The decision to go to college is a major step for anyone. But there's one group of students for whom the experience can be especially meaningful – those who are the first in their families to pursue education beyond high school.
First-generation college students not only bring their own dreams and goals to campus, but also those of the parents, grandparents and other family members who helped them get there. If you're one of these students, you'll be facing some unique challenges as you navigate through higher education.
Fortunately, there are also some outstanding resources and scholarships out there to help turn you from a first-generation student into a first-generation graduate.
[Get more advice in the financial aid knowledge center.]
For many first-in-their-family students, the hardest part of pursuing a college education is simply knowing where to start. When should you fill out financial aid forms? Where can you find a college or technical school that interests you? How do you go about applying? For answers, turn to these general resource centers.
First in the Family offers an array of information, including year-by-year checklists for ninth through 12th-graders and interviews with current first-generation college students. ACT offers Family Firsts, downloadable booklets for both students and parents. And First Generation Student features an easy-to-navigate and comprehensive look at choosing, applying, paying for and graduating from college – and there's also an easy way to add your own story to the site!
One of the newest first-generation resource centers, I'm First, allows students to sign up for a free informational dashboard. Uniquely, the organization also offers a $2,000, four-year renewable scholarship each year.
To be eligible, you'll need to be a first-generation high school senior planning to attend one of the 180 I'm First college partners. Applicants are evaluated on their writing, leadership and community service – not grades or test scores – and winners also get to share their experiences and advice via the site's student blog.
The scholarships don't stop there, either. College Parents of America offers an annual First-Generation College-Bound Scholarship, which is open to incoming freshmen in the top half of their high school graduating class; applications for these ten $500 awards closed on May 1.
The Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation awards hundreds of scholarships each year, and they fund a number of first-generation-specific scholarships at schools around the country. Here's information for the Coca-Cola First Generation Scholarship at California State University—Long Beach and the University of Alabama, and a profile of this year's winners at the University of Texas—Pan American.
[Find more tips on financial aid for first-generation students.]
Your best bet for finding out if your prospective school offers this scholarship option is to contact the financial aid office and ask – and don't forget to ask about other, more specific aid, too. Your college, your high school or even your state may be a source of funding, especially if you're introducing a college education to a new generation. The road isn't easy for first-generation students, but these resources should help!
Matt Konrad has been with Scholarship America since 2005. He is an alumnus of the University of Minnesota and a former scholarship recipient.
Corrected 6/7/13: A previous version of this post referred to an outdated scholarship for Hispanic students.