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Many First-Generation College Students are not Succeeding in College, and Money Isn’t Necessarily the Problem


While this is not a technology topic, it is a topic that resonates with me. At The College of Westchester, we serve a large percentage of first generation students, and we extend many forms of support to help them succeed. Thanks to Evelina Brown for this thoughtful post. 

Some people think they know what college students struggle with. That way of thinking can make it hard to understand the unique problems first-time college students face.

As most people know, if a problem is not defined, the problem cannot be effectively addressed. The reality is first-time generation college students are failing, and it is important to figure out why.

Myths About the Struggling College Student

The following are some things people think causes a college student to fail:

  • Financial stress
  • Home sickness
  • Problems adjusting to college life
  • Struggles with subject matters
  • Lack of internal drive or discipline

Now, the issues listed are not exactly myths, but they do not take the full scope of the problem first-time generation college students face. Sure, some students face these issues, like financial stress and end up taking on second jobs. Students often sell textbooks on the side, but there are other issues that cannot be solved with side jobs or by selling used textbooks.

Other Factors Affecting First-Time College Students

The following are a few factors that need to be addressed because they have stopped promising students from continuing their education:

1. Lack of Confidence

One reason many first generation college students fail is due to lack of confidence.

Most of these students have parents who did not attend college, which sometimes means they did not have access to high school classes that could prepare them for the challenges they might meet in college. This makes some feel unprepared, sometimes needing remedial classes.

Seeing other students breeze through everything could depress the first generation student enough to simply say that college is not for them, forcing them to sell textbooks as a final goodbye.

2. Breakaway Guilt

Breakaway guilt is a phenomena that seems to affect many first generation students. Most of the time, their families are more than happy to see them go on to better things and figure out a way to help their families after they graduate.

The problem is some of these students end up feeling guilty. First generation students often come from poor families. These students study hard; they check on their families and find out they are struggling. This makes them feel like they should be contributing, and sometimes they end up leaving their textbooks behind to help their families in need.

3. Second Language Issues

Some students come from families where English is not the first language. These students love their parents and hate hearing how they are struggling to read important information about their retirement, health care, or household bills.

Parents used to rely on them to translate some of these letters, and now they are not there. The student's parents are forced to rely on children in the neighborhood or have to ask a stranger for assistance. This is another form of guilt that is sometimes too much for a first generation student.

4. Misunderstanding Help

Students from schools that did not prepare them for college sometimes do not understand that asking for help is okay. The idea of asking for help makes these students feel like weak students who may not belong in college.

Asking for help is a good thing for students who are struggling with a particular subject. It ensures better understanding and produces a better graduate, but some of these students are so embarrassed to ask for help that they don't and sometimes end up failing classes.

5. Drastic Differences

First generation students have family members who do not understand the rules in college. This could become a barrier, even if these family members have their children's best interest at heart; for example, a parent could ask a college student to skip class if he or she needs help taking care of siblings.

High schools might accommodate students sometimes, but college professors simply do not accept these types of absences. These types of misunderstandings could cause problems for first generation students that other students may not face.

6. Unhelpful Colleges

Colleges that do not address these issues could also be at fault. There are definitely a few colleges out there starting to see how powerful some of these issues could be and are attempting to address them, but this is not the norm.

College counselors could be very helpful if they knew how to recognize these types of struggles and how to make students feel at ease, but that is simply not happening on many college campuses. This forces students who would have been first generation graduates to give up and go home.

Students who give up for whatever reason are usually fearful of returning because they might fail again or simply cannot do so without drowning in debt. This problem does affect minorities more than any other group of students, which is a real shame.

When some people speak of cycles of generational poverty, this is the kind of problem they are speaking about. This is the country of opportunity, but it seems that some people are given less and are expected to achieve much more.


Sure, there may be some students who are able to overcome these obstacles on their own, but that does not mean every single student can. Solving these issues should definitely be a priority for colleges around the country and for Americans as well.


  1. Ms. Brown,
    Where did you find the research and information that supports the statements you make in this article? I am very interested in seeing the research.


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