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15 Amazing First Generation College Student Statistics

Are you wondering:

What is a first generation college student exactly?

And how many first generation college students are there?

These are two of the key questions we decided to tackle today. And they’re pretty tricky ones.

Here’s why:

First generation college student statistics reports from the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators and the Suder Foundation indicate that the percentage of first-generation college students vary, as different institutions use different definitions.

And that’s not all:

Greater care is also needed in monitoring retention rates and outcomes of those attending college for the first time in the history of their family. 

That being said:

General college student statistics also give us an insight into how many first-generation college students there are and how they fare.

So, without further ado, let’s crack on.

Fascinating First Generation College Student Facts (Editor’s Picks)

  • Over 20% of the 7.3 million students in four-year colleges and universities are first-generation students.
  • 50% of all first-generation college students in the US are from low-income families.
  • Only 61% of four-year college institutions track first-generation student outcomes.
  • Just 41% of four-year institutions use data to develop first generation programs at colleges.
  • The first-generation college student dropout rate sits at 30%, compared to 14% for students whose parents have earned a degree. 
  • 69% of first generation college students want to help their families.
  • 73% of institutions have a formal definition of the term “first-generation.”

Statistics on First Generation College Students

1. 20% of the 7.3 million undergraduates in four-year public and private colleges and universities are first generation students. 

(Great Schools)

The definition of a first generation college student varies considerably. 

On the one hand:

It can be as simple as someone whose parents have not finished a four-year college. 

On the other hand:

It can be as broad as someone whose parents have graduated from overseas universities or died a long time ago, raising the final number to almost 30%. 

So, the answer to the question of how many college students are first generation can also vary.

2. 50% of first-generation college students in America come from low-income families.

(The League)

First generation college student statistics show that nearly half of first gen students attend community college, compared to only 25% of students with college-educated parents.

These students are also more likely to belong to a racial or ethnic minority group.

About a quarter of White and Asian-American students are first-generation students, while the numbers for Black and Latino students stand at 41% and 61%, respectively.

3. 73% of institutions have a formal definition of “first-generation.” 


As a consequence of poor identification, just 28% of schools show students’ first-generation status in information systems that faculty can access and use in everyday educational work, mentoring, or counseling.

First Generation College Student Retention Statistics and Outcomes

4. Only 61% of four-year college institutions track first generation student outcomes, research on first generation college students reveals.


Research on first-generation college student outcomes indicated that these students are less likely to complete their bachelor’s degree within six years than their peers whose parents had at least some college experience. 

So, identifying and tracking their progress is crucial if universities are to decrease the first generation college student struggles and first generation college student dropout rate as well as provide adequate aid and support.

5. About 90% of low-income, first generation students do not graduate within six years.


Statistics on first generation college students show that many apply to only one college on their own, without any help. They are often not able to submit more applications due to financial reasons and haven’t taken many college tours. Parents’ educational backgrounds tend to affect two main things in the student’s experience – college choice and persistence.

6. Students who take advantage of mentoring and coaching services are 10% to 15% more likely to go on to another year of college.

(Center for First-generation Student Success)

Moreover, there is a 4% increase in graduation rates of students who had been coached compared with those who received no coaching.

7.  California State University Dominguez Hills increased its freshman retention rates from 78% in 2010 to almost 82% in 2016 after adopting a new summer bridge program. 


During the implementation of the summer bridge program, the freshmen who needed help in Math and English were introduced to the facilities and helped to form relationships with peers and mentors. The program also introduced a data tracker that monitors performance and allows advisers to recommend coursework and offer support. 

First Generation College Student Statistics about Support Programs

8. Only 41% of four-year institutions use first generation student statistics to develop student support programs.


Participation in college-readiness programs helps students on their way to getting a college education. The federally funded programs and nonprofit Advancement Via Individual Determination provide first gen students with college preparation, support during the application process, and especially important tutoring during the transition between high school and college.

9. 50 years ago, the Federal Higher Education Act was passed, and the US Department of Education launched the first programs.


The first federally supported education programs were designed to increase the college enrollment and completion rates in the categories of “economically disadvantaged and underrepresented ethnic background students.” They were accompanied by similar affirmative action programs in other sectors.

10. 23% of first gen students obtain an associate’s degree or certificate, and 24% get a bachelor’s or higher.

(NCES) (eJournal of Public Affairs)

Despite the difficulties that first-generation students face, many of them are able to excel academically. Some of the contributing factors include active participation in high school and college readiness programs. Additionally, academic and social integration, personal characteristics, and family support can play a role. 

Key takeaway:

First generation college students statistics show a correlation between a student’s level involvement in high school and subsequent college success. 

11. 15% of first gen grads reported having zero influential relationships with faculty or staff during college. 

(Inside Higher Ed) (Center for First-generation Student Success- NASPA)

The lack of mentors visibly and predominantly affects minority students, which is something many of the programs aim to address. 

Here are ten basic recommendations for institutions:

  • Define “first-generation” early and consistently.
  • Advocate for institutional change.
  • Engage the community to lead sustained change.
  • Track the first generation student experience.
  • Improve networking across the institution.
  • Promote actionable data and advance research.
  • Develop an “asset-based” campus culture.
  • Strike a balance between a broad reach and meaningful engagement.
  • Offer opportunities for intentional first-generation student involvement. Consider ways to engage first-generation students from admission to graduation and beyond.

