First in the Family

The challenges and triumphs of first-generation college students.


If you’re first in the family to go to college, you’re not alone. In fact, you’re in the pretty impressive company of Michelle Obama, Tennessee Williams, Sonia Sotomayor, Oprah Winfrey, Samuel L. Jackson and Howard Schultz to name just a few.

And yet, as you consider schools, contemplate majors and wonder how you’re going to pay for it all, you may feel more alone than ever. Take heart. There’s a strong and growing network of mentors, organizations and programs designed just for you—the collegiate pioneer.

Financing your future

Aside from SAT scores, funding your college dream (without drowning in debt) is probably a big concern. In-state tuition at a four-year college currently costs an average of $9,410 per year.1 Yet only 14 percent of families are saving for college with a 529 plan.2 That leaves nearly half of undergraduates working more than 30 hours per week and a quarter of students working full-time.3 Noble, sure, but potentially exhausting. That’s why exploring scholarships is probably well worth your time and effort.

As you may know, the road to free money begins with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Will it be frustrating? Maybe. Time consuming? Grab a snack. But remember: this one major hurdle, once cleared, will allow you to apply for all sorts of federal financial aid packages. If you get stumped, you can ask your school counselor for help or jump on a site like Nitrocollege.com. Its FAFSA cheat sheet will guide you through every single question you’ll face (and even explain why it’s being asked).

"I’d definitely have more debt if I hadn’t filled out the FAFSA," says Aaron, a sophomore at Virginia Tech. "Pell Grants and other aid have given me as much money as scholarships. They covered almost half of my education."

Phew. Once that’s out of the way, you’ll want to search for dough like a seasoned detective. Be tenacious, follow every lead and ask lots of questions, because one great find could ease your financial burden significantly.

It’s fine to start wide with a search of "scholarships for first-generation college students."

Or try resources like CareerOneStop.org, a hub of more than 7,500 scholarships, grants and other funding based on everything from areas of study and ethnicity to location and simple financial need. There are even "First in Family Scholarships" created just for students like you.

You can also check out robust sites like Collegeboard.org, Fastweb.com, Niche.com and Moolahspot.com. Keep in mind that some scholarships require you to apply between junior and senior year of high school, but not all. If you miss that deadline, no worries. You can focus on the others still waiting to be scooped up.

"My high school counselor helped me find local and state organizations offering first-generation college student scholarships. If the amount was small, I still applied because it really adds up," says Darlene, who earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Kentucky. "I left school with less debt than my friends, which meant more options for building my life."

Finding hidden gems

Luckily, corporate America is pitching in as well. Starbucks, for example, covers the cost of an online bachelor’s degree, allowing employees to attend virtual classes through Arizona State University.4 Working for Chipotle for one year can net you $5,250 per year for academic expenses.5 Other big names providing tuition assistance include Verizon, AT&T, Disney, Best Buy, Wal-Mart, UPS and Smucker’s.6 The roster is ever-evolving, so a quick search of "companies that pay for college" can help you zero in on the latest offerings.

Digging up details on federal work-study programs, offered by the school you plan to attend, can hook you up with part-time jobs both on and off campus. Again, be sure to check deadlines as funding is limited.

Heard of the College Advising Corps? This organization’s sole mission is to increase the number of low-income, first-gen students who graduate from college. Now operating in 646 U.S. high schools, its staff of recent college grads helps students with everything from SAT registration to application waivers. They understand that financial aid for first-generation college students comes in many forms and can help you find a variety of sources.

Now for some really exciting news: There’s a "no loan" movement that’s gaining momentum nationwide. So far, 32 schools—many top tier—have taken up the cause.7 While the cost of a four-year education isn’t entirely free, these schools can help you work out a combination of grants, work-study options and parental contributions that may suit your situation perfectly.

With no stone left unturned, you may still need to borrow money to reach the finish line.

It’s okay, just arm yourself with information as you decide what’s right for you. Take note, for instance, that federal student loans often have lower interest rates than private loans, along with other features you can read about at Federal Student Aid.

