First-Generation College Students: Their Challenges and the Advising Strategies That Can Help

Khalilah A. Payne, Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis

Editor's note: This is the first in a series of articles written by students who were enrolled in Catherine Buyarski's graduate seminar in academic advising at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis for the fall 2006 term. As part of her course syllabus, Dr. Buyarski required each of the students in her class to submit an article to The Mentor for possible publication in the journal.

The world of academic advising is filled with students from all walks of life. As models of advising are critiqued and developed, it is important to consider a population that makes up a vast number of those receiving academic advising: the first-generation student. The academic adviser is critical in the transition to college for this population because of the unique challenges that first-generation students face while pursuing higher education. In this article, I briefly review the history of first-generation students and discuss the challenges that this population faces as well as why these challenges must be considered when advising the first-generation student.

Research on the first-generation student is growing as this population is pursuing college education at record rates. Hodges (1999) notes that the term first generation was originally coined by Adachi as early as 1982. Since that time, the definition has continued to evolve as more research has been done on the first-generation population. Today's common definition of the first-generation student is still derived from the coined definition and refers to a student who is the first in his/her family (mother, father, or siblings) to complete a college education. Family members may have attended or may be concurrently attending, but have not yet completed either an associate or bachelor's degree.

The first-generation student makes up 40 percent of the U.S. college population (Earl, 1987). This population is unique in that it is not the traditional college student for whom many American colleges were founded. The profile of first-generation students is quite different from that of traditional college student populations, as these students are more likely to be from low-income backgrounds and minority groups. Our understanding of this profile and the challenges should weigh heavy in academic advising, as this student group is expected to grow over the next decade (Terenzini, 1995). To know the first-generation student is to understand the challenges that many of them face. Although their lives may include barriers and challenges that are not listed here, I will address the primary challenges that have been discussed by various researchers. These challenges are critical for the academic adviser to understand when addressing the advising needs of this population.

One challenge that this population faces is related to academic and life skills. First-generation students are often less prepared academically than non-first-generation students and have an elevated risk for academic failure (Terenzini, 1995). These students tend to require remedial assistance in mathematics and reading to get them to college-level work in these areas. Additionally, their standardized test scores, such as their ACT or SAT scores, are often lower than their non-first-generation peers (Hodges, 1999). Hodges also notes that the high school grade-point average of these students is also lower. Along with academic skills, life skills are also a challenge. First-generation students may also struggle with managing their time, studying, and test taking because of their other familial responsibilities.

Other challenges that first-generation students experience are financial obligations and barriers. Much of the research done on this population highlights that they tend to be from families with lower incomes than non-first-generation students, which affects their retention rates (Hodges, 1999). Paying for college is often an issue because low-income families have less to contribute to their college-bound or college-going family members. As a result, first-generation students balance working while attending school full-time or possibly working full-time and attending school only part-time. The financial dependency by family members is evident when students feel guilty that they cannot contribute financially to their homes because of their new commitment to higher education (CNN, 2003). In addition to contributing actual funds, families are confused about the process of applying for federal financial aid, which opens the door to grant and scholarship availability. The application itself is quite complex and requires extensive income and tax data and other personal information from both the student and the parents. Obviously this is a major challenge that needs to be considered when advising first-generation students who are planning on balancing the pursuit of their college dreams with maintaining their financial and family obligations by being employed.

An additional challenge and possibly one of greatest concern to advisers is the issue of family support. Hsiao (1992) summarized that “parents, siblings, and friends who have no experience of college or its rewards may be non-supportive or even obstructionist.” Oftentimes first-generation students are stepping outside of their comfort zones by even recognizing college as an option, and they may begin this journey alone. First-generation students face the risk of alienation from family support if they decide to attend college (Striplin, 1999). These students experience a shock of balancing two cultures: the one that exists with the family and friends who have no college experience with the one that students are engrossed in while attending college. The balance of two cultures such as this obviously has the ability to produce great tension. The position of academic advisers in offering the academic support and providing resources may alleviate some of the tension and alienation issues that these students face.

