Improving access and success for first-generation college students

By Caroline Brachman

Nov 1, 2012


The Grad Nation campaign rightfully places its attention on the needs of young people who require the most help graduating from high school and accessing and succeeding in post-secondary education. This group includes current and potential first-generation college students –students whose parents’ highest level of education is less than an associate’s degree. Who are first-generation college students, what barriers to success do they face and what solutions may exist to remove these barriers?

Nearly one third of today’s undergraduate students are first-generation.[i] First-generation students are more likely to be low-income, come from minority backgrounds, and be non-native English speakers, single parents and financially independent from their parents.[ii] Research has shown that these factors lower students’ chances of persisting to graduation.[iii] Hence, low-income first-generation students are more likely – 26 versus just 7 percent – to leave higher education after just one year than their peers with neither risk factor, and only 11 percent of them persist in their higher education and earn bachelor’s degrees, compared to 55 percent of their peers.[iv] Eleven percent is truly a dismal rate of bachelor’s degree attainment in a time when it’s becoming increasingly imperative to attain a post-secondary degree in order to find and maintain gainful employment in the U.S.[v]

Barriers to Success

One of the major barriers that low-income first-generation students face in post-secondary access and success is lack of financing. In fact, college is becoming increasingly expensive for students that have the most financial need: The maximum Pell Grant covered only 36 percent of the price of attendance at a public four-year institution in 2004-05, down from 42 percent in 2001-02.[vi] And low-income, first-generation students receive only slightly more financial aid than their peers despite having greater financial need. These students end up falling approximately $3,600 short of the amount required to pay for college, even when loan aid is taken into account. [vii] Research also shows that Latinos, those with lower incomes and those who are less educated tend to have a stronger aversion to borrowing money for college.[viii]

Another key barrier is lack of academic preparation. A very high percentage of first-generation students require remedial courses upon entrance into a post-secondary institution, and students who take remedial education courses are much less likely to persist on to graduation. Specifically, fewer than one in 10 community college students taking remedial courses graduate within three years, and only about a third of students graduate with a bachelor’s degree within six years.[ix]

“College culture” plays a significant role in a student’s success as well. Research has shown that first-generation students are less likely to be engaged in the academic and social experiences in college, such as studying in groups, participating in extracurricular activities, and using support services. This is because, usually due to financial constraints, these students are more likely to live off-campus and only take classes part-time (while working simultaneously), which limits their time on campus.[x]

Immigrant and English Language Learner (ELL) students in particular face a number of unique barriers that can prevent them from accessing and succeeding in higher education. In addition to limited finances and work and family responsibilities, these barriers often include limited English proficiency, as well as a lack of knowledge about the American system of higher education.[xi] Of course illegal immigrants face even more barriers to accessing higher education.

Solutions & Recommendations

Recommendations for improving access to and success in post-secondary education for (especially low-income) first-generation students have been put forth by multiple organizations. To ease the financial burden, the balance of institutional financial aid should be shifted back to an emphasis on assisting students who are otherwise qualified but lack the financial resources to attend college.[xii] Aside from federal loans, assistance can also be provided in the form of expanded work-study programs.

The education provided to parents and students about the financial aid process can also be greatly enhanced and should be started early on in high school. It is recommended that more workshops for parents be provided and include information such as finding loan and scholarship opportunities, filling out forms such as the FAFSA, and enhancing financial literacy skills to assist with calculating loan payback schedules and interest rates.[xiii] For immigrant families in particular, colleges can help “by ensuring that admissions and financial aid counselors are familiar with regulations on immigration status and financial aid and the process of transcript review for students with foreign high school diplomas or college transcripts.”[xiv]

For illegal immigrants, the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act is legislation that would allow undocumented youth who came to the U.S. as minors and who demonstrate good moral character to qualify for conditional permanent resident status upon acceptance to college, graduation from high school, or receipt of a U.S. GED. The DREAM Act would ensure that “qualified students would be eligible for federal work study, student loans, and other forms of state financial aid, although they would not be able to receive Pell Grants or certain forms of federal financial aid.”[xv] Although controversial, if passed, the DREAM Act would not only remove a major barrier to post-secondary access for immigrant students but would also help incentivize college-going for thousands of young people.

