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Tips From a First-Generation Student Turned Admissions Professional

David Duxbury

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Allow me to set the stage: It's late fall and your high school student is talking about application fees, campus visits and entrance exams. You sift through college website after college website — punching numbers into the net price calculator wondering how college got so expensive. You sift through copies of last year’s tax documents to fill out the FAFSA. You wonder to yourself, “What does ‘FAFSA’ even mean?”

Does this sound familiar? If so, you might have a college-bound student in your home.

College can be a difficult topic for many households. Students, perhaps for the first time, start conversations with their parents about contributing financially toward their college education. Potential careers, majors and extracurricular activities are discussed as students try their best to decide on the path they will take for the next four years. Did I mention the FAFSA?

These conversations can be even more challenging if the student is a first-generation college student.

A first-generation college student is generally defined as one whose parents did not complete a four-year degree. In the 2015–2016 academic year, roughly 56% of students were first-generation college students.

Ironically, I was part of that 2015–2016 study. I was a first-generation college student starting my first semester in the fall of 2015. I entered college having the same difficult conversations with my family, asking the same questions about my career path, and wondering how it was all going to work financially. I came from a single-parent home with limited resources. I had no idea where to start!

Whether you come from a long line of college graduates or you are a parent to a first-generation college student, here are four tips to help you and your student succeed as you think through college.

1. Talk about finances early and often.

Your student is suddenly asking what adjusted gross income is, how much you paid in state and federal taxes, and if they can expect monthly checks from you to help cover miscellaneous expenses. Awkward, right?

As uncomfortable as it might be, talking with your student about how you will pay for college will give both of you a more accurate picture of what the next four years will look like. Can they expect you to cover the tuition bill, or do they need to get a job? Does your student need to apply for more scholarships? Will you need to take out a loan?

Having open and honest conversations about money will allow you and your student to set expectations together.

2. Determine what type of college your student wants to attend.

A variety of factors shape a student’s college choice. Campus activities, on-campus housing, program offerings, and the college’s location can all impact a student’s decision. While these factors are important, it's also important to recognize that not all colleges have the same educational priorities.

For example, technical colleges primarily function to teach students a particular trade for a specific job. As a result, their priorities differ greatly from large state universities offering both undergraduate and graduate degree programs in dozens of academic areas.

The list does not stop there. There are community colleges, non-profit colleges, for-profit universities, faith-based institutions, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and more. Talking with your student about these options ahead of time can help narrow down the list of colleges.

3. File the FAFSA early.

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is one of the most important documents for families wondering how to afford college. As the name implies, this serves as your student’s application for federal (and state) aid, as well as consideration for grants and scholarships from the institution.

So, why do you need to file it early? Federal and state financial aid are given on a first-come, first-served basis. If you wait to file until just before your student’s first semester, they may not be eligible for government grants.

Your student can list up to 10 different institutions on the FAFSA so that each institution that offers your student admission can create a customized financial aid package for them. The application opens up every year on October 1 and must be filed each year that your student attends college.

Keep in mind that the FAFSA is based on the cost of the school your student attends. The amount of aid the FAFSA gives will change depending on the institution!

4. Ask your student about their personal and professional aspirations.

As a first-generation college student, I remember feeling the need to defend myself from statements like, “College is way too expensive” or “It's not worth taking out loans” or “You should major in ____.” Those statements can be discouraging and overwhelming.

Parents have a wonderful opportunity to take the pressure off their students by having thoughtful, candid conversations. Asking your student what they are passionate about, where they might like to work, and how they hope to grow as a result of their college experience is a great place to start.

Discussions like these can help students sort through the multitude of colleges, majors and job possibilities. You'll get to know your student better in the process, and can play a role in helping them find the school and academic program that's right for them.

Going to college is a large investment! These tips can help guide you and your student as you navigate college options and decide how best to utilize your family’s time, finances and other resources.

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David Duxbury is a first-generation college graduate from Merced, California who now works in higher education. He is passionate about sharing meaningful information with families to make the admissions process more accessible and easy to understand. David currently serves as the Associate Director of Operations and First Impressions at North Central University in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
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