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Overcoming the Odds: The Strengths and Struggles of First-Generation Students

Cuitlahuac Arenaza, Salvador Delgado, Max Flores, Alyasin Hossain, Sebastian Luna, and Oscar Sosa


Jan 23, 2024

Edited by: Edward De La Torre, Ed.D, California State University, Fullerton

Undoubtedly, first-generation college students face a plethora of challenges that impede their academic achievement. According to a recent survey conducted by UC Santa Barbara, which has a 40% first-gen enrollment rate, open-admission institutions register a 68.9% first-gen student enrollment rate, while this percentage drastically decreases to 27.9% in more selective universities. This can be attributed to several factors, including financial difficulties and an absence of guidance. Moreover, compared to their non-first gen counterparts, first-generation college students exhibit lower graduation rates, as they are 15% more likely to dropout from private institutions and twice more likely to leave public universities. Such shortcomings can be linked to inadequate financial aid as first-generation students are receiving about $2,600 less than non-first-gen students when attending private schools on average. Furthermore, early-career challenges stem from imposter syndrome and networking obstacles.

Challenges Faced by First-Generation College Students

First-generation college students often have unique challenges and experiences that can impact their living situation compared to non-first-gen students. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, first-gen students typically come from lower-income families, with an average family income of $58,000, which is less than half of the average family income of non-first-gen students. This financial disparity can lead to difficulties in affording housing, food, and other basic needs. As a result, first-gen students may be more likely to work while attending classes or rely on financial aid or scholarships to cover their living expenses. Furthermore, finding suitable housing that they can afford may also be a challenge for first-gen students. Limited access to resources and support can make it difficult to navigate the rental process. Moreover, imposter syndrome is a prevalent issue among first-generation college students, particularly in STEM fields. These students often face unique challenges, such as a lack of academic and social support, financial constraints, and difficulties navigating the college environment.

Despite their achievements, individuals experiencing imposter syndrome feel like frauds. Research indicates that imposter syndrome affects approximately one-third, or 33%, of young people, and as many as 70% of individuals at some point in their lives. The American Psychological Association revealed that 36% of first-generation college students experience higher levels of imposter syndrome compared to 21% of continuing-generation students. This suggests that first-generation students are more susceptible to feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt.

Solutions to Address These Challenges

To address the challenges faced by first-generation college students, several solutions have been implemented. Firstly, mentorship programs have demonstrated effectiveness in reducing imposter syndrome levels among first-generation college students, as noted in a study published in the Journal of College Student Development. In this study, the first-generation college students who participated in a mentoring program experienced a 20% decrease in imposter syndrome levels compared to those who did not participate.

Additionally, academic support services, such as tutoring, study skills workshops, and tailored academic coaching, have positively impacted first-generation students, contributing to their academic success and reducing feelings of imposter syndrome. A study conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics found that 45% of first-generation students who utilized academic support services reported increased confidence and reduced imposter syndrome feelings. Psycho-educational workshops aimed at building confidence and resilience can assist first-generation students in overcoming imposter syndrome. These workshops target the underlying issues that contribute to such feelings. Campus support centers and organizations offer valuable resources, such as career counseling, financial aid advice, and housing assistance, that can alleviate the financial burden on first-generation college students. Providing access to such resources can help these students navigate the college environment and improve their overall well-being.

In addition to these individual-level solutions, there are broader societal changes that can be made to support first-generation college students. For example, increasing financial aid and scholarship opportunities can help alleviate financial stress, making it easier for first-generation students to focus on their studies. Moreover, universities can implement policies that make it easier for first-generation students to navigate the college application and admission process. This can include more extensive outreach efforts and simplified application procedures. Another critical step in supporting first-generation college students is recognizing and valuing their unique experiences and perspectives. Universities can create an inclusive campus culture that values diversity and fosters a sense of belonging for all students. This can be achieved through initiatives such as diversity training for faculty and staff, cultural events, and student-led organizations.


First-generation college students face numerous challenges that can impede their academic success and overall well-being. The financial difficulties, lack of guidance, and imposter syndrome experienced by these students are just a few examples of the obstacles they face. However, there are several solutions that can be implemented to address these challenges, including mentorship programs, academic support services, and psycho-educational workshops. Moreover, broader societal changes such as increased financial aid and simplified application procedures can also help support first-generation college students. By recognizing and valuing the unique experiences and perspectives of these students, universities can create a more inclusive campus culture that fosters success for all.


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