Another recommendation is to ease the transition between high school and post-secondary for high need students. One strategy for this is to develop partnerships between high schools, colleges and universities, and state higher education coordinating bodies.[xvi] Summer bridge programs have also been shown to be successful.[xvii] Additionally, by raising academic expectations for all students, implementation of the Common Core State Standards is playing a tremendous role in improving college readiness. However, in order to ensure that implementation of these standards does not inadvertently result in graduating fewer students, high schools will need to commit to providing additional supports to their high-risk students – which includes potential first-generation students.

Colleges themselves can help by encouraging and helping first-generation students to get involved with campus life. As noted, many of these students spend a limited amount of time on campus due to living and/or working off-campus. Therefore, campus orientations and tours should be offered early on, students’ active engagement should be facilitated while they’re in the classroom, and they should be made aware of student support groups that may be a good fit for them and that work with their schedules.[xviii]

Indeed, the federally-funded Student Support Services (SSS) program, one of the federal TRIO programs, has been proven to be effective at retaining low-income first-generation students. The SSS program provides services such as instruction in basic skills, tutoring, academic advising, financial aid and career counseling, mentoring, and grant aid. Research has shown that students participating in SSS programs have higher degree completion rates than similarly disadvantaged peers. These programs use evidence-based practices that include “a structured freshman year experience, an emphasis on academic support, an active and intrusive approach to advising, a plan to promote participation, and a strong presence on campus.”[xix]

Another recommendation is to implement programs and policies that help to reward colleges and universities for attracting and retaining special populations such as low-income, first-generation, and minority students.[xx] And once these students get there, colleges need to do better at collecting data about them so that they know more about who they are and how they’re doing – which will in turn help them implement the strategies that will best support them.

First-generation college students – and potential first-generation students – face an array of challenges in accessing and succeeding in post-secondary education. But many policies and programs have been shown to be effective at overcoming those challenges and should therefore be incentivized, funded and implemented. Every young person, regardless of personal situation, deserves a chance to succeed. Indeed, the success of this country as a whole is dependent on it.

Tools & Other Resources

In addition to the resources cited in this brief, many America’s Promise Alliance partners focus on the multitude of issues surrounding post-secondary access, readiness and success and offer helpful resources for parents, students, policymakers and educators. More than 80 reports and other resources are downloadable in our Partner Resource Library and can be accessed by searching by Interest Area “College” in the right-hand search box.

Other resources include:

  • I’m First,” an initiative of the Center for Student Opportunity (CSO), was launched in September 2012. The initiative encourages first-generation college students to tell their inspiring stories through videos and offers these students access to support, advice and encouragement. CSO also publishes an annual College Access & Opportunity Guide for students.
  • College Summit builds the capacity of schools to dramatically increase college-going school- and district- wide. Trained student influencers build college-going culture, while teachers and counselors use a managed curriculum and technology tools to help all students create postsecondary plans and apply to college. Data and accountability tools equip school leaders to manage improved student outcomes.
  • College Track’s mission is to close the achievement gap and create college-going cultures for students from unrepresented communities. Participants receive intensive programming throughout all four years of high school and through college until graduation. Core service areas include academic affairs, student life, college affairs and college success.
  • The Institute for Higher Education Policy’s Pathways to College Network provides multiple libraries and tools for educators, policymakers and researchers.
  • The National Association for College Admission Counseling is a member organization for school counselors.  The Students & Parents section of NACAC’s website provides information about financial aid, the college admission process, visiting campuses, applications and more. NACAC also houses a robust knowledge center for counseling professionals and others.
  • Reach for College! provides a research-based curriculum specially developed for students who will often be the first in their families to pursue higher education. Reach for College! implements their curriculum in high schools through training teachers to administer it.
  • First in the Family is an initiative of What Kids Can Do, which is deeply committed to college access and success for low-income youth. The First in the Family website provides videos of students discussing their college experiences, college planning checklists and other resources.
  • The National College Access Network is an affiliation of more than 350 nonprofits around the country that focus on helping more first-generation students enter and succeed in college. NCAN members provide students with information about college admission, financial aid, and mentoring and offer support to keep students on the path to postsecondary graduation. NCAN’s member directory can help you connect to these organizations in your state.
  • Read an article written by recent America’s Promise intern Laney Oaks about her experiences as a first-generation college student.



