Understanding the Challenges Facing First-Generation College Students

First-generation student puts head in hands from being overwhelmed.

While there have been competing definitions of what it means to be a first-generation college student, one of the most widely accepted of these comes from the Higher Education Act of 1965. This federal understanding of the term, “first-generation college student,” recognizes a student as first-generation if either of the following are true: 1) neither of the student’s parents have a four-year college degree or 2) the student only receives support from one parent, who does not have a four-year college degree.[1]

Here, I will discuss some of the challenges facing first-generation college students, and more specifically, the following topics: 1) the lower levels of familial financial support that first-generation college students have access to, 2) the disparities related to the use of on-campus services between first-generation college students and their continuing generation (i.e. not first-generation) peers, and 3) some of the ways in which colleges and universities can begin to better support this student demographic.

The Size and Importance of This Demographic

Prior to discussing some of the challenges facing first-generation college students, it is important to conceptualize how large this student population is becoming across the country. As noted by the Center for First-Generation Student Success, the most recently available data from the U.S. Dept. of Education indicates that approximately “56% of undergraduates nationally were first-generation college students…, and 59% of these students were also the first sibling in their family to go to college.”[2]

With that being said, the sheer prevalence of first-generation college students indicates the need for thorough conversations about how to best support this emerging student demographic. However, other aspects of national data also indicates the importance of this, particularly since first-generation college students face distinct challenges in comparison to their continuing generation peers.

Financial Challenges for First-Generation College Students

One such challenge is the lower levels of familial financial support that first generation college students have access to. While continuing generation students reported a median familial income of $90,000, the median for the families of first generation college students was reported at just over $40,000. As such, the financial support system for first generation college students is often more tenuous, and this may result in a series of other challenges, such as not being able to afford course materials and emergency expenses that can arise throughout one’s college career.

In addition to the practical realities that such a stark disparity creates, first-generation students also report higher rates of utilizing financial aid resources in comparison to their continuing generation peers.[3] While the need for access to financial aid is not surprising given the median familial income of first-generation college students, research suggests that this student demographic is more likely to lack the financial literacy skills to make fully informed decisions during the process of obtaining a student loan.[4]

Disparities Among the Use of On-Campus Resources

Another major challenge facing first-generation college students is a lower usage rate of on-campus resources, including but not limited to health, advising, and academic support. Regarding health services, 14% of first-generation college students report using said services in comparison to 29% of continuing generation students. Additionally, a similar trend emerges in relation to academic advising services with a nearly 20% difference between the two groups. And finally, there is a marginally smaller percentage of first-generation college students that use academic support services, such as tutoring assistance.[1]

In short, major areas of on-campus support networks are often less utilized by first-generation college students in relation to their peers. Such differences may exist for a number of reasons, like the inability to access the resources (due to other obligations such as a part-time job), lack of awareness of the services, and more.

Considerations to Better Support First-Generation College Students

While these challenges are a reality facing first-generation college students across the country, there are also a number of considerations that faculty and staff can make to ensure that they are better supporting these students.

First and foremost, making sure that your resources and support structures are accessible and visible is key, as this will aid students in learning about and then accessing the services. Additionally, higher education professionals can also work to remove administrative and bureaucratic barriers that might create additional impediments to first-generation college students. And finally, our institutions can, more broadly speaking, provide more training opportunities for faculty and staff to better learn about the realities of being a first-generation college student.

While this short list of considerations is simply a starting point to better responding to the challenges that first-generation college students often face, continued improvement will be necessary, and this will become increasingly important in the coming years, considering the rising enrollment numbers of this student demographic across the country.

Dorian Rhea Debussy is the associate director for the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Kenyon College, where they specialize in fostering LGBTQ+ inclusion and equity on campus. Previously, they also served as a visiting assistant professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Kenyon College, where they taught the college’s first permanent queer studies course. They have nearly a decade of teaching experience—both in-person and online—at major research universities, mid-sized institutions, and smaller liberal arts colleges. Their recent works have been published by Magna Publication’s Faculty Focus, The Conversation, BUST magazine, and The Gay & Lesbian Review among others. Their research interests are LGBTQ+ politics, LGBTQ+ educational support, and queer military history.


[1] “Use of Student Services among Freshman First-generation College Studentst.” 2019. Washington, DC: NASPA. Available at: https://firstgen.naspa.org/files/dmfile/NASPA_FactSheet-03_FIN.pdf

[2] Lee, Jason and John A. Mueller. 2014. “Student Loan Debt Literacy: A Comparison of First-Generation and Continuing-Generation College Students.” Journal of College Student Development, vol. 55 no. 7. 714-719.

[3] “First-generation College Students: Demographic Characteristics and Postsecondary Enrollment.” 2019. Washington, DC: NASPA. Available at: https://firstgen.naspa.org/files/dmfile/FactSheet-01.pdf

[4] “Higher Education Act of 1965.” United States, Congress. Public Law 89-329, as amended through Public Law 116-91. Available at: https://legcounsel.house.gov/Comps/Higher%20Education%20Act%20Of%201965.pdf