First Generation College Applicants

We have received a number of questions recently from first-generation college applicants so we will focus this week’s newsletter on that topic. In addition to the information we offer in this newsletter, we also encourage you to check out Michele’s recent article on the New York Times blog The Choice. We have noticed students whose parents did not attend college often feel ashamed of the situation or believe first-generation information is irrelevant to their college application. Rather than try to hide this critical fact, we explain they should highlight it in their application materials.

Many colleges track this non-college statistic, giving applicants a slight advantage or “tag” in admissions. The Class of 2015 at Dartmouth College, for instance, has 108 first-generation students and 14 percent of U Penn’s Class of 2016 is comprised of first-generation college students.

Admissions officers seek a diverse student body and want to hear what has shaped a student’s life. This diversity may include students who are the first in their family to attend college (first-generation), from a variety of geographical regions, and/or of diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds. When we work with first generation applicants we have them write an essay that highlights how their lives have been shaped by having parents who did not attend college and include it under the “additional Information” section of the Common Application.

College admissions is not a transparent process and many first-generation college applicants don’t have parental support or experience to help guide them. Many students aren’t aware of the support available through standardized test fee waivers or opportunities to add extra information to their applications to help them stand out.  We urge students to contact the admissions offices at schools of interest, identify themselves as first-generation students, and inquire about available resources to support them in the application process.  They should attend any local college fairs and meet appropriate representatives. It’s fine to self-identify as first-generation as they may be surprised at the available support.

According to USA Today, 30% of entering freshmen in the USA are first-generation college students, and 24% — 4.5 million — are both first-generation and low income. Nationally, 89% of low-income first-generation students leave college within six years without a degree. More than a quarter leave after their first year — four times the dropout rate of higher-income second-generation students.

Many schools, however, are waiting with open arms and have created resources to help their accepted first-generation students thrive. Dartmouth College, for instance, launched their First Year Student Enrichment Program, a free, voluntary summer program, as well as a First-Generation Network support system: http://dartmouthfirstgen.com. The University of Iowa provides First-Generation Iowa to students: http://uiowa.orgsync.com/org/firstgenerationiowa19503/home.  MIT has the First-Generation Project: http://fgp.mit.edu/.

Students often ask if they can be considered first-generation if only one of their parents attended college. The answer is “no” at most schools. The National Center for Education Statistics defines first-generation students as “undergraduates whose parents never enrolled in postsecondary education.” That means that students whose parents attended college outside of the US are NOT first-generation. However, if you had an older sibling attend college, but your parents did not, you are still considered a first-generation college applicant. It’s always best to check a particular school’s understanding of first-generation.

MIT, for instance, defines first-generation on their website as, “…those who will be the first in their family to graduate from a four-year college.” This would imply that if a parent attended a two-year college, the student could still be considered first-generation. In short, colleges track this statistic so not being able to write in a college for your parents in no way hurts you (and in fact, can give a slight boost) in the college admissions process.

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