those of us with strong family traditions in higher education may underestimate the value of having one's parents shape educational expectations, culture, and pathways. First-generation students arrive at college with less academic preparation than their peers, with little or no financial support from their families, and with little familiarity of the systems of bureaucracy, financial aid, and other complex avenues they must navigate in college (Darling and Smith, 2007). Thus, it's not surprising that first-generation college students often leave college without obtaining a degree (Ishitani, 2003).

Who are First-Generation 2YC Students?

First-generation college students are those whose parents have not obtained education beyond high school. But beyond that most basic definition, this is a diverse group of students with traits, motivations, and challenges that distinguish them from other types of students.

Challenges for First-Generation 2YC Students

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.

Strategies for First-Generation Student Success

There are a number of pedagogic strategies that are grounded in educational research and have demonstrated beneficial effects for helping all students be successful including first-generation students. These strategies can be implemented in existing courses in a variety of contexts.


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.

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.

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

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