Navigating College without a Map: First-Generation Students’ Hurdles to Success

Being a first-generation student is an identity that can have many interpretations.

The formal definition of a first-generation college student is a student whose parents did not complete a four-year college degree. According to 2020 data, 19.4% of students at UWMadison self-identify as a first-generation student. The formal definition does not take into account the postsecondary experiences of extended family members, older siblings, and influential adults in a student’s life.

Jenna Harb, a senior and a first-generation student at UWMadison, has a father who has a college degree in civil engineering, but since he was educated in Syria, his education validity did not carry over to the United States. Regardless of his education level, she has no parent who is recognized as having a bachelor’s degree.

Jenna Harb is a student organization preparation intern at MCPS.

Although her father is well-educated, navigating through the college application process was no easier for her than it was for any other first-generation student. Harb’s parents were the first in her family to immigrate to America, so she had no extended family who had been through American universities.

“I envied my non-first gen counterparts. It seemed like they were able to ask their parents for advice on applications, scholarships and other information in the process,” Harb says. “I had to do this on my own.”

The college application process can be complicated, time consuming and expensive. Having parents who are able to help in navigating the process can greatly ease stress on students, however, college applications can still take a great financial toll on many. The average cost of applying to a single college can range from $40 to $80, with many students applying to two or more universities. This does not account for the cost of traveling to visit universities that many students have to pay before committing.

The Pew Research Center found that households who are supported by a first-generation bachelor’s degree holder had a median income of $99,600, compared to $135,800 for households with a second-generation college degree holder. First-generation students who live in households with a parent without a degree often have even lower incomes, which is a great inhibiting factor.

Writing application essays, doing research on programs and completing the applications are other non-financial costs that are often overlooked. Low-income students often hold jobs to support themselves and their families, and with high school work often do not have much extra time to complete these applications.

Harb — a Milwaukee area native — recognized that UWMadison could offer her a world-class education while simultaneously offering reduced in-state tuition.

“I don’t think students with college-educated parents always realize their privilege,” Harb says. “Aside from the general connection between education and socioeconomic status, they don’t realize the privilege of being able to ask their parents questions, and of having an easier time applying to colleges and finding people from similar backgrounds as themselves.”

Just because a student identifies as a first-generation college student does not mean that they come from families where education is not valued. Many first-gen students come from low-income backgrounds, meaning their parents or families did not have sufficient resources to attend college.

“My parents were always supportive of me and my brother getting an education. It’s the stereotypical immigrant cliché, but it’s what they wanted, for my brother and I to do what they weren’t able to do in America,” Harb shared.

Harb presenting information to a student organization on campus.

Despite facing more hurdles throughout her academic career, Harb credits the support of high school teachers and college professors. Because of this support system, she learned about the FastTrack program, a scholarship program for low-income students that has allowed her to study at UW on a full-ride scholarship.

While she did not feel alone in the process of applying to and financing for college, she felt a disconnect between herself and her friends who had parents who had been through the U.S. education system. Having guidance beyond parental figures can be a major defining factor in the paths of first-gen students.

“I don’t want to push the narrative that I had to pull myself up by the bootstraps,” Harb says. “I worked hard, but I also had educated people who supported and encouraged me.”