The Struggles of a First-Generation Student

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First-Generation College Student Struggles Essay

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Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • College as the First-Generation College Students' Dream
  • The Main Struggles of First-Generation College Students
  • The Rate of Enrollment of First-Generation College Students
  • Equal Ground for First-Generation College Students and Others
  • Creating Better Policies for First-Generation College Students
  • Conclusion


All my life I never thought I would be able to go to college. When I was a kid, I had brothers who told me I wouldn’t graduate high school, because they didn’t believe I could do what they couldn’t. I had parents that didn’t care if I studied or not and didn’t help me because of the simple fact that they didn’t know-how. No one in my family went to college, and none of my close relatives even graduated high school, yet here I am. My journey wasn’t easy, yet here I am, writing this first generation college student essay. It's not easy for someone like me, raised in a house like mine, to make it to college. It wasn’t easy to face all the obstacles every other student must face, because every other student has support, and parents that make them do work. When I was younger, I didn’t want to do any schoolwork, and my parents didn’t make me do any schoolwork, so what do you think I did? Though many Americans believe in educational equality, that idea is simply not true. It is a fact that first-generation students have it harder than other students when it comes to getting into college, being successful in college, and receiving support while in college. Although these students have it harder, with the proper guidance by school employees while these students are in high school and the proper care when these students make it to college, this problem can be solved.

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College as the First-Generation College Students' Dream

College is a dream when it comes to first-generation students, sometimes a very unlikely one. In fact, “Nearly a third of undergraduate students in the United States are first-generation, defined as those who have no parent with a bachelor’s degree” (Eschara, 2018, para. 2). That means only about 30 percent of incoming freshmen are first-generation, not only that but that 30 percent are less likely to graduate on time, if at all. The odds of a first-generation student making it to college are slim, and when it comes to them succeeding in college, it can be even slimmer. According to Escher, “First-gen students are more than twice as likely to leave school within three years (33%) than students whose parents have a bachelor’s degree (14%)” (Eschara, 2018, para. 7). So, out of 100 students, 33 are first-generation, and out of those 33, around 11 of them won't graduate. Essentially this means that on graduation day, only 22 out of every 100 students will be first-generation students. These odds are not in their favor.

The Main Struggles of First-Generation College Students

Although it is a struggle for them to succeed in college, this is not their only struggle. There are many unique challenges that first-generation college students face. Challenges that many people don’t know about, but exist. These challenges range from psychological challenges to physical real-world challenges. They include things such as leaving siblings and family members behind when these students were caretakers for many of the financial struggles that many of them face. These students typically come from less well-off families, so a lot of financial problems can occur when it comes to getting to college. For example, in Banks-Santali’s article “The Unique Challenges of a First-Generation College Student”, she mentions; “Often, first-generation students apply only to a single college and do that without help. They can’t afford multiple application fees and they are unsure of how to figure a good fit, as their parents have not taken them on the college tour” (Banks-Santilli, 2015, para. 15). Basically, if these students do make it to the point where maybe they can get into a college, they don’t really have too many choices. They apply to one or maybe two colleges that they think they will like, and if they don’t get in then they are left behind. The typical students apply to as many colleges as possible, because money isn’t a problem, and even if they have a lower GPA, they are still more likely to go to college, for they apply to way more colleges than first-generation students. If the student goes to college, they have hardly any prior knowledge of the college they selected, and a lot of times it’s not the right fit, which leads to them being unhappy. These financial issues don’t leave when they get into college, either. First-generation students also tend to have to work during college to be able to afford to have a social life, which can lead to them not being focused on school or having time to study. If they don’t work, they tend to not go out, for they don’t have the money to, which can lead to them being unhappy also. They don’t receive as much if any financial support from parents as other students. In this article, Banks-Santali also mentions that more often than not, first-generation students tend to go to college to help their family finically, in fact, “69% of first-generation college students say they want to help their families, compared to 39% of students whose parents have earned a degree” (Banks-Santilli, 2015, para. 7). This puts them under a lot of pressure. The average student goes to college for themselves, so if they fail, they are only failing themselves. The average first-generation student, as said above, does it for their family. They must constantly think about their family back home and worry about them. If they fail, they are failing their family, which constantly thinking about that can cause a lot of stress and psychological issues.

The Rate of Enrollment of First-Generation College Students

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, “Among students who were sophomores in 2002, 72 percent of first-generation students enrolled in college 10 years later, compared with 84 percent of their peers whose parents had some college education, and 93 percent of those whose parents had earned bachelor's degrees” (Gewertz, 2018, para. 6). Essentially, this article is saying what most people can already assume, high school students with parents that aren’t college-educated are less likely to go to college. In this article, Gewertz also mentions the fact that “Only 7 percent took calculus as their highest-level math class, while 22 percent of the students with college-going backgrounds did so” (Gewertz, 2018, para. 3). With these two pieces of information, it is presumable that most students without parents with college-going backgrounds are less likely to reach higher-level courses in high school and are less likely to go to college. But, why? Well, speaking from experience, when a student doesn’t have people that care for them, they don’t typically care about themselves. These students don’t have parents that care if they take higher-level courses. They don’t have parents that really care if they do well at school. So, if there aren’t any punishments for not trying, why try? Why push to go to these higher-level classes? That’s what goes through their heads, and when the time comes to go to college, and their highest math doesn’t come close to any other students, colleges typically won’t pick them. However, if they do get picked, they still haven’t taken high-level math courses, and will most likely struggle in college.

