Group of college students talking with a teacher in a libraryThe college year has begun, and social media is filled with images of happy parents, happy kids, decorated dorm rooms, and maybe a few tears. However, for first-generation college students, the picture can be much different. Many don’t “go away” to college or have the typical four-year college experience. Instead, it is common to remain at home, work, and contribute to family expenses while balancing a full class schedule and other responsibilities. There may also be feelings of imposter syndrome or guilt for being “the first” to have the privilege of attending college.  First-generation college students face challenges that many of their peers cannot imagine.

The First-Generation College Student

First-generation students now comprise a third of all college enrollees. They  are undergraduates whose parents do not have a bachelor’s degree or higher. They tend to be from lower-income families and are often non-traditional students.  Almost half of first-generation college students are either Hispanic or Black.  For Hispanic students, the primary language spoken at home is often Spanish, adding to the challenges faced by the students and their families.

My Story–Yolanda

As a Hispanic and a first-generation college student once myself, I am keenly aware of some of the obstacles.  I remember being unaware of the availability of financial aid, and, as a result, I missed out on many opportunities.  Although I was a good student, I limited my choices for college based on proximity to home and cost.  Going to school and working at the same time made unpaid internships and other extracurricular activities challenging.  Additionally, once I graduated from college, I became the primary source of income for my single-parent family.  Financial literacy was not something I learned at school or home, and, as a result, I had to learn many difficult lessons along the way.

Why is this Important?

By recognizing the unique challenges of first-generation college students, financial counselors and educators can be a part of the solution. The first-generation college student dropout rate is four times higher than that of the students who have at least one parent with a degree.  Moreover, only about 25% of first-generation students graduate within four years; the majority graduate, on average, within six years. The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated these issues, with many first-generation students experiencing more significant challenges adapting to online instruction or the reality of having to work to assist a struggling family.

First-generation college students often work during college yet tend to graduate with more student debt. Because of cultural barriers and a heavy burden of responsibilities, they are sometimes on the periphery of traditional college life, unable to partake in many extracurricular activities that are rites of passage for many college students. In particular, these first-gen students are often limited in the classes they can take because of work and family responsibilities. These disadvantages are compounded by limited access to unpaid internships and study abroad opportunities, experiences that make resumes more competitive. The impacts even linger into post-college life.  After college, they may lack professional networks and expertise, so they often make less than their second-generation peers.  First-generation students often end up with a heavy debt burden without the corresponding benefit of the higher wage potential afforded by a college degree.

How we can Help

  1. Help navigate the financial aid process

Educating first-generation students on financial assistance is imperative as they will likely not have money from their parents as a funding source. It is also essential to include the parents in discussions and identify ways to navigate any language barriers.  The students must rely on their parents to provide the necessary financial information to complete the financial aid forms, often requiring them to make sure their parents have filed their taxes on time and obtain W-2 or 1099 information.  In the case of undocumented parents, the challenges for the student may be more significant.  As AFCs, we are uniquely positioned to assist these students and parents through the financial aid process by explaining the different types of financial aid, scholarship opportunities, and helping with budgeting.

  1. Address financial literacy

Many first-generation students do not have the same level of financial literacy as second-generation students. They also tend to suffer more from significant economic anxiety than their peers.  It is essential to educate first-generation college students on financial topics, including budgeting and credit, to help them avoid costly mistakes such as incurring too many student loans or taking on credit card debt to finance their education.  The reality for many of these students is that they have no safety net as they transition to independence. Instead, the new graduates often become the financial safety net for their families.

  1. Help address imposter syndrome and “success guilt” that may hamper wealth creation

Although family tends to motivate first-generation students to obtain a college degree, the upward mobility a college degree provides can sometimes cause unintended consequences. Even the idea of leaving the family home for college can produce guilt for many first-generation students.  For others, being a college graduate can feel isolating among the extended family.  As a result, first-generation college students and graduates may find themselves dealing with issues of “imposter syndrome” and even “success guilt” due to their achievements.  Helping first-generation college graduates deal with some of these emotional roadblocks can be imperative to helping them create a stable financial future.

Contributors: Yolanda Gonzalez Lavery, ACC, AFC® Candidate, and Dorothy Nuckols, MPH, AFC®

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