Roughly a third of undergraduates at U.S. universities are the first in their families to attend college. PHOTO: TEXAS A&M

When Ivan Delgado first considered going to college, he had little to go on. “I don't know anybody in my neighborhood who’s gone to college, nobody in my family,” he says. A high school advisor changed Ivan’s prospects by connecting him with scholarships at Texas A&M University. A quarter of A&M’s undergraduates—and nearly a third nationwide—are the first in their families to attend college. Ivan is now one of them.

Collectively they’re known as first-generation students, Gen-F for short. Most are from low-income families and disadvantaged communities in the U.S. and abroad.1 Their decision to continue their education is courageous in itself, since many are from families that can hardly scrape together the costs of applying, let alone the prohibitive cost of attending. Add to that the wages the family loses during their students’ college years, and the prospect can be overwhelming.

“When you have a part-time job and you’re under family pressure to make money, why would you want to go to college?” says Anita Willis, media coordinator for America Needs You, a New York-area nonprofit that works to move Gen-F students toward academic and professional success. Only 57 percent of low-income high school graduates enrolled in a two- or four-year college in 2014.2

As hard as it is for many of these students to find their way to college campuses, they soon learn that leaving with a diploma is even harder. Low-income students are often behind academically, which means doing remedial courses before those that count toward a degree. Adding to that frustration are the social challenges involved in the transition from a low-income community to a college campus. These and other issues lead nearly 90 percent of Gen-F students to drop out.3

Doing that leaves them with dim prospects. The unemployment rate among high school graduates is nearly triple that of college graduates.4 When those who drop out or never attend college find jobs, they will earn salaries far below their colleagues with degrees, 5 who will make 80 percent more in lifetime income.6 On the other hand, the 10 percent of Gen-F students who finish college tend to flouirsh, becoming socially conscious contributors to their campuses and their future communities.

Supporting these students throughout their four years calls for a combination of financial, academic, and emotional support—which is why, in recent years, universities have started to offer resources specifically designed to increase the Gen-F graduation rate. The First Generation Initiative (FGI) at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota, for example, covers full tuition, and at Georgetown University about 70 percent of all scholarship money is awarded to Gen-F students.7 Texas A&M’s Bridge Program eases their 13,000 first-generation students into the campus environment by giving them a summer head start on coursework.8 Consistent tutoring and mentoring throughout the year can also help close the academic gap.9 For Ivan, who is settling into his first semester, tutoring has already made a huge difference. He was frequently studying until three or four o’clock in the morning during his first few weeks at school, he says, and without tutoring he is sure he would be behind.

These financial and academic resources are most successful when combined with social and psychological support.10 Eliana Lanfranco, a Dominican-born scholarship sophomore at Georgetown, had a hard time adjusting when she moved from Harlem to Georgetown’s campus in Washington, DC. “The difficulty of classes, the people I met — it was very different from back home,” she says. Though Georgetown offers academic mentoring, the thought of going to see a professor during office hours initially felt to her like she was somehow letting herself and her family down. She also felt guilty about leaving her family in New York. “It made me feel bad that I’m having such a great time while my mom and sister are struggling,” Eliana says—a sense of guilt shared by many Gen-F students, which leads to the feeling that they must navigate college on their own, that they cannot further burden their families by letting them know how great a challenge college can be.11

For Eliana, it helped that Georgetown has a thriving Gen-F population. She knew there were others on campus confronting the same issues. Aldontae Guess of Saint Mary’s agrees. “Even though you’re five hours away from home, you have people here who care about you,” he says. “[In FGI], we’re family.” At America Needs You, which partners with the City University of New York  to help foster Gen-F peer networks, students have a chance to connect and feel supported both on and off campus.

Supports like these give Gen-F students the confidence they need to embrace their college experience and begin to expand their horizons.

When recent Texas A&M graduate Kimberly Berry received the university’s Regents Scholarship, which specifically supports first-generation students, she also earned two opportunities to study abroad. “That opened my eyes to a broader worldview and really let me experience the rest of college a lot better,” she says. From the Regents Scholar program at A&M to First Gen Abroad at Washington State University to the Norman Toppings program at the University of Southern California, universities are increasingly recognizing those benefits and expanding study abroad opportunities for Gen-F students.

Kimberly also joined several campus groups, such as A&M’s Corps of Cadets. It was a far cry from her theater-arts major, she admits with a laugh, but it taught her something even more basic, just to focus “on becoming better.”

That kind of internal perspective is what St. Mary’s FGI scholar Nathalie Urbino gets from the university’s Intercultural Awareness Association, among other groups. These organizations help students “discover our strengths and our weaknesses, and understand that we're leaders around campus,” she says.

Eliana gets that from her extracurricular activities at Georgetown. “If half of the population doesn’t like to speak up or feels inferior because they don’t have resources, it’s like we don’t exist,” she says. Being involved lets her and other Gen-F students “give back to the campus and make the community talk to each other.” Research shows that this also comes back to them, as participation in extracurricular activities makes adaptation to campus life easier and correlates strongly with graduation rates.12

The payoff for that involvement and support comes with Gen-F students’ urge to pass it on, which can set off a wave of ripple effects that reaches their classmates, friends, families, and communities. Though graduation rates among Gen-F students are still low, they have improved by 6 percent over the last decade.13 Universities also have an enormous resource in first-generation alumni, who can mentor current Gen-F students toward graduation, 14 make donations, add to endowments, or even become university faculty themselves.15

Their contributions to life on campus can begin as early as freshman year. Ivan, for one, is already thinking about guiding other students through the college process. “I know a lot of people in my community whose goal is to go to A&M,” he says. “I want to help them as much as I can.” Eliana wants to start a new support network for Georgetown’s Gen-F students. Alumni of New York’s America Needs You program often come right back to mentor, says Willis, and many Gen-F students tend toward careers in public service. Aldontae wants to become a counselor, and Nathalie wants to use her immigrant experience to help elementary school students from other countries in their adjustment to life in the U.S.

Doing well in their respective engineering and pre-med tracks now means more to Ivan and Eliana than just getting a degree or even a good career. Both of them now want to set examples for their younger siblings and friends back home — “to let them know that anything is possible,” as Ivan puts it. “To give them a little bit of hope.”