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Publication Date

April 2019


Jess Dorrance, Kate Sablosky Elengold, Hannah Gill, Julia Barnard, and David Ansong


MetLife Foundation

Approximately one-third of individuals currently enrolled in college are first-generation students. As a rapidly growing segment of the student population, it is important to expand our understanding of the diversity of their experiences. It is also critical to identify and enhance services to prepare these students for higher education and support them from matriculation through graduation.

Researchers have found that some first-generation students face obstacles in accessing higher education. Data also indicate that first-generation students can lag behind their non-first-generation peers in college enrollment and completion rates. The literature points to a variety of explanations for this gap, including a lack of academic preparation and obstacles such as having to juggle work and family obligations while in school. Yet these findings likely capture only part of the story, and overreliance on them may lead to misperceptions about this population and mislaid efforts to support them.

Drawing on in-depth interviews with former college students, our findings recognize the diversity among first-generation students even as we add new knowledge about the shared challenges and opportunities facing this group. Four key themes emerged from our respondents:

  1. First-generation students do face unique challenges in accessing higher education;
  2. One critical challenge is a profound information gap, particularly with regard to financing higher education;
  3. Student debt among this population has a substantial effect on long-term financial decisions and aspirations; and
  4. There is an opportunity for existing support programs to enhance the ways they assist first-generation students by focusing on higher education financing and longer-term financial well-being.

This research brief begins with an overview of the definitions of first-generation students, then discusses previous research on first-generation student outcomes and describes key programs designed to support first-generation students. Following this, we present primary interview data that deepen our understanding of the first-generation experience and provide first-hand reports about the important role of student support programs. This brief concludes with considerations for leveraging and expanding these existing programs to further support students, particularly in their financial decision-making and financial preparation for higher education and beyond.

Topics(s): Economic Mobility, Higher Education, Voices of Student Loan Borrowers