Being the first person in the family to go to college can be a great deal of pressure. You are likely to face the greater challenges associated with advanced college academics alone as well as figuring out how to pay for college.

The good news: there are many different types of financial aid for eligible first-generation college students that can help.

More students are choosing to go to college — and nearly 4 million new graduates are expected to earn their degrees in 2019. The overall increase in numbers of college graduates also means that there are likely to be a declining number of graduates whose parents didn't attend college.

Keep reading to learn more about financial aid opportunities for first-generation college students as well as other resources available to help you successfully navigate the college landscape.

Who is a First-Generation College Student?

Determining who a first-generation student is can be more complex than you'd imagine. There isn't a set definition for first-generation college students; however, they are mostly recognized as students whose parents did not complete a four-year college degree. More recently, some U.S. institutions have chosen to define first-generation students as those with parents who completed a four-year degree at an international institution as well.

This somewhat fuzzy definition also means that there are likely to be different interpretations of the term when you apply for each scholarship and school. Still, you're likely to find many opportunities that apply to your situation despite the varying definitions. When applying for a first-generation college student financial aid opportunity, be sure to research their eligibility requirements carefully.

Challenges for First-Generation College Students

Being a first-generation college student can be a challenging prospect. Unlike other students who may have had support and guidance from their parents or family, as a first-generation student you may not have access to the same help or resources without making a conscious effort to seek them out.

The Postsecondary National Policy Institute says the majority of first-generation college students come from low-income backgrounds and that nearly half of all first-generation college students begin their academic journey at two-year colleges. According to National Center for Education Statistics data, first-generation students tend to graduate at lower rates than students who follow in their family's footsteps. Research on this study suggests that the financial and social burdens are some common obstacles for first-generations students.

While these facts may be discouraging, it doesn't mean that these challenges can't be overcome. It might help to think about them in another way. For example:

Becoming a college student may seem daunting, but there are many people and communities out there to support you through the process.

Our Ultimate Guide: Applying to Online Colleges for First-Time Students contains additional information that may be helpful to you.

Online Education and First-Generation College Students

We've discussed many of the tribulations that can impact first-generation college students, but there are many potential solutions for these challenges.

Taking classes online can alleviate many of the problems that often crop up during college. For many students, online education provides benefits you can't get from the tradition classroom experience, including:

As an online college student, you don't have to worry about commuting to campus or paying for parking, and many online degree programs cost less than on-campus programs since you don't have to pay certain campus-based fees. And the freedom to take classes when it's most convenient can be a huge benefit to working students or those with families.

If you're planning for a strong start at your online college there are several steps you can take to transition into a successful and prepared college student.

How Much Does College Really Cost?

When researching colleges — typically on an institution's website, the National Center for Education Statistics' College Navigator site, or The College Board — you can learn more about the annual cost of attendance. This is known as the "sticker price," and the numbers can be a bit shocking, especially for prestigious private colleges. However, most students rarely pay the full sticker price. Federal financial aid, grants and scholarships can drastically reduce the cost of annual tuition and fees. The sticker price minus these various types of fiscal aid is known as the "net price."

Financial Aid for First-Generation College Students

There are many different programs, initiatives and aid programs to help first-generation college students pay for college. The federal government offers several types of financial aid, including grants, student loans or work-study programs for eligible students. Below we've highlighted and linked to each federal resource to help you quickly navigate the federal aid process.

Federal Aid for First-Generation College Students
  • FAFSA. The evaluation for federal, state and institutional financial aid starts when you fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. (Although "federal" is part of the title, many states and institutions also use this form.) This information in this streamlined form determines your eligibility for various types of financial aid. You should pay particular attention to federal, state and college deadlines to ensure you complete the FAFSA on time.
  • Federal Pell Grant Program. Federal Pell grants are funds you don't have to pay back. Grants are need-based, so you have to meet certain qualifying criteria, such as financial need. The maximum grant amount for the 2019-20 academic year is $6,195.
  • Federal Stafford Loan Program. The federal government offers a variety of low-interest loans to help you pay for tuition and expenses. Undergraduate students who demonstrate financial need can receive a direct subsidized loan, while those who can't demonstrate financial need can receive an unsubsidized loan.
  • Federal Work-Study. The Federal Work-Study program allows undergraduate and graduate students to earn money from part-time jobs while enrolled in college. The program is administered at the institutional level, so you should check with your prospective college's financial aid office to determine what kinds of jobs might be available.
Scholarships for First-Generation College Students

There are many first-generation college student scholarships available. Below we've highlighted a few:

Northeastern University Torch Scholars Program. Northeastern's Torch program is dedicated to first-generation students and includes comprehensive academic planning, professional and peer mentoring and a summer immersion program to help students succeed. The university offers 10 scholarships annually that cover tuition, room and board.

