Nov 11, 2017 at 12:00am ET By Joanna Hughes

Young people who are their first members of their families to go to college have a lot to be proud of. However, lingering barriers remain, according to a recently released report from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences. Here’s a closer look at the findings, along with the potentially long-term repercussions associated with them.

About the Study

The study follows a group of students from their sophomore years in high school in 2002 through 2012. Its goal? To examine the disparities between first-generation college students and “continuing-generation” college students, AKA those from families with at least one parent with a bachelor’s degree.

About the Findings

The study reveals that the path from high school to college degree is fraught with potential obstacles for first-generation students. For starters, while, their college aspirations are at a rate consistent with those of continuing generation students (36 percent), the grades of first-generation college students are typically lower than their continuing-generation counterparts and they’re less likely to have considered taking college-entrance exams.

Additionally, not only do many first-generation college students wait longer to enroll in university, but they also have lower rates of attendance at highly selective universities. They are also significantly less likely to earn degrees once they’re there. Specifically, only 20 percent of first-generation college students earn undergraduate degrees by age 25 compared to 43 percent for college-going families.

Money Matters

A major factor at the heart of the problem, according to the report? Money. First-generation students are more likely to come from households with lower annual income: 27 percent and six percent of first-generation and continuing-generation students, respectively, come from households with annual incomes under $20,000, while 50 percent and 23 percent, respectively, come from homes earning between $20,001 and $50,000 annually.

Finances also factor into dropout rates: 54 percent of first-generation college students reported leaving college because they could no longer afford it compared to 45 percent of continuing-generation students.


Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.

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