With the large percentage of first-generation students enrolling in college, it is critical to consider their needs first when developing practices within higher education aimed at improving retention. “The benefit of assisting this population is that the information can be transferred to other student populations (non-first-generation students)” (Thayer, 2000). What this means is that if institutions, and specifically advising programs, take a concerted effort to focus on the issues that first-generation students face and develop strategies and programming applicable to them, then those strategies will work for other campus populations, but not vice-versa. Thayer also indicates that it is the responsibility of the institution to assure equal access to and attainment of a college degree (2000).

So what can academic advisers do? Advisers can start by strategically using advising methods to help these students overcome some of the challenges. “Many first-generation college students turn to their academic advisers, not just for academic advice, but for the guidance considered necessary to navigate day-to-day campus life” (Sickles, 2004). Simple counseling skills such as listening will go far with first-generation students, for they know that they have someone to discuss pressing issues or even just to relay academic or career ideas or thoughts. Advisers should make a concerted effort to be knowledgeable of campus and community resources to be able to provide referrals when students inquire about things that may be barriers to their academic success. Campus resource information includes financial aid, campus employment, counseling services, adaptive education services, mentor and tutor services, and workshops that focus on life skills. Community resources include childcare provider information, state or county financial assistance programs, employment or internship information, and transportation ideas. This seems like a lot of information for an adviser to stay abreast of, but the information may be limited to providing a referral name and phone number.

Another strategy is to incorporate the method of intrusive advising for the first-generation student population. First-generation students are likely seeking to build relationships with people and, since academic advisers are an initial point of contact, it is important for advisers to establish a rapport with these students in order to foster positive college experiences. These students will probably ask more general questions because of their lack of support and experience at home. Advisers may need to initiate more direct contact with the student, especially if they are aware of issues or challenges that the student may be facing. The effective adviser will understand the challenges and tailor the advising experience to the needs of that student. Cushman (2006) interviewed first-generation college students from campuses across the nation on various subjects and/or challenges. One student's statement summed up the importance of her academic adviser:
My college adviser helped students in so many ways, whether it was about having trouble adapting to college life or about filling out a form. She would always be there to listen and help. Mentoring, explaining to students what to expect next, how to navigate through campus life. That's what a good adviser does, gives lots of support.
While academic advisers are not equipped with everything they need to ensure the success of the first-generation college student, they are equipped with strategies and connections to resources that will aid this population. Each challenge posed above serves only as a temporary barrier that can be overcome with adequate resources, advising, and concern. With the growing number of first-generation students enrolling on college campuses, it is important to address the needs of this population. This is especially true for academic advisers because of their ability to make the initial connection with first-generation students, help them nurture their dreams of a college degree, and provide guidance on what it will take to get there.


CNN (2003, November 10). Challenges of a first-generation student. Retrieved September 8, 2006, from

Cushman, K. (2006). First in the family: Advice about college from first-generation students. Providence, RI: Next Generation Press.

Earl, W. R. (1987). Intrusive advising for freshmen. Retrieved October 22, 2006, from

Hodges, J. L. (1999). The effects of first-generation status upon the first-year college success patterns of students attending an urban multi-campus community college. ERIC Digest, ED474344.

Hsiao, K. P. (1992). First-generation college students. ERIC Digest, ED351079.

Sickles, A. R. (2004). Advising first-generation students. Retrieved September 8, 2006, from

Striplin, J. J. (1999). Facilitating transfer for first-generation community college students. ERIC Digest, ED430627.

Terenzini, P. T. (1995, May). First-generation college students: Characteristics, experiences, and cognitive development. Paper presented at 35th Annual Forum of the Association for Institutional Research, Boston, MA.

Thayer, P. B. (2000). Retention of students from first generation and low income backgrounds. ERIC Digest, ED446633.

About the Author

Khalilah A. Payne is assistant director of the Office of Student Scholarships at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis. She can be reached at

Published in The Mentor on January 31, 2007, by Penn State's Division of Undergraduate Studies
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