Advantage Iowa Award. Incoming freshmen, including first-generation students, from historically underrepresented populations are eligible for this merit-based scholarship from the University of Iowa. The scholarship is renewable for up to eight semesters and ranges in amount from $2,000 to $8,000 annually.

Thurgood Marshall College Fund Access Scholarship Program. First-generation students enrolling in publicly supported Historically Black Colleges and Universities can receive a one-year scholarship up to $7,200. The funds can be used to cover tuition, books, fees and on-campus room and board. Students must be enrolled full time and demonstrate financial need.

Our Ultimate Guide to Scholarships contains additional information that may be helpful to you.

Grants for First-Generation College Students

Private and institutional first-generation college student grants may also be available to those who meet eligibility requirements. Here are a few:

University of Colorado at Boulder First Generation Grant. These grants are awarded to Colorado undergraduates whose parents or legal guardians have not earned bachelor's degrees. This first-come, first-served grant pays up to $2,000 for off-campus students and $4,000 for on-campus students. The grants are renewable for up to 10 semesters as long as students continue to meet eligibility requirements.

Minnesota State Grant. Eligible students from low- and moderate-income families can use this grant to pay for tuition and other expenses at state-supported Minnesota colleges, universities and technical or career colleges. The grant is available for four consecutive quarters or three semesters. The average grant is upwards of $2,400.

Arkansas Future Grant. The ArFuture Grant is available to students enrolled in STEM programs or similar high-demand areas that culminate in an associate degree. Students must have graduated from an Arkansas high school, and they can receive the grant for up to five semesters. The grant is equal to the cost of tuition, fees and other charges.

Additional information about grants can be found in our Ultimate Guide to Grants.

More Financial Aid for First-Generation College Students

Resources for First-Generation College Students

The section below highlights a few of the most prominent organizations and initiatives that have been established nationally, regionally and on select campuses to improve the first-generation college student's experience. First-generation college students can take advantage of all resources available to them to navigate the challenges they might face.

Initiatives for First-Generation College Students
  • Campus-based first-generation initiatives. Many colleges recognize the importance of giving first-gen students additional help and have dedicated staff or campus centers for first-generation students. These campuses include University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, Florida Atlantic University, Stanford, University of Central Arkansas and Brown University, among others.
  • First Forward. This program, launched by the Center for First-Generation Student Success in 2017, recognizes colleges and universities that have committed to providing additional tools and resources to help first-generation students succeed. Students can find more than 80 institutions that have been designated First Forward Schools.
  • KnowHow2Go. This initiative by the American Council on Education provides a wealth of resources for students to help them plan for college. From tips on paying for college to the importance of college readiness and compiling key documents prior to acceptance, KnowHow2Go can help students formulate a winning college strategy.
Organizations for First-Generation College Students
  • Center for First-Generation Student Success. The mission of this Washington, D.C.-based organization is to provide thought leadership and advocate on behalf of first-gen students among institutions of higher education.
  • First Graduate. This San Francisco-based group provides guidance to aspiring first-generation college students. The group helps students fill out the FAFSA, submit college applications, find scholarships and more.

Finding Resources on Google and Other Search Engines

Students will undoubtedly sharpen their search skills while writing research papers in college. But prior to that, it's helpful to know a few key search terms to find resources to help them navigate the college landscape. Foremost among these is "first-generation college students." Additionally, students can search for:

  • "Resources for first-generation college students"
  • "Scholarships for first-generation college students"
  • "Challenges for first-generation college students"

The last term could help provide in-depth insight into the many issues first-generation college students face that may not have been covered here.

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