The pursuit of higher education is often seen as a gateway to success and a better future.

However, for first-generation college students, the path to achieving this dream can be filled with unique challenges. With parents who may not have attended college themselves, these students often lack the guidance and support system that their peers may take for granted.

In order to ensure their success and maximize their potential, universities must recognize and address these challenges.

Challenge #1: Lack of Familial Support

First-generation college students often face the absence of familial support while navigating college.

This isn’t intentional, however, parents who have no personal experience with higher education might not fully understand what it takes for their children to succeed in this new environment.

Graduation rates for first-generation students are consistently low compared to their peers who have a familial support system – only 20% of first-gen students will complete their degree, Pew Research Center reports.1

This can partially be attributed to the fact that these students lack the necessary guidance and resources needed to navigate through college. Luckily, universities can bridge this gap by offering dedicated support services for first-generation students, such as mentorship programs or counseling services.

Orientation programs for parents, guardians, families, and first-gen undergraduates can also help them better understand and navigate the complexities of college life while providing emotional support.

Challenge #2: Lower Sense of Belonging

Without a shared background or prior knowledge about collegiate culture, they may feel like outsiders in an unfamiliar environment. This sense of alienation can lead to decreased engagement, social isolation, and impacted academic performance.

Not only has it been shown that first-generation students report a lower sense of belonging on four-year college campuses, but that whether or not they possess that connection with other students actually predicts students’ “persistence, engagement, and mental health” in an academic setting.2

To foster a greater sense of belonging among first-generation students, universities must prioritize inclusivity initiatives.

Creating affinity groups or clubs specifically tailored towards supporting these individuals can help create a strong community where they feel accepted and valued.

In addition to this, universities could also introduce peer mentoring programs where current senior first-gen students serve as mentors for incoming freshman classmates. Having someone who has walked in their shoes provides invaluable guidance and encouragement that helps instill confidence in struggling first-generation individuals.

Challenge #3: Academic Preparedness

Without the same exposure to college-level coursework or access to resources that their more privileged peers may have had, these students may find themselves ill-equipped to handle the rigorous demands of higher education.

To address this challenge, universities could offer bridge programs or pre-college courses designed specifically for first-generation students.

These programs would provide academic support and resources to help them develop the necessary skills needed for success in college.

Universities should also invest in comprehensive advising services that cater specifically to first-gen students. Academic advisors can play a crucial role in helping these individuals navigate course selection, study strategies, and time management techniques.

Challenge #4: Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome is a psychological phenomenon where individuals doubt their accomplishments and fear being exposed as frauds.

This feeling of inadequacy can be particularly prevalent among first-generation college students, who may constantly question if they truly belong in an academic setting.

Research from the University of Texas at Austin has shown that at least 70% of minority students (based on race, ethnicity, and or socioeconomic status) experience high levels of imposter syndrome. This negatively impacts their mental health and, in turn, their academic performance.3

Universities can combat imposter syndrome by implementing peer mentorship programs mentioned earlier and establishing support groups or workshops targeting self-confidence building and resilience.

Incorporating diversity and inclusion training into orientation programs will also help foster an inclusive campus culture where all students feel valued regardless of their background.

Challenge #5: Financial Burden

One of the most daunting challenges facing first-generation college students is the overwhelming financial burden attached to obtaining a degree.

Without the safety net of familial financial support or knowledge about scholarships and grants available, many first-gen students struggle financially and experience notable financial stress.

In fact, Pew Research Center reported that 65% of first-generation college students owe at least $25,000 in student loans. That percentage comes from the low 20% of first-generation students who actually complete their degree and are more likely to attend a two-year institution instead of a four-year one.1

To alleviate this challenge and lower student loan default rates, universities could establish more comprehensive scholarship programs specifically tailored toward helping first-gen students.

Additionally, institutions should proactively educate these individuals on existing financial aid opportunities, ensuring they are aware of all possible options. Teaching them about smart borrowing can help lower student loan delinquency rates, ultimately leading to greater student success. 

The Need for Financial Literacy Education

A key component that is often overlooked when it comes to supporting first-generation college students is financial literacy. Teaching these individuals about money management, budgeting, and the basics of personal finance can empower them to take control of their financial situation.

That’s where iGrad comes in. The iGrad financial literacy platform provides comprehensive online resources designed to help students of all backgrounds become financially literate.

The interactive courses provide valuable knowledge and insights into financial topics such as credit, debt, investing, and much more.

Universities can partner with iGrad to develop a comprehensive curriculum for their first-gen students. This will equip them with the essential skills needed to make well-informed financial decisions that can ultimately set them up for long-term success in college and beyond.

Contact iGrad for a demo today, and get your first-gen students on the path to financial success and better graduation rates.



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