First-generation college students face a greater risk of not attaining their college degrees due to a variety of reasons, including little to no at-home experience to help navigate the academic and social challenges college presents. At CAP, 78% of the nearly 600 students we serve are first-generation. Here are the three most common pitfalls first-gen students face and proven methods to avoid them.


Pitfall #1: Financial Issues

Aside from the high cost of attending college in the first place, common financial challenges for first-gen students include budgeting, understanding the full cost of attendance, and how financial aid works. Most college students haven’t paid bills before and don’t know how to manage money. So, when a student gets a lump sum of financial aid, for example, it’s hard to manage if s/he doesn’t have a plan to manage it wisely. Most first-gen students don’t have a financial safety net to fall back on, so planning is crucial. Ways to help students avoid this pitfall include:

  • Decipher financial award letters: Oftentimes colleges provide packages with loans, but not all parents or students understand what portion of the aid is a loan that will need to be paid back versus what portion is “free money.” Help identify what is a loan and what is a scholarship before choosing a college.
  • Understand the full cost of attendance: Make sure your student knows attendance isn’t just the tuition and the price of housing, but that it’s also meals, books, technology, and day-to-day living—such as laundry, haircuts, and gas money. These items need to be factored into the student’s budget.
  • Recommend picking a bank account with broad ATM access and low minimum balance requirements and fees: This will help students keep more of their money and not lose it to fees. Paying bills online and keeping track of due dates to avoid paying late fees on bills are money management lessons better learned early on.
  • Connect them to financial management resources: NerdWallet and Mint offer good resources and experts like Dave Ramsey and Suze Orman provide solid advice for students to learn skills such as managing credit, selecting credit cards, saving, and budgeting.


Pitfall #2: Preparing for the Big Transition

The second issue many first-gen students face is being academically underprepared for the transition from high school to college, especially for STEM pathways. For students who attend under-resourced high schools, college classes can be especially intense and fast-paced. Ways to help students avoid this pitfall include:

  • Instill good study and time management skills: Students need two to three hours of study time for every one hour of class. What do you do in those hours and how do you build them into your schedule? Different subjects require different study skills—if you’re taking anatomy you need flashcards and memorization, if you’re taking literature you need to read and connect ideas. For students seeking support, campus tutoring centers often have study workshops. Students should get a planner or use their phone to help schedule due dates and study time.
  • Prepare for STEM classes: Students interested in STEM greatly benefit from taking a community college class (in a topic such chemistry, calculus, or physics) during the summer before entering college. This can help the student understand the pace and intensity to expect from a STEM major, assess if additional resources will be needed to keep up (such as a tutor or office hours), and determine if it’s a path s/he wants to continue.
  • Identify a reason to persist: It’s hard for students to know what they really want. Does she really want to be an engineer? Does she enjoy those classes and type of work? Or has she been pressured into it by family or hopes of making a lot of money? Conducting a realistic assessment of what the student desires and how to get there can help the student persevere towards their goal.


Pitfall #3: Campus Engagement

Low-income, first-gen students in urban areas usually go to high schools with students who look like them. Transitioning to a predominantly white and/or wealthy college with students from different places can be a huge culture shock. For example, if you’re African-American, where do you get your hair cut? If you’re used to eating a certain kind of food and you can’t find it there, how do you adjust? Ways to help your student acclimate include:

  • Talk about the transition before it happens: Adjustments such as getting used to their residence hall, dining hall food, and people from different backgrounds aren’t always talked about, but helping your students think through how to navigate upcoming changes can mentally prepare them for what’s ahead.
  • Connect with campus resources: Student affinity groups such as the black student union or multicultural resource center can help students acculturate, create connections, and find a sense of belonging. Some campuses offer summer prep programs for first-gen students to help them get a head start on the transition. Students who feel more connected to their campuses are more likely to persist to graduation.


Want to learn more about college success? Attend the inaugural CAP College Success Institute, May 20-21 in the San Francisco Bay Area!


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