The cost of college can discourage students from attempting to become the first in their family to obtain a four-year degree. However, there are many scholarships, programs and advisory resources available for first-generation students looking to fund their higher education.
“Applying to college and seeing these massive numbers on the cost-to-attend parts of websites is terrifying,” says Lucas Rodriguez, a senior and first-gen student at George Washington University in Washington, DC “It can be daunting, but there are resources out there.”
Roughly two-thirds of first-gen students graduate with student loan debt, a higher rate than for students with at least one college-educated parent, according to a 2021 Pew Research Center postponement. First-gen students also are more likely to come from households with lower incomes, according to the US Census Bureau, and end up earning lower wages compared to their peers, per a Pew analysis of Federal Reserve Board data.
Here are some ways first-gen students can find scholarships beyond what a college may offer and minimize debt.
How to Find First-Gen Scholarships
Many scholarship available to first-generation students can be found online. Experts say a simple browser search for available scholarships is a great place to start, but warn that sifting through thousands of results can be overwhelming.
Online scholarship databases and financial aid advising services can help students narrow down their options and filter by applicable scholarships. Here are three organizations doing this work:
College Greenlighta service built for first-generation, low-income and other underserved students, lets users create a free account to browse a database housing billions of dollars in scholarships and other college prep resources.
UStrive offers college counseling and mentoring services for high school and college students. UStrive mentors can help first-gen students find scholarships and answer questions about the financial aid and college application processes.
Designed for first-in-family undergraduates who want to pursue a career in social justice, FirstGEN Fellows awards a one-time $1,500 stipend per student, alongside a 10-week summer internship in or near the District of Columbia.
Other Ways First-Gen Students Can Find Scholarships
Norm Bedford, associate vice president for student financial services at Virginia Commonwealth University, suggests setting Google alerts to monitor newly posted scholarships based on a student’s profile. Students can add criteria to the alerts, such as first-gen, that will narrow down potential opportunities and notify them when a scholarship appears.
Experts advise first-gen students to cast a wide net when applying for scholarships, and not to shy away from scholarships that seem out of reach.
“In general, most scholarships are not unique to first-generation students,” Bedford says. “But what we try to tell students is that unless you see some sort of exclusion in there, you could be considered for that scholarship.”
Maria Dykema Erb, director of the Newbury Center at Boston University in Massachusetts, a resource for first-gen students, recommends that students apply for as many scholarships as possible.
“I encourage students, even if they see just a $500 scholarship – there’s so much money out there, just apply,” she says. “It takes a lot of time, but you would be surprised at what might come back to you.”
Experts note that smaller studies can be less competitive and add up in value, especially since they will help minimize debt.
“It’s OK to go for the low-hanging fruit, because that adds up to that home run,” Bedford says.
Graduating early can also help first-gen students avoid racking up unnecessary debt while getting their degree. Summer programs, like Summer Scholars at VCU, can offer incoming students an opportunity to get a boost in their credits – and for many first-gen and low-income students who feel pressure to work outside of the academic year, schools may cover the cost of the program.
“We can say we will cover all of this, and you’ll come into your first semester with six credits,” says Daphne Rankin, VCU’s associate vice president for summer studies and special programs. “We’re not going to hold your hand, but we’re going to give you a hand up and kickstart your college career.”
Zarii Parker, a third-year first-gen student at VCU, said her dual credits classified her as a junior her first year on campus and she was surprised to receive a scholarship two years early that is normally given to seniors.
First-gen students who bring in extra credits from Advanced Placement or dual-credit classes should note that when applying for class-specific scholarships, and communicate that to their advisers.
Some scholarships may require students to reapply in order to renew access to the funds. Experts stress the importance of making sure students and their financial support network understand the terms and conditions when applying for and accepting scholarships.
Kevin Towns, director of financial aid at North Central College in Illinois, also cautions students to pay attention to the fine print when applying for scholarships, especially renewable ones.
“Not all scholarships are renewable for the duration a student is there. Sometimes it’s renewable for a couple of years, or maybe it’s only renewable if you’re living on campus,” he says.
How to Create a Financial Support Network
Experts say creating a strong network of financial advisors, mentors and first-gen community members is crucial for finding extra funds and support, as well as getting help filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, commonly called the FAFSA.
High school counselors can be a useful resource, and experts also recommend students reach out to the financial aid offices of schools they’re interested in and get to know the advisers there.
“For example, a scholarship flew across my desk looking for students who were first-generation students limited in their resources,” Towns says. “And because I knew students, I was able to connect one to the application so they could get access to that.”
Towns says the earlier those relationships are formed, the easier it is to find the help that first-gen students need while in college.
Federal TRIO programs, which are designed for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, can offer first-gen students support throughout their college career. And experts say that on-campus centers for first-gen students and first-gen student organizations, like First Gen United at GWU and You First at VCU, are some of the best tools to find consistent financial support.
“At this point last year, I got my financial aid package and was like, ‘I don’t know how the university expects me to pay for this,’” says Rodriguez, who is vice president of First Gen United. “Through First Gen United, I was introduced to the people in the financial aid office who were willing to sit down with me, look through my file and see what can be done.”
Essence Palmer, a first-generation senior at VCU, says a strong network has helped her find solutions to financial challenges that have arisen during her time on campus – and helped her deal with the related stress.
“They were there to push me to find those extra scholarships,” she says. “They gave me the support I needed.”