The Best Colleges for First-Generation College Students


Andrea Schiralli’s parents never went to college. The NYC native’s mother was a foreigner who didn’t complete high school and worked two jobs. Schiralli’s father also worked long, hard hours.

“Basically, I watched my parents throw away 12 years of their lives just so my sister and I could go to college,” she said. “I never felt pressure from them to succeed, but I always just wanted to give everything I could and do my best.”

Schiralli earned her bachelor’s degree from Cornell University in 2010.

University of Michigan sophomore Irwin Tejeda fell in love with the town of Ann Arbor and knew that was where he wanted to attend school. Tejeda is part of the SEO Scholars Program, an eight-year academic program designed to help motivated low-income high school students gain admission to and complete college.

“From the get-go, my parents wanted me to go to college,” he said. “Like most traditional families, the goal was always for my siblings and me to be better than my parents.”

Schiralli and Tejeda are part of the roughly 30% of the nation’s entering freshmen who are first-generation college students, whose parents did not attend college.

College can be scary for first-generation students. They’re treading waters neither they nor their parents navigated before. And statistics show that 89% of low-income first-generation college students leave college within six years without earning a degree. More than one-quarter leave after their first year.

But more schools are recognizing the importance of not only recruiting these students but retaining them for the duration of a degree program. Through counseling programs and outreach initiatives and efforts, graduation rates for first-generation students are in a position to rise.

Cornell University

Recruitment efforts at this Ivy League institution in Ithaca, New York, include outreach by multicultural recruitment interns who are undergraduate students at Cornell. They work closely with undergraduate admissions to recruit students from the underrepresented groups at Cornell, which include first-generation students.

Cornell freshman Rafael Wilson, an SEO Scholar, was encouraged by his half-sister to apply to Cornell, where she also attended. He was motivated to apply for college because most of his father’s family went to college and he “didn’t want to feel like the left out one in the family.”

Cornell University also hosts the McNair Scholars Program, which prepares first-generation college students with financial need and other underrepresented groups for doctoral studies through involvement in research and other scholarly activities.

Trinity University

The goal of the Allies – First-Generation, Underrepresented Students program at San Antonio’s Trinity University is to educate students about potential challenges they will face in college. These include issues with financial resources, maintaining full- or part-time jobs, remedial courses, and lower GPAs and graduation rates.

The faculty, students, and administrators who make up the program were once first-generation or low-income students. The Allies program has strong alliances with Upward Bound as well as with the admissions and academic affairs departments at the school. In past years, Allies members outreach has included distribution of copies of books specifically for students as well as final-exam care packages for students.

Allies also implemented an early move-in program that allowed first-generation and underrepresented students to move in one day before the rest of students. The extra day allows students and their parents to attend programs where can meet key people from the financial aid office, business office, health services, counseling, and other first-generation and underrepresented students.

Yale University

This private, Ivy League university located in New Haven, Conn., includes a freshmen population that is 12.1% first-generation students.

Joshua El-Bey, freshman at Yale University and SEO Scholar, chose Yale because it appealed to his interests: strong liberal arts curriculum, resources, and dedication to the environment. But he said what interested him most was the small class sizes, something he didn’t have in high school.

Yale College is the undergraduate program of Yale University. The admissions page of the college’s website offers advice for first-generation college applicants as well as videos from current students who have encountered some of the same obstacles first-generation students like El-Bey may face.

“The biggest obstacle has been myself. Coming from the inner city, from a diverse high school, and a family surrounded by a predominately black culture, I came to Yale with an identity that had to adapt to an institution that was polar opposite it seemed,” El-Bey said. “I had to learn how to use a level of tact that recognized the context I was in so that I could be comfortable around anyone, anywhere.”

Texas Tech University

Texas Tech University, in Lubbock, Texas, has made several efforts to attract and retain first-generation students.

Generation Texas (GenTX) is a statewide initiative focused on increasing the rates of college goers, especially for first-generation student groups. Texas Tech is part of South Plains Region of GenTX.

“College students from Texas Tech, known as GenTXperts, have been trained through the program to work with high school students and their parents to prepare for college as well as assist them with resources to apply and pay for college,” said Janie Ramirez, Outreach Programs administrator. “The GenTXperts provide one-on-one assistance as well as provide seminars for classes in the high schools.”

All GenTXperts are first-generation students, and the program provides them with part-time student work through work-study grant funds.

The Mentor Tech program was piloted in 2002 with 46 students and more than 100 mentors. Through faculty and staff mentoring and peer group networking, the program aims to improve retention and graduation rates of all students in the university, with a special focus on first-generation students and other underrepresented groups.

Texas Tech’s PEGASUS Program seeks to make the transition for first-generation college students successful by assigning first-year students a mentor (sophomores, juniors, or seniors) to help them develop peer relationships.

Colorado State University

Colorado State University enrolls nearly 30,000 students and was an innovator in reaching out to first-generation students when the school created the First Generation Award in 1984. The award program is only eligible to first-generation students and was created to encourage them to attend college and promote diversity within the university’s student population.

“It’s more than just giving money to a student,” said Mary Ontiveros, CSU’s vice president for diversity and associate vice president for the division of enrollment and access.

First Generation Award recipients are invited to an end-of-the-year banquet. Faculty members are present and the recipients are honored.

