written by
KiKi Gilbert

First-Generation College Student: An Expert’s Guide

Advisor Tips Admissions Tips 8 min read
first generation college student image: a photo of a Black student and Asian student in focus with the rest of the class blurred in the background

In this article, CollegeAdvisor.com Admissions Expert KiKi explains what being a first-generation college student means. Kiki covers what first-generation college students need to know during the application process and how they can find resources to help them succeed in higher education. Want to learn more about planning for the future and the college application process in general? Sign up to work with an admissions coach 1-on-1.

Introduction

When I submitted my application to Princeton, I was the first in my family to apply to college. Uncertainties overwhelmed me: How would I pay for college? What resources existed for students from my background? How could I succeed in a place I knew nothing about? Years later, I’m an Admissions Expert at CollegeAdvisor.com and am also celebrating my admission to the University of Cambridge as a Marshall Scholar. Now, I reflect on those anxious times with relief. Despite each fear, pressing anxiety, and worrisome doubt, I turned out more than okay—I excelled.

In this article, we’ll look at definitions of “first-generation college students.” Often, the phrase is associated with “low-income college students.” Don’t worry, I’ll break down what these labels individually mean. As an aside, first-generation and/or low-income students are often referred to as FLi or FGLI students.

Next, I’ll share scholarship opportunities for students from FLi backgrounds. I’ll also discuss some campus resources to keep an eye out for as you compile a college list. I’ve largely gathered these resources from personal experience and from the experiences of other FLi students I built community with.

Given the flexibility of the FLi label, not every aspect of this article and advice may apply to you.

Who is FLi?

Before I attempt to establish what a first-generation college student is, I’ll first readily acknowledge the term’s ambiguity. Colleges and programs often have competing definitions for who counts as FLi. For example, Northwestern University defines first-generation college students as the “first in their families to graduate from a four-year college or university.” The Center for First-Generation Student Success acknowledges that it’s not that simple. In fact, they admit that this definition may need to be expanded to consider students whose parents attended college outside of the U.S. and/or those who weren’t raised by their biological parents. One study even found that “depending on the definition used, the percentage of first-generation students varied from 22% to 77% within a sample size.”

Who is a first-generation college student?

Colleges and programs often have differing criteria for who may be considered a first-generation college student. More broadly, as defined by Brown University, a first-generation college student is “any student who may self-identify as not having prior exposure to or knowledge of navigating higher institutions such as Brown.”

A first-generation college student is not necessarily a student who was born outside of the country. In the admissions world, we call these students “international students.” A student can, however, be both an international and a first-generation student.

Relatedly, I’m often asked if a student whose parents have international college degrees is considered first-generation. This varies across institutions. However, it generally depends on certain factors. Did the parents graduate from Oxford or another top-ranking foreign institution? Do those international degrees aid that student’s parents in supporting their family? If the answer is yes to any of the above, I tend to believe such students do not count as first-generation college students. However, if a student’s parents have non-transferable or unrecognized international degrees, they may count as a first-generation college student.

In general, parents function as the marker as to whether you’re first-generation. Siblings’ degrees and the education level of non-immediate family members usually don’t matter. An exception to this rule is if you have little or no contact with your parent who has a college degree. In that case, you can likely self-identify as a first-generation student.

Who is considered a low-income college student?

Most colleges define low-income college applicants as those who qualify for Pell Grants–federal grants given to applicants with family incomes below $50,000. In nearly all cases, these students qualify for need-based scholarships wherever they apply. For some schools, especially selective universities like the Ivy Leagues, incomes higher than $50,000 can also qualify for generous need-based scholarships. At Princeton, for example, the university will cover the tuition, college fee, and most of the room and board for any student whose family income is less than $100,000. Princeton will even award full tuition to a family earning as high as $160,000 per year. In other words, the “low-income” label changes depending on the school.

To dive even deeper into financial aid and how to pay for college, check out some of our other CollegeAdvisor Admissions Experts like our article Harvard Financial Aid Guide: How I Paid for College.

The New York Times shares that first-generation and/or low-income are terms often used as a “proxy for underprivileged”–a way for colleges to promote education as a tool for social mobility. In other words, it’s assumed that “the student [and their] parents have little or no experience navigating the academic, financial and cultural barriers to higher education.” The FLi/FGLI label functions as a shorthand for the immense hurdles that some first-generation college students/low-income students face in higher education. Keep this in mind when considering whether you identify with these communities.

