First in the Family

Hispanic Community April 2024 PREMIUM

First generation students still face challenges to succeed in college; however, there are more opportunities than ever and support programs, such as financial aid, and campus resources to address academic, financial, and social obstacles.

Going to school in America was once a luxury afforded by very few. In 1900, few proceeded beyond grade school; only 11 percent of children between the ages of fourteen and seventeen were enrolled in high school. It is estimated that only 8 percent graduated from high school. 

Boys frequently left school to work to help their financially pinched families. Young girls dropped out earlier and in greater numbers to assume housebound duties.

In 1900, only 8 percent of America’s meagre high school graduates proceeded to college. Higher education was the elite domain of privileged, well-to-do white males. Most were WASPs: White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. 

The G.I. Bill

After the Second World War, that changed dramatically. Returning male and female veterans flocked to the nation’s colleges thanks to the G. I. Bill of Rights. Those veteran-based grants were generous, usually covering tuition, fees, books, and even cash stipends.

The children of depression-battered parents took full advantage of these benefits. Most were the first in their family to ever attend college. Their determination to succeed changed higher education and ushered in an era of prosperity that reverberated throughout the world. 

Today over fifty percent of high school graduates attend postsecondary education. That’s the good news. Many are still first-generation students, and they still have unique problems. Let’s explore them. 

Profile of First-generation College Students

Today, about half of all college students are “first-generation.” Many Hispanics fall into that category. 

First-geners face more academic and financial problems than students whose parents graduated from college.   

According to The National Association of Student Personnel Administrators:

Fifty-six percent of all postsecondary students have parents who never earned a bachelor’s degree. Few had books at home or an environment that encouraged scholarship. 

In high school, first-generation students rarely receive career-planning opportunities such as attending career fairs or resume assistance compared to those whose parents finished college. 

Many first-generation students come from low-income backgrounds. They have family duties and perceived moral obligations that hinder them from attempting higher education.   Many are parents, caregivers, and veterans. They need to work full-time to sustain their families.

Most Hispanics begin their college studies at a community college and are succeeding as never before.

Twenty-eight percent are 30 or older. Their college experience is different from that of other students. For instance, their unique circumstances mean that only 46 percent participate in extracurricular clubs, compared to 65 percent of continuing-generation students. Most have to work and don’t have the time. 

Given time and financial constraints, few first-gen students have the opportunity to hold leadership roles, conduct research projects with faculty members, complete paid internships or study abroad compared to continuing-gen students. They are denied those enriching experiences, yet they persist.


First-gens frequently feel out of place in higher education. Their economic and social realities have been dubbed a lack of “social-cultural capital," which is powerful and influential.

Many disadvantaged students struggle to feel culturally connected in institutions that are predominantly white and more affluent.  

Emotional stress, mental health and the cost of education were the top reasons for frustration. Hispanics were much more likely than Caucasians to say they were considering dropping out to care for an adult family member or because of childcare responsibilities. 

Given all these significant barriers disillusionment and frustration may settle in. Although Hispanic enrollments are at an all-time high, most are struggling in a way that “should stop you in your tracks,” commented researcher Zach Hrynowski. His Lumina Foundation survey found 52 percent of Hispanics were considering dropping out. That represents a 10-percentage point increase since 2020 and is a cause for alarm. Hispanic disillusionment led the way followed by 43 percent of black students, 36 percent of Caucasian students and 30 percent of Asian students expressing the same foreboding. 

Var D. Palmer Reid of ThriveScholars, a national nonprofit that prepares students of color for college by providing mentoring and other services, notes, “College students from underrepresented communities need extra support to succeed.”

Support and Useful Resources

Luckily, there is help. Most first-generation students are eligible for federal TRIO programs and Pell Grants. However, colleges have different interpretations. So, students should study institution guidelines before applying. Contact UStrive, an online mentoring organization, for more details.   

On campus first-gens should explore aid and opportunities specifically designed for them. These include summer bridge programs, first-generation student enrichment programs and faculty mentorship opportunities.

They should seek advice from admission officers or current students for information about programs institutions offer. Some colleges have  food pantries, textbook banks and school-sponsored transportation, which can help reduce the cost of living.

Applicants should fill out the FAFSA which provides a large portion of an applicants' financial aid package. New guidelines were issued in January promising to make it easier for underserved populations to attend college. 

The Pew Research Center reports that first-generation students are more likely to incur college debt, and more of it. Scholarships exist exclusively for first-generation students. They help cover living expenses in addition to tuition and fees. More information can be found online at Ustrive and First Generation Scholars.

Summer bridge programs, typically two-to-four-week sessions, ease the transition to college for first-generation students. These programs include in-depth orientation, provide academic advising, introduction to faculty members, and noncredit summer courses.

On-campus mentorship programs often pair first-generation students with faculty or upperclassmen that have similar backgrounds. Student-run organizations, like First Gen United at George Washington University, help connect new students to other first-generation students, and host social and academic events.

Going to college is more than attending classes. Students should attend enrichment events and actively participate in extracurricular activities. 

Bottom Line

The road to a college degree is not an easy one. But the rewards are worthwhile. College is new to everyone. Everyone is learning. You’re not the only one who is adjusting, and there is help. Hundreds of thousands have succeeded. You can too.


Share with:

Product information

Post a Job

Post a job in higher education?

Place your job ad in our classified page on the HO print & digital Edition