“The message given is pretty clear: we care about you, we want you to be successful, and we’re here for you,” Ontiveros said. “Even first-generation students who are not recipients are invited to a dinner in the spring. They come and we show them support for having made it through the year. We want them to come back and be successful.”

CSU also supports its First Generation Faculty. What began as a request for first-generation students to share their experiences through short radio announcements soon turned into numerous faculty members contacting Ontiveros and sharing that they used to be first-generation students and wanted to help current students.

“That became what we call our First Generation Faculty Initiative,” Ontiveros said.

A reception was held for the faculty so they could get to know one another. First generation faculty members meet up periodically to brainstorm ideas and effective ways to help first generation students.

“When we first started hosting the faculty luncheons, we asked them to share a little bit about their story, and it was fascinating how many people felt so much emotion about it,” Ontiveros said. “I spoke with several of the faculty members and they said [being a first-generation student and graduating] was a pretty emotional experience, but they didn’t realize how significant it was because nobody had ever asked them about it.”

Ontiveros said the school has done an incredible amount of work researching why some students are successful and others are not. Regardless of the variable – GPA scores, financial aid, racial/ethnic diversity, gender, etc. – research found that the chances of retention are less for first-generation students.

“This tells us that we need to be vigilant in helping our first-generation students,” she said.

California State University San Marcos

California State University San Marcos (CSUSM) is one of the campuses of the California State University system and houses more than 10,000 students. The school plays an active role in retaining its first-generation students through numerous programs and resources:

  • Guaranteed Admissions: In 2006, CSUSM partnered with the San Marcos Unified School District to provide students a prescribed pathway to college with guaranteed priority admission to CSUSM if course and GPA requirements are met. Today, that partnership has expanded into ten unique partnerships with local school districts, a Native American tribe, and three foster youth entities. As early as the seventh grade, CSUSM and its partnering school districts work with students to begin thinking about and preparing for college by setting the expectation that they will succeed and providing a clear path on how to get there with the promise of guaranteed admission.
  • College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP): This program, offered for first-year students only, aims to help students from migrant and seasonal farm worker backgrounds succeed in college. CAMP is a national program that has helped thousands of students accomplish their educational goals. CSUSM was awarded the CAMP grant in 2002. CAMP offers students pre-college transition and first-year support services to help develop the skills needed to stay in school and successfully graduate from college.
  • Educational Opportunity Program (EOP): The EOP focuses on highly motivated, low-income, first-generation students that reflect the local and university community. EOP provides eligible students with a variety of support services intended to assist them toward the goal of attaining a college degree, including an EOP grant, transitional programs, a residential summer bridge experience, mentoring and counseling services, and learning community cohorts.
  • TRIO Student Support Services (SSS): SSS offers personal, transitional, and academic support to students from first-generation, low-income, and disability backgrounds, enabling them to persist and graduate from CSUSM. SSS is a TRIO program funded by the Deptartment of Education and has been hosted at CSUSM since 1993.The program provides support to 200 students with a primary purpose to increase the retention and graduation rates of student participants.
  • Faculty Mentoring Program: This program serves to enhance the retention and graduation rates of first-generation and economically disadvantaged students by reducing social estrangement and creating a university culture of positive participation and support. One-to-one student-faculty mentoring partnerships are created to foster a supportive environment where mentors provide guidance and encouragement to the students.

What to Look for In Prospective Colleges

The important decision on which college to apply for is something that’s best made after extensive research and consideration of numerous factors.

It would benefit first-generation students to speak with their high school guidance counselor or reach out to the financial aid and admissions office of potential colleges to see what kinds of scholarships are available for first-generation students. For example, the Hispanic College Fund and Sallie Mae offer a “First in My Family” scholarship to Hispanic students who are the first in their families to attend college.

Students should seek out schools that offer outreach or counseling programs to help freshmen matriculate into collegiate life. It’s more than just an enrollments numbers game.

“Students should ask themselves, ‘Do these schools care about my success?’ and ‘Is it more important for me to be admitted than to graduate?’” said Ontiveros. “Colleges should really be upfront and share information about their efforts because many students don’t know to ask these questions.”

Though graduating high school is a tremendous accomplishment and should be sense of pride, graduates should keep a forward-thinking mindset before entering college.

“High school graduation is the end of one journey, but we always try to communicate getting accepted into college is just the beginning to another journey,” Ontiveros said. “We find that once the student is admitted to a university, students feel pretty proud of themselves and not really thinking about what the next journey is going to be like.”

First-generation students, especially minority students, should look into different clubs, organizations, and programs at prospective schools that promote diversity. Multicultural offices are a great place to start.

As a first-generation Latina student, Schiralli said she enjoyed the diverse student body and environment at Cornell University.

“Cornell did a great job of having events for people of different backgrounds and despite issues with ‘self-segregating’ ethnicity-based living spaces, diversity was embraced on campus – not ostracized – so I think most students, regardless of background, were able to feel comfortable on campus,” Schiralli said.

First-generation students are not alone in feeling uncertainty their freshmen year, as most new college students battle through the same obstacles. The difference lies in the availability of a parent to offer guidance and advice to these students. First-generation college students might have supportive and loving parents who just don’t have the knowledge that comes from experiencing the pursuit of a four-year degree.

For this reason, higher education institutions that promote the recruitment and retention of first-generation students will benefit not only the students, but the nation as a whole by helping create a more educated workforce and increasing the nation’s population of adults with degrees.

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