Forming community bonds

As a first-gen college student, it may feel like getting to college is the main objective. But really, it’s staying there. That’s where community comes into play. When challenges arise, and they probably will, friends and mentors who really understand what you’re going through can help a lot.

Today, about half of the college population is made up of people whose parents never went to college.8 In an effort to assist, schools from UC Berkeley to Virginia Tech have created “bridge programs” to ease the transition.

Summer Bridge, at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, invites incoming freshman to enroll in summer classes, get a feel for campus life and forge relationships that can last a lifetime.

"There’s more help than students realize, with support groups, free counseling and professors who simply love working with them," says Tara, a creative writing professor in New Jersey whose students are often first in their families to pursue higher education. "They already know that success isn’t a given. It takes work. That's such a big life lesson, so they’re usually more mature than they know," she says.

Focusing on the end game

Even when it comes to "in-state vs. out-of-state," hidden gems of opportunity exist. Perhaps your dream is to major in cartography, mining or tax law (hey, you’re very particular), but these options aren’t available in your state. The Academic Common Market allows students to study specialized fields out of state while paying in-state tuition. It’s currently limited to 15 states, but goes to show how a little extra sleuthing can really pay off.

Set on a school that’s a bit out of reach? You might consider starting at community college. Many have partnerships with 4-year schools to simplify the transfer process, clarifying everything from the classes you’ll need to take to the grades you’ll need to make. You could save a bundle and still get that dream-school diploma. International students can also look to organizations like American Honors, which oversees a transfer network of more than 65 top colleges and universities.

Forging your own way

There’s no doubt about it: Making your way as a first-gen college student can take lots of hard work, creativity and grit––qualities that can serve you well in so many areas of life.

You might even use your college years to get in the habit of saving (yes, money). Consider opening a savings account to save up for special occasions (spring break!) and learn how savings interest adds up over time (first house!). A simple monthly budget can help build your confidence around managing money and working towards new goals.

"The reason I’m here is that I dreamed big dreams, the kind that other people said would not be possible," says Howard Schultz of Starbucks, the first-gen college grad who believed a coffee shop, reimagined, could enrich communities everywhere.

Beyond grades and the grants that help fund the journey, the college experience can be an incredible opportunity for growth. As you explore new interests and discover your strengths and talents, you may find that the investment brings much more to your life than the diploma.


This site is for educational purposes. The material provided on this site is not intended to provide legal, investment, or financial advice or to indicate the availability or suitability of any Capital One product or service to your unique circumstances. For specific advice about your unique circumstances, you may wish to consult a qualified professional.

  1. College Costs: FAQs. (n.d.) Retrieved from: https://bigfuture.collegeboard.org/pay-for-college/college-costs/college-costs-faqs

  2. Sixth Annual Edward Jones Study Finds Two-Thirds of Americans Still Do Not Know What a 529 Plan Is. (May 23, 2017). Retrieved from https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/sixth-annual-edward-jones-study-finds-two-thirds-of-americans-still-do-not-know-what-a-529-plan-is-300461738.html

  3. Working Too Much Harms US College Students’ Academic Progress (December 19, 2017) Retrieved from https://learningenglish.voanews.com/a/college-students-working-too-much/4155230.html

  4. ASU Online. (n.d.) Retrieved from https://asuonline.asu.edu/starbucks-and-arizona-state-university

  5. Guild. (n.d.) Retrieved from https://www.guildeducation.com/partners/chipotle

  6. Carter S. (August 23, 2017). These Companies Will Help You Go to College. Retrieved from https://www.cnbc.com/2017/08/23/these-companies-pay-for-college-tuition.html

  7. Mulhere K. (December 13, 2017) All These Colleges Have Now Gone 'Loan-Free' to Help Keep Students Out of Debt. Retrieved from http://time.com/money/5058767/colleges-no-student-loan-policies/

  8. Supporting first generation college students. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.firstgenerationfoundation.org/

Related Content