Scholarships for First-Generation College Students: A Comprehensive Guide

Scholarships for First-Generation College StudentsPursuing higher education can be an arduous journey, especially for students who are the first in their families to attend college. With limited financial resources and lack of guidance, first-generation students face numerous hurdles on their path to earning a college degree. 

Thankfully, there are many scholarships specifically aimed at helping these students achieve their academic goals. This comprehensive guide covers the key things first-generation students need to know about college scholarships.

What is a First-Generation College Student?

The U.S. Department of Education defines first-generation college students as those whose parents did not complete a four-year college degree. If neither of your parents graduated from a four-year college, you would be considered a first-generation student.

Some key facts about first-generation students:

  • They comprise around 30% of incoming college freshmen each year.
  • They are more likely to come from minority and low-income families.
  • They tend to have lower graduation rates compared to non-first-generation peers.
  • They usually need more financial assistance and academic support to succeed in college.

Challenges Faced by First-Generation Students

First-generation students often deal with a unique set of challenges that can negatively impact their academic journey:

Financial Struggles: They usually come from families with limited incomes and cannot rely on parents to pay for college expenses. Many take up jobs or loans to fund their education.

Lack of Guidance: With parents who did not attend college, first-gens rarely get advice on the college application process, transitioning to university life, choosing majors, etc.

Imposter Syndrome: They often feel like they don’t belong in college and have self-doubt about their abilities, which affects their motivation and confidence.

Culture Shock: The vastly different college environment can cause a cultural disconnect from their lives back home.

Limited Support System: Without family members who understand their college experiences, first-gens have a smaller support system to rely on during their educational journey.

Benefits of a College Degree for First-Generation Students

Despite the challenges, pursuing higher education has immense benefits for first-generation students:

  • Improved career prospects: A college degree opens up more job opportunities with higher earning potential. First-gens with a bachelor’s degree earn over $32,000 more annually than those with just a high school education.
  • Upward economic mobility: Getting a college degree is one of the surest ways to upward mobility for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Education helps break generational poverty.
  • Personal growth: The college experience facilitates both academic and personal growth to help first-generation youth achieve their full potential.
  • Lifting communities: First-gen graduates often invest back in their communities as leaders and role models. Their success inspires other first-gens from similar backgrounds.

Types of Scholarships for First-Generation Students

There are many scholarship programs aimed at supporting first-generation students through financial assistance:

1. University/College Scholarships

Many colleges and universities offer institutional aid and scholarships reserved for first-generation applicants who demonstrate financial need and academic promise. These are awarded by the specific school you attend.

2. Federal and State Government Scholarships

The U.S. Department of Education offers federal grants and loans for low-income and first-generation college students:

  • Pell Grants – up to $6,895 annually based on need
  • Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG) – $100 to $4,000 a year
  • Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants – for students whose parent/guardian died during military service

State governments also provide assistance programs, scholarships, and grants for residents pursuing college.

3. Private Scholarships

Myriad private organizations, non-profits, corporations, communities, religious groups, and philanthropic individuals offer scholarships for first-generation students. These can be funded locally or nationally.

4. Tribal Scholarships

Native American tribes often provide scholarships and grants specifically for first-generation students from their communities. These help preserve native culture and invest in the youth.

5. Employer Assistance

Some companies offer Employee Assistance Programs with tuition coverage, scholarships, and stipends to help employees pay for higher education. Starbucks, UPS, and Home Depot are examples.

Where to Find First-Generation College Scholarships

Scholarship opportunities can be found through various sources:

  • High school guidance counselors
  • College financial aid offices
  • Public libraries
  • Local service organizations (Rotary Club, Lions Club, etc.)
  • Faith-based institutions like churches and mosques
  • Ethnic, cultural, and community groups
  • Employers and labor unions
  • Online scholarship search platforms
  • Federal and state government education departments

The key is to start your scholarship search early and cast a wide net. Apply to as many programs as you are eligible for to increase your chances of receiving aid.

Tips for First-Generation Students Applying for Scholarships

Follow these tips to bolster your scholarship applications:

  • Start early: Begin your search at least 12 months before college starts. Deadlines are usually early.
  • Meet eligibility criteria: Carefully review requirements related to GPA, financial need, major/program, ethnicity, etc.
  • Highlight first-gen status: Emphasize how you’ll be the first in your family to attend college in essays and interviews.
  • Follow instructions: Adhere to all formatting, word count limits, recommendation letter rules, and submission guidelines.
  • Proofread thoroughly: Check for typos, grammatical errors, inaccurate details etc. Ask others to review.
  • Be detailed: Provide all requested info clearly. Include tax forms, transcripts, FAFSA, etc. if required.
  • Meet deadlines: Submit all documents well before specified deadlines. Late forms may not be accepted.

Scholarships Comparison 

Federal, State, and College Scholarships


Scholarship Name Amount Eligibility Deadline How to Apply
Pell Grant Up to $6,895/year High financial need undergraduate students Forms available year round Complete FAFSA application
State University Grant $500 – $5,000/year Full-time students at State U with need March 31 College application form
Ivy League First-Gen Scholarship Full tuition + stipend First-generation students at Ivy College January 5 Online application

Private Scholarships

Scholarship Name Amount Eligibility Deadline How to Apply
First Scholars Foundation $5,000 Incoming first-gen freshman, 3.5+ GPA April 30 Online form + essay
Smith Foundation First-Gen Award $2,500 First-generation, minority students Rolling Send nomination letter
ABC Company First-Gen Scholarship Full tuition Employees’ first-gen children May 31 Email application materials

FAQs on First-Generation Scholarships

Are there scholarships just for first-generation students?

Yes, many scholarships are offered specifically for students who will be the first in their families to go to college. Being a first-generation student makes you eligible for those awards.

What GPA do I need for first-gen scholarships?

GPA requirements vary based on the individual scholarship. While some require a minimum 3.0 GPA, others ask for a 3.5 or higher. Maintaining a strong GPA helps, but don’t let a lower one deter you from applying.

How do I prove first-generation student status?

You can provide documentation like confirmation that neither parent graduated from a 4-year college or have them complete affidavits about their education level. Some scholarships simply ask you to verify it.

What information is required for first-gen scholarship applications?

Typical requirements include application forms, transcripts, test scores, FAFSA info, recommendation letters, essays on your background, aspirations, and overcoming challenges as a first-generation student.

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