Equal Ground for First-Generation College Students and Others

Some of these things might seem obvious, they may seem like no one can disagree with them. Well, that’s kind of right in a sense. No one blatantly disagrees with this subject, but they do in other ways, even if they don’t mean to. Many people believe America is the land of equal opportunity. That all students have the same chances of going to college, they just must try harder. People all around America tell students to go to college as if it’s just that easy. No one denies that there are students that don’t have equal opportunity when asked about it, but people seem to forget it. For example, Nykiel says in her article, “Here are 10 data-backed reasons to go to college” (Nykiel, 2018, para. 2). At first glance, there’s nothing wrong with this sentence. She is just telling people they should go to college, right? Well, yes. But, it's bigger than that. This is the last sentence in her article before she starts to list the reasons why a student should go to college. For the rest of the article, she never mentions that it isn’t possible to go to college. She never mentions that it’s okay to not be able to go to college. Her mentality towards the matter is, “All students should go to college. College is the only right choice.” Unfortunately, this is the mentality of a lot of Americans. They push this idea that if you don’t go to college, you’re a failure, without recognizing the fact that it’s not as easy for some students to just “go to college”. They put this goal in students’ heads, and not all students can achieve it. Everyone wishes that were everyone could go to college and get a good job and be wealthy, but we don’t live in a perfect world. Not everyone is born with a silver spoon. Some students can try all they want, but they can’t succeed the way this world expects them to. Things happen. First-generation students are more likely to come from poor families. They are more likely to come from broken families. Some would-be first-generation students can’t afford to leave their brothers and sisters. They can’t afford to go to college. At a young age, they become responsible for a lot of things in the family, People want to imagine that everyone has equal opportunity in the United States. That’s simply just not the case. People want to brush the underclass under the rug. They want to forget about them. Forget about their problems and struggles, so they don’t have to feel bad for them. So, they came up with the belief that everyone has equal opportunities and they tell their kids that to make themselves feel better. Quite frankly, the belief that everyone should even go to college isn’t ideal anyway. There need to be construction workers, retail employees, etc., but just because someone comes from a family that didn’t go to college doesn’t mean that they need to take on those roles. It’s a never-ending cycle, if one is born in the upper-middle class or above, they are more likely to stay in the lower class. In Nykiel’s article, she says: “Having a college degree opens doors that would otherwise be closed, giving you a wider selection of jobs. Ninety-nine percent of jobs created since the Great Recession have gone to workers with at least some college education” (Nykiel, 2018, para. 15). Now, how is this fair? Why isn’t the government creating jobs that the lower classes can achieve? This is a society that benefits the upper class tremendously but seems to forget about the others. Now, most people probably don’t see anything wrong with articles like these, or people telling everyone they need to go to college. They may think “How is telling kids to go to college wrong?” Well, it wouldn’t be wrong if all kids could go to college. People tell children they should work hard and go to college at a young age. They never give kids any other choices. It setting a standard a lot of the population simply cannot reach. It setting kids up for failure. People expect kids to go to college, but they don’t try to understand the struggles that they are facing. They don’t understand that every home isn’t peachy and lovey. Not everyone comes from a home where they can obtain a college degree, even if they are the smartest kids in the world. You can’t leave these types of kids out of the equation. If there are millions of adults saying everyone should go to college, what happens mentally to these young adults that aren’t able to achieve this unobtainable goal? It can destroy their confidence and self-esteem. This society is setting children up for failure.

Creating Better Policies for First-Generation College Students

How can America fix these problems? Well, to start, creating a caring environment in high school and middle school for these soon-to-be first-generation students. Schools should find out who are the students who come from non-college backgrounds, ask them questions about home, keep track of their grades, make sure they have someone that cares about them. Schools could accept volunteers for big brother/sister type programs for these students, or simply give that job to school counselors. In a study done by the ACT, they concluded that “Notwithstanding the effects of individual-level factors on postsecondary education decisions, research has found that what high schools do to help their students navigate the college-going process has significant implications on their students’ postsecondary outcomes” (Bidwell, 2018 para. 12). Essentially what Bidwell is saying, schools helping a student through the college process makes that student more likely to go to college. This is because a lot of students don’t have anyone to help with the college process, and don’t necessarily know when to start. To fix these problems first-generation students face, it would have to be fixed in high school first, and then eventually work its way up to college. In college, staff should seek out first-generation students, let it be known to professors which of their students are first-generation students, and give them extra guidance. If high schools started mentoring these students that have no parents with college backgrounds and guided them through the college process, and colleges were to seek out and guide first-generation students, there would for sure be a rise in the number of first-generation students in college and staying in college.


In general, high school students with parents that never attended college are way more unlikely to go to college. If they do make it to college, they face a lot of issues that the typical student doesn’t usually face. First-generation students are more likely to battle depression, not seek help in school when they need it, fail classes and of course, drop out of college. In Banks-Santilli’s article she says; “Not all first-generation college students are the same, but many experience difficulty within four distinct domains: 1) professional, 2) financial, 3) psychological and 4) academic” (Banks-Santilli, 2017 para. 13). First-generation students are already at a disadvantage from the start of college. It’s not their choice. This makes going to college harder than it is for the typical student. However, some people see America as having the equal opportunity when it comes to education and college. Some people don’t see the issues that first-generation students and would-be first-generation students face. People need to become educated when it comes to the fact not everyone can make it to college, and the fact that it’s okay to not go to college. When it comes to first-generation students, the idea of equality isn’t true. They have it hard. They must go through struggles that many other students don’t typically have to face. The teachers and professors need to get involved, only after that can this problem be fixed.

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