Initial Publication Date: June 8, 2017

Strategies for First-Generation Student Success

Build Career Connections Into Course Topics

Preparing for or improving a career is a strong motivating factor among first-generation 2YC students. These students strive to learn job skills, forge a pathway to financial stability, improve their earning potential at their current job, or enter the workforce after their children are grown. (Learn more about the motivations for first-generation 2YC students.) Thus, relating the course topics and skill development to on-the-job skills can bring relevance to the curriculum, while also preparing your students for success on the job.


First-generation students may feel as if they are not a part of the college culture. One way to help their transition is to communicate a message of validation in the classroom. Simple actions in the classroom can communicate a message that every student is a valued member of the learning community. Validation acknowledges students' backgrounds and strengths, and sets the stage for them to believe in themselves and draw on their innate ability to learn.


Validation is connected with the concept of self-efficacy. While validation efforts reach out to a student to let them know they are valued and capable, self-efficacy is one's internal belief in one's ability to succeed. A student who feels validated is likely to be able to build self-efficacy.

Self-Regulated Learning

Because they do not come from a culture of higher education, first-generation students may not be well-practiced in learning how to learn. Self-regulated learning is an overarching term that addresses how students approach their learning, work toward goals, and evaluate their performance. Ultimately, students who practice self-regulated learning can improve their academic performance, find value in their own learning process, and continue to be effective learners once they enter the workforce. Self-regulated learning is one strategy that improves students' metacognition.


Broadly defined, metacognition is thinking about one's own thinking and learning. A person's ability to learn is mutable, not fixed, and teaching our students to be strategic learners is a very valuable skill. Several types of learning strategies are related to the concept of metacognition, including self-regulated learning.

Develop Cultural Competency

One of the highlights of working with first-generation students is that you are reaching out to students with a background that differs from the traditional academic culture. Improving your cultural competency can help you learn how your own values and cultural identity can manifest itself in how you teach and interact with students. This approach can make it easier to engage with students from diverse backgrounds.

Build a Sense of Community

First-generation college students straddle two cultures: their traditional family culture and their new-found academic culture. The transition to college can be stressful on both fronts. Their traditional culture may feel abandoned or alienated, while their new culture may make them feel marginalized. Thus, emphasizing community-building can help first-generation students feel welcomed into the academic culture.

Mitigate the Impacts of Stereotype Threat and Solo Status

Stereotype threat affects members of any group about whom there exists some negative stereotype, and can lower students' performance. Solo status is the experience of being the only member of one's particular community present in a group, which can also compromise learning. These are common concerns for minority or non-traditional students, and are likely to be relevant to first-generation students. This web page offers four strategies for alleviating these potential setbacks.

English Language Learners

English language learners are striving to master both both subject matter and language skills. These pages can help with cultural challenges and language challenges for English language learners. Both pages offer recommendations you can implement in your classroom.

Other Resources

Straight From the Source — What Works for First-Generation College Students

The Pell Institute conducted this research study about the transition from high school to college for first-generation students in Texas. Findings from this study are intended to inform and improve practices to help first-generation students get into and through college. The findings are also intended to raise awareness and generate dialogue among state and federal policymakers about the impact and benefits of pre-college programs and services for first-generation and other educationally at-risk student populations.

High-Impact Educational Practices

This 2008 publication by George Kuh distills 10 different educational practices that have been widely tested and have been shown to be beneficial for college students from many backgrounds. Strategies include first-year experiences, learning communities, collaborative assignments, and community-based projects.

I'm First! Support website

I'm First! is an online community for first-generation college students and their supporters. Short videos offer inspiring stories from first-generation successes and students can use the platform to share their own journey. The site profiles colleges and programs designed for first-generation students, has answers to student questions about college, and offers guidance on the road to and through college.