First-generation college students are the first in their families to attend college (Newlin, 2021). Because they are the first in their families to enroll in and attend college, students often struggle with navigating the college system and coursework, and with completing college. This student group may have few resources to rely on for information on how to successfully complete college. First-generation college students’ families may be uncertain how best to support them or help them complete college (Davis, 2023). Often, this group of students relies on older siblings, cousins, community leaders, teachers, or guidance counselors to obtain information about enrolling and completing a college degree (Irlbeck, Adams, Akers, Burris, & Jones, 2014). However, this approach may not provide all the information necessary for college success.  

When examining the experiences of first-generation college students, it is important to note the family dynamics that can shape and influence the college experience. The experience of first-generation college students is often filled with family responsibility and a focus on social mobility (Covarrubias, Valle, Laiduc, & Azmitia, 2019; Pew Research Center, 2021). As a result of these dynamics, students often enroll due to motivations of personal and familial mobility in socioeconomic status. However, there is often conflict between the obligations first-generation college students have at home and the culture of college. This conflict can cause issues with successfully completing schoolwork, increase tuition costs, and result in delays in completing a college degree.

The Pew Research Center (2021) shares that median household income in families of first-generation college students is $99,600. In comparison, the median household income of families of college graduates is $135,800. This significant difference of $36,200 of household income significantly impacts the resources that families can access, such as academic supports for students (e.g., tutoring), contributions to the household (e.g., financial, caregiving), or security (e.g., food or housing security). This income difference has implications on first-generation college students in two significant ways. The first is additional caregiving roles. First-generation college students may need to provide care for family members, such as babysitting or taking care of parents (e.g., driving them to medical appointments) (Covarrubias, Valle, Laiduc, & Azmitia, 2019). The second is working to support their families. First-generation college students often work part or full time while enrolled in college, and this can lead to setbacks in the college journey (Newlin, 2021). This can impact the times of day that students take classes or how many classes they can take each semester. In turn, this impacts degree progress and pathways to graduation. Students may need to work to pay their tuition, provide financial support to their families, or cover their own college expenses. Further, first-generation college students may have concerns about the cost of college and the impact tuition will have on their household. Due to these concerns, families may demonstrate indifference to enrolling in college and therefore may not encourage their children to attend college (Creswell-Yeager, 2020).

These additional responsibilities are intensified in families where English is a second language. The student may need to learn to speak English to continue with coursework, or they may serve as the translator to the family. This creates additional roles and responsibilities, such as navigating bills, medical appointments, services, or activities of daily living in the household. In turn, this decreases the amount of time that a student can spend in the classroom and on coursework (Covarrubias, Valle, Laiduc, & Azmitia, 2019).   

One issue that first-generation college students experience when pursuing upward social mobility is cultural capital, the knowledge that supports individuals in navigating a culture (Field, 2023; Griffiths & Keirns, 2015). To obtain their employment opportunities after college graduation, cultural capital around employment, interview protocol, and navigating potential opportunities is key to success. College-educated parents can share their knowledge about college (e.g., how to apply to college, how to register for classes, getting involved in clubs or sports) as well as post-graduation plans (e.g., how to apply to graduate school, how to develop a resume).

Families of first-generation college students may not be able to support their students or provide guidance in navigating these elements of social mobility. Some of the ways that families can support or provide guidance for first-generation college students include encouraging students to develop relationships with both faculty and staff, visiting campus with students, or reaching out to their existing network to obtain information about college. In addition, programs that are focused on both academic and social supports can be beneficial for first-generation college students. This can be a way for colleges and families to work together in providing resources for first generation college students. This also supports students in developing relationships across student affairs, academics, and key departments on campus (e.g., advising) that can offer guidance in developing cultural capital around career development.  

Discussion Questions:

  1. What is the role of family in navigating the college journey? How might family members influence this process?
  2. What are the main areas of cultural capital in college?
  3. What are some of the ways that family has influenced your college experience? 
  4. What are some strategies to navigating the expectations of college and family?
  5. How can families support first-generation college students in social mobility?

Interested in related articles?

Check out the "Navigating Higher Education: Insights from a First-Generation College Student" article here.


“First-Generation College Graduates Lag Behind Their Peers on Key Economic Outcomes.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (2021)

Covarrubias, R., Valle, I., Laiduc, G., & Azmitia, M. (2019). “You never become fully independent”: Family roles and independence in first-generation college students. Journal of Adolescent Research, 34(4). Retrieved from:

Cresswell-Yeager, T. (2021). Parental Influences That Impact First-Generation College Students' College Choice: A Qualitative Inquiry of Student Perceptions. Journal of Access, Retention, and Inclusion in Higher Education, 3(1). Retrieved from

Davis, J. (2023). The first-generation student experience: Implications for campus practice, and strategies for improving persistence and success. Taylor & Francis.

Field, J. (2023). Social capital. Routledge.

Griffiths , H., & Keirns , N. (2015). Introduction to Sociology . OpenStax .

Irlbeck, Adams, Akersm, Burris, & Jones. (2014). First-generation college students: Motivations and support systems. Journal of Agricultural Education, 55(2). Retrieved from:

Newlin, M. (2021). Employment trends for first-generation college students: A review of the literature. National Student Employment Association.