What Makes Someone a ‘First Generation’ Student or Family?


If you’ve ever filled out a college application or a census form, you might have come across the term “first-generation.” What exactly makes someone a first-generation student or a first-generation family? Does this make any difference in terms of your college application’s success or place within a society’s culture?

Jump ahead to these sections:

In simple terms, a first-generation student is the first person in a family to go to college. However, the definition isn’t always this cut-and-dry, and there are a lot of factors to consider. Some colleges or universities have their own way of defining a first-generation student, and you might need to take a closer look at your family tree

On the other hand, a first-generation family refers to your family’s immigration status as well as integration within a local culture. In this guide, we’ll explore the idea of a first-generation student or family and what this means in different situations. The answer might surprise you, especially in light of recent sociological developments.

Who’s Considered a First Generation Student?

At first glance, the definition of a first-generation student is simple. It’s anyone who’s the first in their family to attend college.

However, what happens if your parents completed some college, or if you have multiple siblings also in college? As you can see, this definition becomes tricky quickly. 

First-generation vs. second or third generation students

While each college might have their own definition, the Center for First-Generation Student Success pinned down a clear definition of what this term means in most instances. They explain that a first-generation student is any student whose parents did not complete a 4-year college or university degree. 

How does this differ from second or third-generation students? A second-generation student is someone whose parents were the first to attend and complete a 4-year college or university degree. Similarly, a third-generation student is someone who’s parents and grandparents completed a 4-year college or university degree. 

Remember, both of the parents (or grandparents or so on) don’t need to complete the degree. As long as one of your parents (or grandparents) completed their degree, you’re a second or third-generation student, and so on.  

How does first-generation apply to students with siblings?

Another common question is whether or not you can be a first-generation student if one of your siblings went to college before you. The term first-generation strictly refers to your parents and whether they completed a 4-year degree. It does not relate to the order in which you and your siblings attend college. 

For example, if your sister is in her second year of college and you’re just now applying, both of you are considered first-generation students. The same is true for step-siblings, cousins, etc. 

What about guardians, aunts, uncles, etc.?

Most colleges or universities consider your birth parents’ degree status, not your current guardian or other adults in your life. If you’re adopted or were raised by a family member, your status as a first-generation student depends on your birth parents.

However, since this is a tricky subject, check with your college counselor or guidance counselor for more information. As mentioned, each school has its own definition, and this might be interpreted differently. 

Join Cake's monthly newsletter.

Learn all you need to know about end-of-life.

Advantages vs. challenges of being a first-generation student

Finally, there are both advantages and challenges of being a first-generation student at a university. Many colleges today like to attract a diverse group of students, and that means they might have spots specifically reserved for first-generation students. Having this status might open your application to more scholarships or financial aid opportunities. 

Studies show that first-gen students often face greater struggles when it comes to attending college. They’re not only less likely to apply and attend college in the first place, but they’re more likely to face challenges once enrolled. 

That being said, many schools also have resources specifically available for first-generation students like peer groups or mentor programs. These are designed to help with many of these students’ unique challenges. Many first-gen students want to complete college as part of their bucket list, and there are a number of great resources for making this a reality. 

Who’s Considered a First Generation Family or Immigrant?

There’s a lot of confusion over who is considered a first-generation family or immigrant. This varies by country, and the United States has its own definition.

The term “first-generation family” might refer to the first foreign-born family member to gain citizenship or the first natural-born family member of that family. 

First-generation vs. second or third-generation immigrants

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, first-generation means the first foreign-born member of a family to gain either citizenship or permanent residency. This means that being born in the United States is not a requirement for being a first-gen immigrant or family, however, sociologists often disagree with this definition. 

Either way, you’ll hear a lot of talk about first vs. second vs. third-generation immigrants, especially when talking to those whose parents or grandparents moved to the U.S. from elsewhere. Disagreements between these generations often cause strife during family reunion events and other multi-generational gatherings since there are cultural differences between families. 

Using the Census Bureau’s definition, a second-generation individual is one who was naturally born in the relocated country.

For example, if a family immigrated to the United States from Canada and have a child there, the parents are the first-generation immigrants while the child is a second-generation immigrant. This continues on as their child has children of their own, and so on. 

Because the second-generation individual grew up surrounded by both the local country’s culture and the parent’s culture, they often are in a unique spot socially.

It’s expected that by the year 2065, a total of 18% of the United State’s population will be second-generation immigrants. These second-generation families are shown to advance faster both socially and economically than their parents, and they’re more culturally aware overall. 

Half-generation immigrants

Sociologists coined a new phrase regarding immigrant families that’s worth mentioning. This phrase is “half-generation” or 1.5 generation. These individuals are in a unique position due to their age when immigrating. Anyone who immigrated to a new country before or during their early teens is considered to be at a unique halfway point. 

Because they have characteristics and culture from their home country, yet they’re able to socialize in an open way with the new culture, they’re often quick to adapt. Immigrating earlier in life blurs the line between first and second-generation, so it’s good to have a way to define this unique experience. 

Sociologists are working on additional terms for others as well. For example, “1.75 generation” is for those who were under age 5 when they immigrated. These young children absorb their new environment like a sponge, and they act similarly to second-generation kids despite being born elsewhere. Another term is “2.5” generation for those born with one foreign parent and one citizen parent.

All of these unique distinctions help make sense of these cultural challenges and changes. 

A Generation of Change

Those who identify with being a first-generation student or family know the unique challenges that come along with this title. It’s not easy to experience something so different from your family’s experience, but it’s this type of change that brings progress and innovation. In addition, with so many conflicting terms regarding first-gen college students and immigrants, it’s important to tread carefully. 

There’s a lot we can learn from these first-generation pioneers, but what matters overall is the ties that bind families together. Have you given thought to your family bonds and how to reduce their burden over your lifetime? Start end-of-life planning to create a legacy that’s worth remembering. 


  1. “Chapter 2: Immigration’s Impact on Past and Future U.S. Population Change.” Pew Research Center: Hispanic Trends. 28 September 2015. PewResearch.org
  2. “Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ).” United States Census Bureau: Foreign Born. Census.gov
  3. “First-Generation Frequently Asked Questions.” Center for First-Generation Student Success. NASPA.org
  4. “First-Generation Students in Higher Education.” Postsecondary National Policy Institute. 26 September 2018. PNPI.org
  5. Rojas, Leslie Berestein. “Gen 1.5: Where an immigrant generation fits in.” SCPR. 21 March 2012. SCPR.org

Icons sourced from FlatIcon.