The Unknown Challenges Facing First Generation College Students

By Lexxi Bursey

Graduation is coming up within the next few months for us seniors, and it will be here quicker than we know it. For many students across the nation, college is their next step in their plan of life after high school. It is becoming more of a normality to further your education, making those who enter the workforce directly out of high school soon to become a minority. However, this hasn’t always been the case. As more students decide to go on to college this year, this creates more first generation students within the student body makeup.

First generation students, as commonly defined, are the first of their immediate family to go on to a four year college or university. Some define a first generation student as the first of the family to enroll in a college, period. This would include those who go to a community college. No matter what you decide to define it as, first generation students are on the rise, and students becoming a first generation college student in their family brings several challenges:

  • Having parents who didn’t go to a four year college or university may be skeptical of the benefits of college and feel it is a waste of money and time when you can just join the workforce straight out of high school. This can be challenging because it can cause arguments or motivate kids to not pursue college or a certain job.

  • According to writer and editor Sharon Greenthal, first generation students are four times as likely to drop out of college as compared to those students who have at least one parent who completed a college degree.

  • Students can also feel guilt during the choice to pursue higher education. While this is possible for all freshman to encounter, it is more likely among first generation students. This stems from several causes. The fact that you’re the first person to go to college means your parent(s) wouldn’t understand the process. Being the first to leave your family can be a guilt trip. Many feel like they are abandoning their families, who have gave them so much. Homesickness is also more common among first generation students. Family may also not be ready, used to, or expecting the reality of you leaving for most of the year to be in a new place. This can cause distress and tension between you and family because they want to maintain close relationships. They may see you choosing college over them as betrayal and the reason behind the distance in their relationships.

With this in mind, it is important to understand the roles first generation students have on the future of society. While more and more students are choosing to enroll in college this year, this increases the likelihood of their children to do the same.

  • According to Statista, an updated statistics webpage, from 1980 through 1981, about 470,000 males completed a bachelor’s degree while about 465,000 women completed theirs.

  • A dramatic increase from the early ‘80s, the statistics on completed four year degrees more than doubled. Men completed around 840,000 and women 1,125,000 degrees.

While these statistics are not solely composed of first generation students who have completed four years of college, one can assume that as the enrollment increased, so did the percentage of first generations.

First generation students are paving the way through change, and hopefully the acknowledgment of their disadvantages and struggles will also bring more change for further students as a whole.

  • Only about 11% of first generation college students will have a degree within six years of college. Over half of students who are not low-income or first generations will earn their degree within the same six years, according to a Pell Institute study from 2003.

  • In a presentation by Dr. Lee Ward of James Madison University, Dr. Mike Siegel of Suffolk University, and Dr. Zebulun Davenport of Indiana University-Purdue University-Indianapolis, first generation college students are considered an “invisible minority”.

    • Also from the presentation, they are more affected by college cost and debt, drop out more, inadequately prepared, make up about ⅓ of all college students, and are less engaged in out-of-class experiences.

As more students every year make the choice to go to college, there also is an increase of first generation students enrolling. While there are challenges of being the first in your family to go on to higher education, the long term impact of the decision to go will forever inspire the later generations to come, other first generation students, and positively impact your life as a whole. While the challenges may still be there, first generation students have a major influence on the future.