High School Resources for First-Generation College Students

Pre-College Programs – Juniors and Sophomores

I strongly recommend all FLi students apply to free pre-college programs before the college application cycle begins. During my junior year of high school, I attended the LEDA Scholars program. This pre-college program changed my life. Not only could I access a vast of resources, but LEDA helped me edit my college essays and raise my standardized test scores. LEDA also introduced me to a larger community of similarly disadvantaged students.

LEDA isn’t the only pre-college program of its kind. For humanities students, check out TASP for juniors and TASS for sophomores (the latter serves students interested in Critical Race Studies). For students interested in STEM, MIT offers the MITES program, which supports minority students interested in the sciences. And all three of these renowned, prestigious programs are completely free!

In many states, including North Carolina and New Jersey, you can also find funded Governor’s Schools for academically-gifted students. Lastly, look out for national programs like Upward Bound with local chapters supporting FLi high school students.

This list is far from complete, but it’s a good start for researching pre-college programs.

First-Generation College Student Scholarships – Seniors

Many scholarships support first-generation, low-income students. I personally won scholarships through the Ron Brown Scholars Program for Black-American students ($40,000), the KPMG Scholarship for young women ($40,000), and the National Horatio Alger Scholarship for students who’ve overcome hardship ($25,000). Other scholarships I strongly recommend researching include the Coca-Cola Scholarship ($50,000), the Jack Kent Cooke Scholarship (full-ride), and the Gates Millennium Scholarship (full-ride).

These national scholarships tend to operate on a general basis. This means they don’t specify academic/athletic interests, local regions, or specific cultural backgrounds. However, some scholarships assist students with specific interests or experiences. These include the Hispanic Scholarship Fund and the Heisman High School Scholarship for student-athletes.

Something I always underscore to FLi students is that while scholarships are important, admission to an elite school will almost always guarantee a full ride. Practically all of the Ivy+ schools–ranging from Harvard to Stanford to UChicago–meet 100% of demonstrated need in the form of grants. Though these schools are unquestionably difficult to get into, the promise of full financial aid is yet another compelling reason to aim high when applying for college.

College Resources for First-Generation Students

At Princeton, I was heavily involved in the first-generation, low-income community. I served as a co-president of the FLi Council and co-chaired the national 1vyG conference, which celebrates FLi students from selective universities. If it’s important to you to have a FLi community at your school, look for colleges with student organizations that uplift FLi students. Many universities now have centers and offices dedicated to FLi students–Brown has the Undocumented, First-Generation College and Low-Income (U-FLi) Student Center, UPenn has the FGLi Program, and Princeton has the Emma Bloomberg Center for Access and Opportunity. Some schools even have fly-in programs for FLi students that occur the summer before freshman year commences. These programs allow FLi students to explore campus and familiarize themselves with college-level coursework. At Princeton, I participated in such a program called the Freshman Scholars Institute (FSI).

Programs, student groups, and centers like these can deeply benefit first-generation college students as they transition into the higher education space. When creating your college list, make sure to check if the schools you’re applying to have similar resources.

Conclusion

To summarize, a first-generation and/or low-income college student is often one whose immediate family has not had access to institutions of higher learning. Given the power and privilege that a college degree can afford, colleges assume that families lacking such degrees are generally more disadvantaged, both socially and economically. As a result, it can be the case that first-generation students may struggle initially upon arriving at college campuses-especially elite ones—and that obtaining a college degree could change the course of their/their families’ lives.

It is important to note though that being first-generation is by no means an indicator of a student’s ability to succeed in and after college. For example, Michelle Obama, John Lewis, Michelle Kwan, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg are all first-generation college graduates.

As a reminder, many colleges devote additional resources to recruit FLi students onto their campuses. There are also ample pre-college programs, scholarships, and even institutionalized centers dedicated to uplifting and supporting FLi students through their undergraduate experience. Such resources have irrevocably changed the course of my life, and I wouldn’t be where I am without the support I received along the way.


This article on resources for first-generation students was written by senior advisor Kiara “KiKi” Gilbert, Princeton University ‘21. To get help with your college applications from KiKi or other CollegeAdvisor.com Admissions Experts, register with CollegeAdvisor.com today.

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