Some colleges offer programs that support minorities. Involvement in these types of programs increases opportunities for students to learn about financial aid and college entrance requirements. They can also develop the social and academic skills necessary for college. 

It gets better:

Such programs can identify differences in motivation among different demographic groups and provide targeted support. While not many of these programs exist, they have a proven effect on overall college success.

First Generation College Student Challenges

First generation college students or students whose parents have not earned a four-year degree face academic, financial, and psychological challenges.

Let’s find out what they are:

12. 69% of first-generation college students say they want to help their families, compared to 39% of students whose parents have earned a degree.

(Great Schools)

The vast majority of first-generation college students go to college in order to help their struggling families. This also extends to the community, with 61% of first-generation college students wanting to give back to their communities, compared to 43% of their peers.


Even if supportive of higher education, parents and family members may view their college choice or decision to enroll as a break in the family system.

The thing is:

Family roles about work, family, religion, and community are passed down the generations. So, when a family member “disrupts” this system, they experience a shift in identity that leads to a sense of blame or loss.

13. 50% of first generation college students attend community college, compared to only 25% of students with college-educated parents.

(Inside Higher Ed)

According to first-generation college student statistics, 26% of students are also less likely to attend a public four-year university or a private college (7%), while 45% of non-first-gen students opt for a public four-year institution, and 23% for a private one. 

Along with the obvious financial reasons, many of  them have no knowledge of how the system works, how to get financial help, or even how to apply and choose the subjects they will study. 

As a group, they are in danger of not having all the information about the differences between higher education institutions and can end up choosing the wrong school. 

14. 18% of first-generation students are not meeting ACT College Readiness Benchmarks in English, Math, Reading, or Science, first generation students statistics.



College readiness is defined as the academic and practical knowledge needed to be successful in higher education. Many first gen students are from low-income families and went to PreK-12 schools with low-performance scores. 

What’s more:

Many of these schools did not have enough highly qualified teachers and were often underfunded. This, in turn, affected the quality of education pupils received and continue to receive.

15. 25% of White and Asian-American students are first-generation students, compared with 41% of black students and 61% of Latino students.

All of the research shows that African American, Hispanic, Native American students, as well as pupils from low-income households, were less likely to finish high school and go to college than White students and those from families with higher income.


Q: What problems do first generation college students face?

While first gen students are as intelligent and motivated as their second or third generation peers, they often lack the resources and knowledge of the complex college system. Without a college-savvy parent or mentor to guide them, they can struggle to apply to college and graduate on time. 

Other first generation college student problems come in four domains – professional, financial, psychological, and academic. These issues include lack of college readiness, support from family members, and financial stability. Difficulty adjusting and low self-esteem are harder to tackle than for those students who have at least one parent with college experience. 

Q: What it means to be a first-generation college student?

A first-generation college student is the first person in a family to attend college. 

While the definition can sometimes get complicated, being a first-generation student means your parents did not complete a four-year college or university degree. 

Students who come from a home where neither parent attended a four-year college, where one parent has an AA only, or where one or both parents attended college but did not finish it, may also be included in some definitions. 

If a person’s parents did go to college but have passed away a long time ago, they can also also be considered a first generation student.

Many colleges and universities are beginning to consider students with parents who attended international universities as first generation, as they face similar problems and challenges due to unfamiliarity with the US system.

Q: What percent of college students are first generation?

Over 20% of the 7.3 million undergraduates attending four-year public and private colleges and universities are first generation students. First generation students enroll in post-secondary education at significantly lower rates than their continuing-generation peers.

About a quarter of White and Asian-American students are first-generation students, compared to 41% of Black students and 61% of Latino students, according to first generation college student stats from the US Department of Education.

Q: How does it feel to be a first generation college student?

The culture, language, and history of higher education can be difficult to understand for first generation college students. In contrast, those with parents who have attended college can learn and benefit from that experience. Sometimes perceived by others and often by themselves as different at home and at school, first-generation college students often feel like they don’t belong or feel guilty of abandoning their families’ traditional values. Additionally, they may suffer from greater pressure to excel. 

Q: Is it good to be a first generation college student?

On average, first gen students take longer to finish their degrees, statistics on first generation college students show. But later in life, they have similar employment rates, opportunities, and salary outcomes as their non-first gen counterparts. Still, they tend to have less confidence in their abilities to succeed, even when they have the same level of high school preparation and achievement. 

How to Improve First Generation College Student Outcomes

The most successful campuses in supporting first generation students have adopted an asset-based approach.

What this means is: 

Instead of focusing on the things first gen students might lack, these institutions strive to see the possible contribution. They try to utilize these students’ unique strengths to improve their college experience. 

First generation college student statistics clearly point to the fact that enrollment and educational practices should offer user-friendly financial and scholarship information and connections to other opportunities. This would ease the students’ integration into the rest of the student body.

Bottom line:

By redefining and reinventing their institutional culture, academic support services can be more inclusive of first generation college students, and teaching practices will be more successful. 


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