How First-Generation Students Can Find Success

Enrolling in college courses can be stress-inducing enough without added anxieties piling up on top. For many first-generation college students, being the first in the family to embark on the journey of attaining a degree can be paralyzing. First-gen students often report overwhelming feelings of anxiety and depression when comparing themselves to their peers’ level of success. They feel they are a million steps behind when considering the opportunities that continuing-generation students take for granted.

Meanwhile, the first-generation students are expected to carry the totem for their family members that, for whatever reason, were not given the same opportunity, when the world seems to be working against them. First-gen students feel a sense of pressure to have a set career path since they do not have the same flexibility as some of their peers, and oftentimes, cannot afford to stay in college for an extended period of time.

Rate of Success

For these reasons, the success rate of first-generation students, as compared to continuing-generation, is low. Research indicates that a striking 89% of low-income first-generation students leave college within six years without having received a degree (First Generation Foundation). On that same token, some first-gen students will point out that positive influences and support systems made a difference for them. 

For many, all it takes is one or two professors that show a genuine interest in addressing their concerns to encourage them to continue moving forward. If it were not for networking and programs connecting students of similar backgrounds, many first-generation students would feel an overwhelming drowning sensation. While colleges and universities are seeking to create diversity through their admissions process, many would argue there is still a lot of work to do regarding connecting students who are the first in their family to receive a college education. A steady support system of fellow peers, professors, and advisors, would make all the difference in the world. Unfortunately, however, many universities are falling short in this category. 

External Forces

Research shows that first-gen students tend to come from lower-income households than those of their continuing-generation peers. In addition, they find that first-generation students tend to strain themselves more with longer work hours. Add to that the fact that they oftentimes are not as academically prepared upon entry into college, and there is no doubt that statistically, first-generation students have a lot of external forces working against them, only to be supplemented by the challenging course work throughout the years. 

First-generation students represent a diverse group in society. In fact, many first-generation students go on to work closely with college students, either as mentors or advisors. They feel a connection and a call to action to help those going through a similar situation to what they went through. Thankfully, solidarity helps students more than they realize consciously. The sense of community definitely contributes to the success rate of students that involve themselves in support programs. 


Most universities offer programs that serve to connect students of similar backgrounds. In the case of first-generation students, these programs offer academic coaching, tutoring opportunities, as well as official peer mentoring and advising. Perhaps the most significant aspect of these programs is the focus on the future. In other words, the encouragement factor has shown to increase first-gen student success. If there are advisors available helping students consider different graduate school options and scholarships, for example, they will not feel as discouraged as they otherwise may have felt without the counseling.  

In addition to making new friends within programs and in classes, students are encouraged to keep close ties to any family members, as well as long-distance friends that will support them. Whether they are attending college classes two miles from their home, or are living across the country from where they grew up, maintaining a strong relationship with family during stressful times, is proven to help. First-generation students, unlike most students that are encouraged to cut ties with helicopter mothers and concerned fathers, are advised to use social media and messaging applications to keep their families in the loop. 

There are a number of ways to keep oneself afloat despite the challenges that first-generation students face, especially in the first two years enrolled in college courses. Keeping a positive attitude and keeping oneself surrounded by loved ones and building a solid support system is the first step to reaching the finish line that maybe, at one point, seemed impossible to pass through.

At American University, we enlist compassionate individuals on our support staff to ensure all our students have the resources they need to succeed in attaining a new education. To learn more, visit us online.

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