Breaking barriers: How first-generation college students can finance their education


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For many first-generation college students, higher education represents an escape — a chance to rise above one’s circumstances and open doors never before opened by family members or, many times, even peers. But the path is far from an easy one, especially when it comes to money. As if getting into college weren’t hard enough, the road to that four-year degree presents one financial struggle after another for first-generation students. At the start, there are application fees, testing costs, and housing deposits, and during school, they have tuition, books, food, and countless other expenses to deal with.

 Throw in the financial stress their families are dealing with at home (more than a quarter come from households making just $20,000 or less per year), and many first-generation students are still expected to help out by paying the family bills, covering the groceries, or making the next rent payment.

 It’s a struggle that’s all too common for first-generation students in America and there are a number of solutions we’ve come up with that can lighten the financial load.

What qualifies as a first-generation student

The term “first-generation” applies to a student whose parents or guardians did not attend college and do not hold a four-year degree. Sometimes, students whose parents have only an associate degree or certification may also be classified as “first-generation” if they’re attending a four-year school.

Reducing the up-front costs of college

Before even attending their school of choice, first-generation students face a plethora of charges and fees that they may or may not be able to cover. To make matters worse, they may also come from a community where financial aid and other forms of assistance aren’t widely known are talked about. This can compound the issue and make paying for these initial costs even more difficult.

If you’re a first-generation student planning to attend college, here are a few options you have at this stage of the process:

Application and testing fee waivers

Fee waivers can help eliminate the costs of many of common pre-college costs. There are fee waivers available for college applications, SAT tests, ACT tests, and more.

Here’s where to find each:

  • Application fee waivers – Use this tool to find colleges that offer fee waivers for eligible students, or send this request in to the dean or director of admissions at the school of your choice.
  • ACT testing waivers –  Head here to apply for ACT testing waivers. If you qualify, you will also enjoy free ACT prep and review resources.
  • SAT testing waivers – Visit this site to apply for an SAT fee waiver. These also come with free score reports to shed light on your test results.

There are also some schools that do not charge an application fee. If you’re unable to qualify for a fee waiver, you might consider applying for one of these schools to reduce your up-front costs.

Credit transfers

Transferring previous college-level credits can help you reduce your time in school and, subsequently, the money spent on tuition, books, housing, and other requirements. Talk to your school counselor about credits you have that may be eligible for transfer. These usually include any honors or advanced placement courses you took during high school.

Government grants & programs

This process starts with filling out a FAFSA — the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. This single application lets you apply for a plethora of federal grants and programs that can help lessen or even fully eliminate many of your college-related costs.

Here are some of the government programs you might want to consider:

Federal Pell Grants

These are federally funded grants that do not require repayment. You can qualify for up to $6,195 per year, with the exact amount depending on your household’s income, the school you’re attending, and your financial need.

First Generation Matching Grants

This program is available to Florida residents who demonstrate financial need. It offers $2 in state funding for every $1 in private aid the grant’s fund receives. The amount and volume of these grants vary annually.

Federal TRIO Programs

The federal government offers eight different TRIO programs designed to help first-generation and financially disadvantaged students afford and go to college. Some of these programs provide funds based on academic achievement, field of study, and more, while others offer free college admission counseling and financial literacy education.

 Federal work study programs

Work study programs place you in an on-campus job where you can earn money on a part-time basis. You’ll get the payments directly, or you can request they go directly to your education-related charges. Either way, they can offer an easy, low-stress way to alleviate the financial stressors of higher education.

First-generation scholarships

In addition to the many federal grants and scholarships you might be eligible for, there are also several private aid programs designed specifically for first-generation students. If you have a specific university in mind, speak to someone at the school’s financial aid office. There may be first-generation programs you can take advantage of.


Reducing your costs while in school

Tuition, room, and board are constants during the college experience, and while there are many grants and scholarship programs to help with these, the school expenses unfortunately don’t stop there. First-generation students will also need to find ways to cover books, supplies, utilities, and fees for labs and work study programs. 

Here are some ways first-generation students can reduce these costs and lessen their impact:

Use credit wisely

Credit cards can be a good way to cover many of the costs associated with higher education, as long as you choose the right ones. Not only can they let you cover costs while spreading your payments over time, but they also help you build up your credit — a crucial step to ensuring future financial success.

If you’re considering using credit to cover college costs, you’ll want to consider one of these types:

  • Student cards – Credit cards aimed specifically at students tend to have low introductory interest rates, no annual fees, and a slew of rewards and cash-back offers that can help save money. Some even offer extra cash for maintaining good grades.
  • Secured cards – Secured cards require a cash deposit and only allow you to spend up to that amount. They’re good ways to build credit without any risk. They also keep your spending in check and help you develop smart, credit-using habits.
  • No annual fee cards – You’re already spending thousands on your education annually, so choosing a card with costly annual maintenance fees isn’t going to help anything. Always look for a card with no annual fees, and try to maximize the rewards and cash back you can earn as well.

Set up an installment plan

Most schools will allow you to set up a payment plan, spreading your tuition out over each semester or year. This can make covering those costs easier on your pocketbook, as well as reduce your chances of falling behind or getting hit with late penalties. Some schools may even allow you to set up payment plans for room, board, and other costs associated with your education.

Rent your books

Don’t spend thousands on textbooks you’ll only use once. Instead, consider renting your textbooks for just a fraction of the cost. You can do this through services like Chegg, eCampus, and even Amazon. If you use a service like eCampus, you can even earn rewards on the books you rent, which can reduce your costs even more.

If a book you require is only available for purchase, make sure you sell back your book once your semester is over. You might be able to do this at your campus bookstore, a local Half Price Books, or using Amazon or other online services. Keep in mind that digital textbooks are generally lower than physical ones.

Become an RA

On-campus housing and meal plans are expensive, clocking in at upwards of $10,000 per year at most schools. A great way to avoid these costs (or at least seriously reduce them) is to become an RA, or resident assistant. Resident assistants enjoy loads of on-campus perks, including a free, usually private on-campus room, free or reduced meal plans, and more.

Leverage public programs

Federal grants aren’t the only help you can seek from the government. If covering the costs of food is causing a strain, see if you’re eligible for SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. SNAP benefits can help you reduce your grocery costs, as well as that of your family if they qualify.

You might also look into local food pantries. Some colleges even offer on-campus food programs to help students at a financial disadvantage.

Know about local student discounts

There are loads of discount programs from all sorts of retailers, websites, and manufacturers that can help reduce your expenses as a student. For school-related technology needs, both Apple and Microsoft offer student rates. You can also use the Amazon Student program to lower your shipping and media-related costs online, or Greyhound to save on travel home for the holidays. Head to to find even more student discounts that can help you lower your educational expenses.

The bottom line

Simply covering the costs of college isn’t enough to set a first-generation student up for financial success. On top of this, students must also focus on building their credit while in school (secured and student cards can help with this).

Leaving college with a solid credit history and a good score can open many doors, including:

  • A more affordable mortgage when buying a house
  • More affordable car insurance rates and premiums
  • More options when renting an apartment or property
  • More job and employment options
  • Lower deposits on utilities and other services

Many landlords, employers, insurers, and lenders will use your credit score to determine your eligibility for financial products, job opportunities, and housing options. By using credit to responsibly pay for your in-school costs, you’ll build up that score and make many of life’s future milestones easier and more affordable.