Socioeconomic Inequality’s Impact on First-Generation Students

Students interested in taking the first brave step toward earning a college degree often need help and guidance throughout their journey. Many turn to parents, relatives, or siblings who have earned a degree for advice on various aspects of higher education, from filling out college applications and the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to choosing a major. First-gen college students, however, often have to navigate an unfamiliar path on their own.

A group of college students looking at a laptop.

Socioeconomic inequality — often experienced by first-generation families — can also impact students’ success at enrolling in and completing a college degree program. A longitudinal study conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics found that among students who had been ninth graders in 2009, 78% of those in the highest quintile of socioeconomic status were enrolled in college in 2016, compared with just 28% of those in the lowest quintile — a 50-point gap. The study also found that students in the lowest socioeconomic status group were more likely to pursue an associate degree instead of a four-year degree compared with their peers of higher socioeconomic status.

Increasingly colleges and universities are offering resources to help first-gen and socioeconomically disadvantaged students succeed in their pursuit of higher education.

Challenges First-Gen College Students May Face Based on Socioeconomic Factors

In a recent LinkedIn Live interview, Maryville University professor of sociology and first-gen college graduate Dr. Kent Bausman referenced studies that found first-gen college students tend to struggle throughout their academic experience.

“They take longer by about a year and a half [to complete their degree], and they’re more likely to not return and finish,” he said, noting that some first-gens struggle with a self-perceived sense of inadequacy compared with their more affluent peers. “I wish I could tell my younger self and people who are wrestling with the idea of going to college that it is not this magical secret wonderland of knowledge [where] you need a special code to get by. It’s just like everyday world, except people know a lot of stuff.”

Other challenges first-gen college students face include not knowing how to apply for financial aid, concerns about fitting in, and questions about how to choose a major that will net a return on investment (ROI) while still being able to explore coursework in topics that interest them.

The Role Future Economic Security Plays in Choosing a Field of Study

Bausman also noted that a student’s socioeconomic background often plays a role in the degree program they choose, adding that while some first-gens choose a degree program or major that aligns with their passions or interests, others are inclined to choose what they believe is a more practical field of study, with defined career outcomes, such as computer science.

A 2016 study published in The Developing Economist underscored this tendency, finding that lower-income students tend to be more risk-averse in choosing a major compared with their peers of higher socioeconomic status. The study also found that first-gen students may give preference to majors associated with higher wages, such as healthcare or engineering, and avoid studying psychology or communications, for example.

“When I found my way into college, I thought that business would be my major because that would bring me a return on my investment,” Bausman said, noting that when he was in his third year of college, he struggled to choose a major because he wanted to focus on a field that would help him pay off his student loans. He ultimately followed his passion and majored in sociology, trusting that a college education regardless of major would help lead him to a better career.

Educators also express that ROI-driven students can still balance their passions against economics. For example, choosing electives that correlate with topics students are interested in allows them to achieve a middle ground.

Imposter Syndrome in First-Gen College Students and Ways to Overcome It

Many students feel out of place when they begin their college careers, and this can be especially true for first-gen students struggling with socioeconomic inequality. Many have trouble overcoming a sense that “this isn’t my world” and feeling somehow fraudulent.

“The research tells us that first-gen folks tend to have this confidence issue. We don’t feel as though we belong,” Bausman stated, noting that imposter syndrome is often prevalent among first-generation students. Students may be able to overcome these feelings by taking the following advice:

  •  Believe in yourself. Appreciate that deciding to go to college is itself an achievement that you should be proud of.
  • Don’t doubt that you deserve to be in college. The school has confirmed your capabilities by accepting you into the program.
  • Take pride in your experiences. Understand that your background is part of what helped you decide to enroll in a degree program.
  • Know you are good enough. Accept that everyone is different and give yourself permission to be imperfect — and scared.
  • Try new things. Don’t let fears or insecurities hold you back from taking risks and learning from new experiences.
  • Practice positive self-talk. Instead of saying “I can’t do this because it’s too hard,” say “I will do this because I’m confident in my abilities.”
  • Own your accomplishments. When you do well on a test or receive a high grade on an assignment, don’t pass it off as luck. Instead, take a moment to recognize your efforts and appreciate that your hard work is paying off.
  • Remember that making mistakes is OK. No one is perfect, and obsessing over perfection can lead to anxiety and exhaustion.
  • Find your support network. Seek out other students who are going through similar experiences, and explore campus resources such as counselors, tutors, deans, and advisors.

How Maryville University Caters to First-Gen College Students and Their Challenges

Among the many common struggles of first-generation college students is taking longer to finish their degree or not completing their degree program. Universities and colleges across the U.S. — including Maryville University — are taking steps to help first-generation college students find success in their undergraduate studies.

  • What are some of the resources that Maryville offers to first-gen students? Each undergraduate student is assigned a life coach as part of the Student Success division to help them adjust to and navigate college life, including any challenges that might arise. Life coaches can also help with academic and career planning. Students who need additional academic support can schedule an appointment with the Division of Student Success, which offers many resources to help with coursework success and career development. Online students at Maryville are also assigned dedicated advisors every step of the way, from admissions to graduation.
  • What are some resources that Maryville offers to help navigate the financial aid process? Maryville has financial aid counselors who work with students. Maryville can help you understand your financial aid package and create a plan that works for you. Students who have questions about how to start the financial aid process can contact the Solution Squad at (314) 529-9360 or
  • What are some resources that Maryville offers to help guide academic and career path decisions? Alongside your life coach, Maryville provides Major and Career Exploration resources, career counseling, and development workshops to help guide career planning decisions. It also offers help with interview preparation, guidance on job search strategies, and resume review services.

Taking the First Brave Step Toward Earning a Degree

College doesn’t need to feel like a foreign concept, and all aspiring first-generation college students are encouraged to take that first brave step toward their degree by exploring options. For more information about how Maryville University can help you plan the path toward your future, visit Maryville University Online to learn more about our online degree programs.

Recommended Reading

College Planning Guide for High School Students

Conquering Back-to-School Anxiety: Emotional Side of Learning

Is Procrastination Good or Bad? How Procrastinating Impacts Your Study Habits


ABC News, “You’re Not Here By ‘Mistake;” 1st-Gen Students on Overcoming ‘Imposter Syndrome’”

Alliance for Excellent Education, “The Challenges and Privileges of Being a First-Generation College Student”

ATTIGO, “First-Generation Students and the Imposter Syndrome”

Inside Higher Ed, “Wealth’s Influence on Enrollment and Completion”

LinkedIn, Impact of Socioeconomic Inequality on First-Generation College Students

National Center for Education Statistics, “Young Adult Educational and Employment Outcomes by Family Socioeconomic Status”

Student Pulse, “An Econometric Analysis of the Major Choice of First-Generation College Students”

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