[i] Institute for Higher Education, Supporting First-Generation College Students Through Classroom-Based Practices, September 2012, p. 3 (accessed at http://www.ihep.org/assets/files/publications/s-z/%28Issue_Brief%29_Walmart_MSI_Supporting_FGS_September_2012.pdf)

[ii] The Pell Institute, Moving Beyond Access: College Success for Low-Income, First-Generation Students, p. 2 (accessed at http://inpathways.net/COE_MovingBeyondReport_Final.pdf)

[iii] Id p. 3

[iv] Id p. 2

[v] Anthony P. Carnevale, Help Wanted: Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements Through 2018, June 2010, p.1 (accessed at http://www9.georgetown.edu/grad/gppi/hpi/cew/pdfs/FullReport.pdf)

[vi] Institute for Higher Education Policy, Convergence: Trends Threatening to Narrow College Opportunity in America, April 2006, p.1 (accessed at http://www.ihep.org/assets/files/publications/a-f/ConvergenceFactsheet.pdf)

[vii] The Pell Institute, Moving Beyond Access: College Success for Low-Income, First-Generation Students, p. 22 (accessed at http://inpathways.net/COE_MovingBeyondReport_Final.pdf)

[viii] Institute for Higher Education and Excelencia in Education, Student Aversion to Borrowing: Who Borrows and Who Doesn’t, December 2008, p. 8 (accessed at http://www.ihep.org/assets/files/publications/s-z/studentaversiontoborrowing.pdf)

[ix] Complete College America, Remediation: Higher Education’s Bridge to Nowhere, April 2012, p. 3 (accessed at http://www.completecollege.org/docs/CCA-Remediation-final.pdf)

[x] The Pell Institute, Moving Beyond Access: College Success for Low-Income, First-Generation Students, p. 3 (accessed at http://inpathways.net/COE_MovingBeyondReport_Final.pdf)

[xi] Institute for Higher Education Policy, Opening the Door to the American Dream: Increasing Higher Education Access and Success for Immigrants, February 2008, p. 2 (accessed at http://www.ihep.org/assets/files/publications/m-r/Opening_the_Door_Immigrants_FactSheet_NY.pdf)

[xii] College Board, The Educational Crisis Facing Young Men of Color, January 2010, p. 2 (accessed at http://advocacy.collegeboard.org/sites/default/files/educational-crisis-facing-young-men-of-color.pdf)

[xiii] The Pell Institute, Moving Beyond Access: College Success for Low-Income, First-Generation Students, p. 3-4 (accessed at http://inpathways.net/COE_MovingBeyondReport_Final.pdf)

[xiv] Institute for Higher Education Policy, Opening the Door to the American Dream: Increasing Higher Education Access and Success for Immigrants, February 2008, p. 1-2 (accessed at http://www.ihep.org/assets/files/publications/m-r/Opening_the_Door_Immigrants_FactSheet_NY.pdf)

[xv] First Focus, The DREAM Act: Securing America’s Future in Education, September 2011 (accessed at http://www.ffcampaignforchildren.org/sites/default/files/DREAM%20Act%20Fact%20Sheet.pdf)

[xvi] College Board, The Educational Crisis Facing Young Men of Color, January 2010, p. 3 (accessed at http://advocacy.collegeboard.org/sites/default/files/educational-crisis-facing-young-men-of-color.pdf)

[xvii] The Pell Institute, Moving Beyond Access: College Success for Low-Income, First-Generation Students, p. 3-4 (accessed at http://inpathways.net/COE_MovingBeyondReport_Final.pdf)

[xviii] Id

[xix] Id p. 27

[xx] College Board, The Educational Crisis Facing Young Men of Color, January 2010, p. 2 (accessed at http://advocacy.collegeboard.org/sites/default/files/educational-crisis-facing-young-men-of-color.pdf)