Career Guidance for First-Generation College Students

Career Guidance for First-Generation Students

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First-generation college students are learners from households where neither parent (or guardian) has obtained a Bachelor’s degree. In other words, they are the first ones in their immediate family to attend college.

These students forge their own paths ahead in college without following footsteps from a previous generation which can be both exciting yet intimidating. In addition to the stressors that most college students typically face, first-generation college students face unique challenges that impact their success.

In fact, research shows that, while first-generation students make up about a third of all college students, just 27% attain degrees within four years[1].  Additionally, compared to students with college-educated parents, first-generation students:

  • Are more likely to attend community college
  • Are more likely to attend school part-time[2]
  • Are less likely to graduate on time
  • Are less likely to have a mentor[3]

Unique Difficulties for First-Generation College Students

Numerous factors contribute to the financial, social, and academic challenges faced by first-generation college students. Some of these include lack of access to a) financial resources, b) role models and support, and c) up-to-date information about the world of work.

A. Financial Resources

First-generation college students tend to lack the financial knowledge and resources that continuing-generation college students have. First-gen students are more likely to come from lower-income households. Specifically, 27 percent of first-generation students come from households making $20,000 or less, compared to 6 percent of continuing-generation students.[4]

As a result, first-generation college students tend to work and borrow more than their peers, which can have negative consequences on their success.  In order to pay for their education, first-generation college students are borrowing from the federal government at increasing rates (from 15% in 1997 to approximately 37% in 2013).[5]

B. Role Models and Support

Most continuing-generation students have access to models of effective education and career decision-making and receive familial support from parents or guardians who have previously graduated from college.  By definition, first-generation students do not have parents or guardians who have graduated from college which inherently reduces their access to such support and models.

This contributes to reduced college readiness, defined as the practical or academic knowledge necessary to be successful in college[6]. Without knowledge of the necessities for success and how their education will support their specific career goals, first-generation students can lag behind their continuing-generation peers in college readiness. 

From college search and application to acceptance and financial planning, and finally preparing for and attending college, children of college-educated parents are able to learn from relatives who have previously attended college. Access to experienced mentors to guide students through these crucial steps can reduce stress throughout the process. First-generation students and their parents often lack such professional networks.[7] Navigating these crucial steps without role models and support contribute to some of the unique challenges that first-generation college students experience.

C. Up-to-Date information about the World of Work

A key consideration when planning one’s educational journey is how that path is connected to and prepares one for their intended careers. Colleges provide academic services for education planning and career services to help students find and prepare for work after graduation. However, data show that a lower percentage of first-generation college students use academic advising services (55%) than continuing-generation students (72%).[8] Further, just 16% of first-generation students made much use of career services in their first-year.8

Supporting First-Generation College Students

As an educator or counselor, how might you support first-generation students to facilitate their success, persistence, and timely graduation from higher education? First-generation students often need customized attention and support targeted at the unique barriers they face, like some of the ones listed above.

Financial Resources: Aggregate financial resources like planning calendars, lists of relevant scholarships, budgeting spreadsheets, educational information about the loan process, etc. Centralizing access to critical financial resources can lessen the stress associated with financial planning.

Role Models and Support: Make yourself available or connect students to other individuals and alumni who can answer specific questions about college application, preparation, success and more. Connect students to on-site staff or peer-groups to connect individuals to communities the meet regularly for support and knowledge development to foster success.

Up-to-Date Education and Career Information: Provide students with resources to better understand available opportunities, and how those opportunities are connected to educational paths and majors. Online resources like O*NET or the Bureau of Labor Statistics contain accurate and up-to-date information about job outlook, salaries, and job descriptions. These are resources that can expand a student’s understanding of work opportunities.

Using PathwayU to Support First-generation College Students

PathwayU’s platform not only provides up-to-date occupational information on careers across the nation but uses predictive analytics to show students how their unique internal traits are related to different types of educational and career opportunities.

This is a powerful approach encourages students to not learn just about what fields and majors are available, but which ones they will be most satisfied in and find a sense of purpose in. When students’ interests are aligned with their education and career paths, they tend to be more successful. 

With an online, mobile-friendly platform, PathwayU is accessible for all students in the classroom or on-the-go, providing relevant occupational and educational information.  This platform can centralize access to disconnected career resources for a seamless experience and first-generation college students prepare for higher education and ultimately be successful in their chosen fields.


[1] http://cmmedia.hs.llnwd.net/v1/naspa_firstgen/dmfile/NASPA-First-generation-Student-Success-Exec-Summary.pdf

[2] https://pnpi.org/first-generation-students/

[3] https://eab.com/insights/daily-briefing/student-affairs/7-fast-facts-about-your-first-generation-students/

[4] https://www.insidehighered.com/quicktakes/2017/09/27/new-research-first-generation-students

[5] https://pnpi.org/first-generation-students/

[6] https://www.league.org/innovation-showcase/breaking-down-barriers-first-generation-college-students-and-college-success

[7] https://qz.com/418695/the-unique-challenges-of-a-first-generation-college-student/

[8] https://firstgen.naspa.org/files/dmfile/NASPA_FactSheet-03_FIN.pdf

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