8 Unexpected Ways First Generation Students Suffer During the College Transition

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8 Unexpected Ways First Generation Students Suffer During the College Transition

For those who decide to attend, college is a defining experience of young adulthood. The average high school student might feel naturally motivated to apply to and attend college, but for first generation students, a problem arises: A lack of general experience and exposure to post-secondary education makes these students less likely to apply to colleges and build a robust extracurricular life on campus. With no reliable source of mentorship, students have to figure out how to make the transition to college on their own.

While the college transition is tough for most high school students, there are several additional challenges first generation students typically face as compared to a student whose parent(s) attended university. Here are eight ways first generation students suffer during the college transition — and you might not expect some of them:

1. Lack of Guidance

When it comes to sending a child off to college, even the most educated parents may feel clueless about each step of the transition. This challenge is especially pronounced when one or both parents have not attended college. With no post-secondary education experience, the responsibility of navigating the complex world of college applications and financial aid falls to their high school student. Despite their best efforts, they may not even know where to start with the college application process or with moving to college — there’s no example to follow. As a result, first generation students experience the college application process without much guidance around how college operates, how to apply, how to pay for it, how to think about putting together a schedule, how to prepare for moving into your dorm, and on and on.

2. Financial Instability

Many first generation students are low income. For a number of reasons, first generation college students are both less likely to apply and attend expensive colleges. Standardized tests and college applications are pricey. First generation and low-income students don’t always have the luxury of retaking the ACT/SAT to boost their score, or casting a wide net of college applications. That alone is one of the primary reasons why schools like the University of Chicago are dropping the ACT/SAT test score requirement. And, once they do make it on campus, the financial burden of paying for college can negatively impact retention and student success rates for first generation and low-income students.  

3. Too Many Obligations and Not Enough Time

Students with working-class parents often cannot fully devote time to academics. Coupled with responsibilities at home, students have many things to attend to in their personal lives. At home and at college, working a job (or multiple jobs) can be a heavy burden to add on top of academic requirements.

4. Culture Shock

A greater percentage of first generation students are minorities and of lower socioeconomic status. When transitioning from high school to college, these incoming college students may struggle more than others to socially adjust to their new environment. Without focused support from the university, college campuses tend to foster a culture of independence that makes it difficult for first generation students to establish a sense of community. Without an understanding of college social norms, students often struggle to seek help and figure out the “right” way to act.

5. Traveling

Traveling far from home isn’t often feasible for two reasons. First, it’s expensive. Money can be an issue, whether the students are commuting to a nearby campus or buying plane tickets to attend a college across the country. Second, students from low-income families may feel increased pressure to stay close to home (or at home) to continue supporting the family.

6. Lack of Connections

At Harvard University alone, 29% of students in the Class of 2021 report having a relative who attended the prestigious college. Legacy matters for college acceptance, but parents with post-secondary education open doors for their children in other ways, too: professional connections. If a first generation student’s parents don’t work in a field that requires a college degree, then their network probably won’t be especially fruitful for a college student looking for an internship or job. Instead of having their parents make an introduction or having an aunt pass along a resume, first generation students have to find ways to open doors for themselves.

7. Varying Resources During High School Education

Depending on the district, some high schools are better funded than others. A lack of resources in high school acts unfavorably toward a student’s future on campus. As opposed to public schools, private schools benefit greatly from prep courses, paid tutors, 1:1 pre-college advising, and visits by college recruiters. First gen and low-income students don’t enter college with the same expectations about the resources that a university should provide, and so are often unaware of the resources that actually exist.

8. Pressure to Find a Job

While students generally perceive college as the perfect time to find themselves, first generation students face pressure to find a stable and well-paying profession. They’re more likely to pursue job-related paths rather than one that interests them. After all, who has time to pursue your passions when there are real bills that need to be paid at the end of the month? College becomes a responsibility and step toward future financial stability.  

First Generation Student Success Rests With You

This doesn’t mean the future is bleak. Rather, it suggests that higher education administrators across departments, including enrollment, student success, and career services, must seek to better understand the unique needs of this student population and re-evaluate whether the resources they are providing are really meeting the mark.

Co-founder & President

John Knific is co-founder and President of Wisr. An entrepreneur who is passionate about what education technology can do for students, John's on a mission to tackle the big challenge of getting students connected with jobs after college by engaging alumni.

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