Who Qualifies as a First Generation College Student

First Gen College Student, First Generation to Attend College, First Generation in College

Ivy Coach is cited in today’s “New York Times.”

Wondering who qualifies as a first generation college student? Some students whose older siblings attended or attend college believe that they’re not first generation college students since they won’t be the first in their immediate families to pursue an undergraduate degree. But these students would be wrong as siblings are part of their generation. As The Who sang, “Talkin’ ’bout my generation!” If these students’ parents didn’t attend college but their siblings did, these college applicants would still be part of the first generation of their families to attend college. Their siblings, after all, are members of the same generation. But the sibling issue isn’t the only question mark for many college applicants wondering if they qualify as a first generation college student so let’s clear up some of this other grey area and, while we’re at it, we’ll address the value of first generation status in admissions, too.

The Advantage of First Generation Status in Admissions

In a piece today in “The New York Times” by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Rochelle Sharpe, Ivy Coach is cited expressing the value of first generation status in highly selective college admissions. As Sharpe writes in her piece entitled “Are You First Gen? Depends on Who’s Asking,” “‘It’s something that colleges love to brag about,’ said Brian Taylor, managing director of Ivy Coach, a New York counseling company, noting that many colleges list their first-gen statistics in their brochures.” At the end of each admissions cycle, colleges issue press releases in which they tout the makeup of their incoming classes. These press releases tend to be about a page in length and in just about every one of these releases, colleges state the percentage of students in the incoming class who will be the first in their families to attend college.

So what does that tell you? It tells you that these schools seek these students, that they’re proud to admit and enroll them. Do colleges very often state the percentage of legacies in an incoming class? No. But first generation? You bet! Highly selective colleges wholeheartedly seek to admit as many qualified first generation applicants as they can. After all, attending a highly selective college is supposed to foster social and economic mobility. Highly selective colleges get that. And what better signifier of social mobility than to be the first in your family to graduate from college?

Who Qualifies as a First Generation College Student

In Sharpe’s piece in “The New York Times,” she tells the story of how a college counselor reached out to a college to find out if a certain student who was applying qualified as a first generation student at that institution. For starters, we must express our dismay that a college counselor would reach out to a college on behalf of a student. We sure do hope that this counselor reached out anonymously and didn’t mention the student’s name. But even if she didn’t mention the student’s name, she cited some specifics about the applicant that could’ve alerted the school to his identity. It is our strong belief that the very best private college counselors work exclusively behind the scenes. Why tell a college that you paid for outside help? If this family is poor, as the counselor articulates, well, hiring a private college counselor certainly doesn’t speak to that. Even if this counselor worked with the student on a pro bono basis, a college isn’t going to know that. In fact, they’ll likely assume otherwise.

But while she shouldn’t have reached out directly to the college to find out the answer, the college counselor’s question was indeed legitimate. As Sharpe writes in her piece, “The student’s mother had never enrolled in college; his father had a degree but had died when his son was a toddler. The student had grown up in a household with little money and where college had never been discussed.” So because the student’s late father had attended college, the counselor wanted to know if the student qualified as first gen.

Agree or disagree, like it or not, of course this student would not qualify as first gen — his late father attended college. The student will not be the first generation in his family to attend college. While, as Sharpe writes, the Higher Education Act offers a different perspective on who qualifies as a first generation college student (this student would qualify based on this definition in the act), what really matters is what colleges count as first gen — not what the Higher Education Act stipulates. And the vast majority of highly selective colleges would not count this student as first generation. The student’s late father would still be listed as one of the parents on the college application and his degree, which is verifiable, would still certainly be searchable.

In the end, qualifying as a first generation student isn’t as murky as some are led to believe. High income or low income, Latino or Caucasian, if a student’s parents didn’t attend college, that student is a first generation college student at most highly selective colleges. If either parent did attend college, the applicant does not qualify as first gen at the vast majority of highly selective schools. Are there colleges that are exceptions? A few. But these are exceptions to the rule, not the rule.


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