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We need to understand the challenges first generation students face

While it is inspiring to hear stories of students who overcame challenges to be the first in their family to go to college, for many the struggle does not end with a college acceptance letter. It is important to address the specific challenges that first generation college students face.



My mother is a Nurse Tech, my father an immigrant. My grandparents were farmers who spent their lives in the segregated south. From childhood, the importance of higher education was emphasized. Going to college was an expectation. I certainly would take advantage of the educational privilege that my parents and grandparents had only dreamed of.    

Around this time of the year we hear inspirational stories of recent high school graduates who have overcome economic and social challenges to be the first one in their family to make it to college. While it is inspiring to hear these stories, for many the struggle does not end with a college acceptance letter. It is important to address the specific challenges that first generation college students face as they navigate the unfamiliar territory of higher education.

Demographics of first generation college students

According to the Journal of Higher Education, students who identify as first generation college students (FGCS) are more likely to come from a minority or lower income background.  

·      38.2 percent are Hispanic

·      22.6 percent are African American

·      16.8 percent are Native American

·      19 percent are Asian

·      13.2 percent are Caucasian

Challenges first generation students face

Only 11% of low-income students entering college will graduate within 6 years of enrolling in school. Many factors contribute to this low success rate. Often students who attend college for the first time are not academically prepared. First generation students, especially those from lower income communities, attend high-schools that do not have the resources to provide a rigorous college-prep track. Other difficulties include financial instability, low academic self-esteem, racial underrepresentation, and difficulty adjusting to campus culture.

What works?

How can we support first generation college students? What are ways that we as community can help to contribute to changing the narrative for the youth in our community who are motivated to achieve academic success?

  1. First generation specific resources provided by universities-The preparedness of universities to receive first generation students plays a large role in a student's success. Students whose university connected them to other first-generation students, provided counseling, and promoted a culture that affirmed them were found to be  more likely to graduate.

  1. Mentorship- A study conducted by Eric Bettinger of Stanford University showed that regular check-in’s and mentorship increased the likelihood that a student would continue for another year by 10 to 15 percent. Many resources are available for colleges students as they enter university, often the barrier lies in a lack knowledge of how to utilize them. Mentorship is one of the key ways our community can become involved in ensuring student success.

  1. Encourage Student Involvement- Students who are involved in campus programming are more likely to graduate. The importance of having a sense of belonging can be overlooked as a factor to graduation, however having a community can be the deciding factor of whether a student will want to continue their college experience.

Grand Rapids first generation resources

Listed below are a few resources available here in the Grand Rapids  community and online. Check them out. Engage!

  1. I am First

  2. TRIO

  3. GR Blend

  4. West MI Community Resources

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