First-Generation Students Struggle With Finances, Unsafe Environments, Online Learning Amid Pandemic, New Report Finds

By Hugh T. Ferguson, NASFAA Staff Reporter

The ongoing pandemic caused by the continued prevalence and spread of the novel coronavirus has been especially trying for first-generation college students, with a new survey finding that the cohort was especially vulnerable to experiencing financial hardships, food and housing insecurity, mental health disorders, and obstacles to transitioning to online courses.

The report, issued by the Student Experience in the Research University (SERU) Consortium — a research collaboration between several universities, including the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Minnesota — was composed of 28,198 undergraduate students and was conducted from May through July 2020 at nine universities, with 26% of respondents identifying as first-generation students.

Among the primary challenges for first-generation college students was that they were nearly twice as likely to be concerned about paying for the fall semester, with 59% expressing varying levels of concern about their ability to pay for the upcoming term, compared with 32% of their peers who are not the first in their family to attend college.

Students in this cohort were also more likely than their continuing-generation peers (52% vs. 32%) to experience a loss or reduction of income from family members, exacerbating their financial instability. 

The survey results also suggested that first-generation students lacked adequate study spaces and technology necessary to complete online learning — both of which could incur additional expenses.

The report calls for institutions of higher education to provide first-generation students with additional scholarship funding, institutional grant funding, or work-study opportunities as they enroll in courses this fall. 

“We recommend that institutional leaders be proactive in reaching out to first-generation students to share student employment opportunities available at colleges and universities, especially virtual work-from-home positions,” the report read.

Additionally, the survey’s findings seek to encourage financial aid officers to be more proactive in assisting students with completing the (FAFSA due to a large number of first-generation students — 27% in 2016 according to the National Center for Education Statistics — having not completed the application due to a lack of information. 

NASFAA has recently updated its 2015 FAFSA simplification proposal and enlisted other subject-matter experts to both assess the current validity of previous work done on FAFSA efficiency and explore new simplification concepts. The 10-paper series, “Exploring Ways to Enhance FAFSA Efficiency,” is now available.

“We expect that the many disparities between first-generation and continuing-generation students that we outlined in this brief — financial hardships, food and housing insecurity, unsafe living environments, and mental health disorders — will exacerbate students’ academic experiences in fall 2020,” the report from SERU reads. “As campuses move forward in planning for the semester, we encourage institutional leaders, staff, and faculty to consider the unique needs and experiences of first-generation students and implement changes to eliminate barriers and pave the way for their success.”



Publication Date: 8/17/2020

Odessa W | 8/21/2020 11:16:36 AM

There's a little typo in the 8th paragraph.

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