Education Wednesday: Empowering First-Generation College Students

My experience as a first-generation college student taught me that support at home, at school, and in the community is vital to reaching higher education. For students who will be the first in their family to navigate the road to college, just knowing where to start can be a challenge. However, as parents and mentors, and whether or not we attended college ourselves, we can do more to help these students earn a degree.


Aspirations to attend college are at an all time high amongst first-generation students. A recent ACT report shows that 52% of first-generation test-takers expect to earn a Bachelor’s degree, with another 26% hopeful to earn a graduate degree.

For low-income and minority students, however, a lack of mentors to share insights about the expectations of college has reinforced additional findings that first-generation students are less likely to obtain postsecondary credentials than students whose parents went to college. Access to important information, such as when to submit a Federal Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) or how to stand out in an essay, can make or break a student's chance of attending college.

The best way to close this achievement gap is to link students with the resources they need to smoothly transition to college.

Aundrea's Tips for Empowering First-Generation College Students

  1. Start the conversation early: Though my mother did not attend college, our regular conversations about continuing my education not only set the expectation that I would go, but also sent the powerful message that she would support me in my journey. Much as I share in Education Wednesday: 2 College "Conversation" Starters to Have with Yunior, it's never too early to plant the seeds for later academic success. For more tips on how to get the ball rolling click here.
  2. Don't wait to intervene: Many first-generation students slip through the cracks because help for them comes too late. Notice the signs of an at-risk student, for example low school attendance, poor grades, or no discussion of plans after high school. Then act immediately. Being supportive, finding tutoring to improve grades, and talking about personal interests can keep students on the  path to college.
  3. Find a college coach: My guidance counselor was instrumental in making sure I remained on target academically to gain entrance into my dream school. Additionally, my mentor helped me develop professional etiquette to ace entrance interviews. Whether it is a school counselor, favorite teacher, family friend, peer, or parent, it is important that students regularly sit with at least one person who will help them manage the intricate college admissions process. A college coach holds students accountable to make sure they reach their goals.
  4. Embrace the culture of college everywhere:  Collective impact initiatives such as the Strive Together Network in Cincinnati, are succeeding at improving higher education outcomes for students by creating a system where school curricula, community-based programs, extracurricular activities, and support at home are all geared towards college readiness. The idea is that if students are constantly engaged about academic and personal achievement, less will slip through the cracks, and more will be prepared to thrive in college classrooms. To recreate this model, practice study skills at home, attend schools that promote postsecondary success, and find meaningful after-school programs that develop students' academic and non-cognitive abilities such as good study habits.


The numbers of first-generation college students is steadily increasing on college campuses across America. Next week, I will continue this conversation, focusing on how to empower first-generation students once they reach college.

Being the first in your family to go to college comes with a duty I hope more minority graduates will honor in their communities. W.E.B. DuBois believed those fortunate enough to receive an education are charged with the mission to give back to those who may follow in their footsteps. With this great responsibility in mind, it is a priority for me, and increasingly to America, to empower millions of first generation college students to reach postsecondary success. The best support you can give is your time and love.

Aundrea_Gregg-TheWiseLatinaClubAn education policy wonk at the Georgia Center of Opportunity, Aundrea Gregg holds a Master’s degree in Social Policy and Planning from the London School Of Economics and a Bachelor’s in Classical Civilizations and Political Science from Howard University. She also is a nail painting enthusiast and writer living in Atlanta, GA. Connect with Aundrea on Twitter or Google+.

Edited by: Viviana Hurtado, Ph.D.

How do you encourage students to reach college?