MEJO 121 Story

MEJO 121 Story

Being the First

Inside the experiences and challenges of First-Gens at UNC

Who are first-generation college students?

At UNC-Chapel Hill, 20% of the undergraduate population are first-generation college students (abbreviation: FGCS). While the technical definition of ‘first-generation’ varies according to the institution, UNC defines first-generation as a student whose parents or guardians do not have a bachelor’s degree.

Studies have shown that many first-generation students often start out at a two-year college before transferring to a four-year university to earn their Bachelor’s degree. According to the Aspen Institute, other trends among FGCS include a large percentage of students from low-income families; to be specific, 75% of first-gen students in a US Department of Education study had a household income less than $50,000 and these students usually qualify for financial aid. Among these families there are many racially and ethnically diverse students, especially African American and Latinx students. Immigration trends in the US have contributed to this high percentage of first-generation students who identify as Latinx, the largest growing minority group in the US. FGCS also are less likely to be retained and complete their degree upon entering college, as 47% of FGCS have some college, while only 20% earn their bachelor’s degree, and 13% earn an associate’s degree. This compares to 42% of non-FGCS who earn their bachelor’s degree.

What are the challenges faced by first-generation students?


Since so many first-gen students come from low-income families, they are often forced to take out student loans, in addition to financial aid or need-based and merit scholarships they may receive. To pay off their loans and cover other personal expenses, many FGCS also take on a part-time or even full-time job while being enrolled in college courses. This can pose a difficult challenge for them to balance their time for both academic success and work, and many working first-gens end up dropping out or taking lighter course loads so they can have more time to work. In addition to covering loan payments and personal expenses, low-income FGCS may have to give financial support to their families.