Resources and Scholarships for First-Generation Students

Being the first at anything can be exhilarating but also frightening. After all, there's no one to give you tips, no one's footsteps you can follow. It takes courage and passion to be first, but the impact you have is long-lasting. This is what it means to be the first person in your family to earn a postsecondary education.

First-generation students actually comprise half of the U.S. college population, and their numbers are growing. These students face significant challenges, from fewer financial resources to a lack of family support and higher levels of self-doubt.

However, like anyone who's “the first,” persisting in the face of challenges to enroll in and complete higher education demonstrates you're responsible and committed.

If you're considering becoming a first in your family by enrolling in cosmetology school, another beauty program, or trade school, this guide is for you. It’s here to help you understand the challenges you may face as a first-generation student and tips for succeeding despite them.

Facts About First-Generation Students

Did you know Oprah Winfrey, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Walt Disney were all first-generation higher ed students? A first-gen student can go on to achieve great success. However, they may face a tremendous uphill battle.

The Center for First-generation Student Success indicates first-generation students are less likely to attend college full-time than their continuing-generation counterparts, more likely to be older, more likely to be employed while attending school, and more likely to be female, veterans, or of BIPOC descent.

Here are some more facts distinguishing first-generation students:

  • They tend to pursue college-level education at a lower rate (72%) than continuing-generation students (93%).
  • They come from lower-income families—$41,000 median parental income versus $90,000.
  • They are less likely to graduate on time and more likely to leave before completion.
  • English isn’t the first language for 20% of these students.
  • First-generation graduates tend to accrue more education debt than non-first-gen peers.

However, once these students complete their studies, they also enjoy the benefits and salaries of their continuing-generation peers.

Their experiences also make them more likely to help others achieve success; 61% of first-generation graduates have a desire to give back to their communities.

Plus, children of college graduates are more likely to attend college themselves, which can benefit future generations of your family.

First-Generation Student Challenges

First-generation students face several challenges making success in college or trade school difficult, including:

First Generation Students Often Lack Guidance

Because first-generation students don't have the benefit of guidance from their parents, those whose parents attended college may have a better idea about what to expect in college, how to fill out applications and financial aid forms, how to balance work and school, how to complete assignments, or even what questions they need to ask and who has those answers.

This may cause them to feel isolated, frustrated, or ready to give up.

Fortunately, many schools offer free resources and programs to help these students succeed. Many colleges view being a first-generation student as an advantage in terms of diversity, which can help with being accepted to the school of your choice.

First Generation Students May Have Fewer Financial Resources

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), higher levels of education statistically correlate to higher incomes and employment. Therefore, individuals whose parents didn’t complete higher education often come from lower-income families.

In fact, 27% of first-generation students come from households making $20,000 or less. This means their families may not provide as much financial support, and the students must work while attending school. Balancing school with work and the rest of your life can be tricky.

However, first-generation students aren’t just eligible for federal or state financial aid—their unique circumstances may help them find many scholarships specifically designed for them.

Lack of Confidence Can Harm First Generation Students

Students who haven’t personally seen anyone in their families succeed in college may not believe in their ability to do so. Many first-gen students know the challenges and statistics for success and doubt their prospects. Others may have been told by their relatives that college wasn't worthwhile. It could strain those relationships, putting more pressure on the student.

Support from family and friends is key to success. That's why many colleges and nonprofit organizations have programs to create a support network for first-generation students. These include mentorship, fellowship or bridge programs for incoming students, advisors specializing in first gen counseling, tutoring centers, and more.

How First-Generation Students Can Pay for School

Vocational or trade school programs typically cost a fraction of what two- and four-year degree programs at public and private colleges cost. Plus, trade school can usually be completed in one to two years, or even less, which means you're in the workforce earning an income more quickly.

However, coming up with the money may still be a concern. Fortunately, financial aid can help.

In fact, 86% of students at all institutions received financial aid in the 2020-2021 school year, which includes students enrolled in career and technical education (CTE) programs.

Financial aid may be offered in several forms, including:

  • Grants: Money given to students to pay for their education that doesn’t need to be paid back, often need-based or for more specific advanced college projects
  • Loans: Funding from the federal government or private lenders, which must be repaid with interest
  • Scholarships: “Free money,” usually given based on merit, talent, area of study, or affiliation
  • Work-study: Money given in the form of income in exchange for part-time work performed on campus

There is no income cutoff to qualify for financial aid; the federal government considers a combination of factors, including the size of your family and your year in school.

CTE students as well as undergraduate college students may qualify for several federal, state, or institutional grants, like the federal Pell Grant, the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG), and other types of aid.

The first step to determining whether you qualify for financial aid is to submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

Scholarships for First-Generation Students

Here are a few scholarships first-generation beauty school students may apply for. (Not all are intended for first-gen students only.)

  • Arnold M. Miller “Find a Way” Cosmetology Student Scholarship: Named for a man known for his “find a way” attitude, this program awards one scholarship per year of up to $15,000 to new and current students (including first-gen students) enrolled in a cosmetology program who demonstrate their desire to find a way to pursue their education. Photos of your work and essay responses to a questionnaire are required.
  • BigFuture Scholarships: These scholarships for $500 and $40,000 are awarded by the College Board on the BigFuture website. There is no essay, minimum GPA, test score, or citizenship requirement.
  • Buy-Rite’s Annual Beauty School Scholarship: One $1,000 scholarship is awarded yearly to a hairstylist or cosmetologist who exemplifies the organization’s core beliefs. Applicants must write an essay about their most meaningful achievement and how it relates to their future in the beauty industry.
  • A Helping Hand: Offered by Scholarships360, this $500 scholarship is available to low-income students enrolling in community college, career-training programs, or four-year colleges.
  • Jeannette Rankin Scholar Grant: This program awards educational funding to anyone identifying as a woman who is age 35 or older and demonstrates financial aid. Students pursuing career or vocational studies or associate and bachelor’s degrees qualify. Dollar amounts vary by applicant.
  • Jerry Alexander Gorman Foundation “The Passion to Succeed” Scholarship: Awarded to students pursuing higher education in all disciplines, this scholarship was created in honor of Jerry Gorman, who worked full time while attending cosmetology courses at night to pursue his passion for working in the beauty industry. It awards three $3,300 scholarships yearly (three in summer, three in fall).
  • The Kim and Harold Louie Family Foundation Scholarship: This organization will award $100,000 in scholarships in 2022; individual award amounts and number of recipients is based on a combination of factors, including tuition cost, student merit, students whose parents are veterans or active military, students who demonstrate financial need, and first-generation students.

Check out these 10 additional ways to find scholarships and get our tips for winning scholarships.

Getting Ready for School as a First-Generation Student

First-gen students may struggle with college, but this isn’t because they aren’t bright or talented. They often lack resources and may not even know what resources they lack.

Particularly if you are interested in a career training program but have no idea where to start, here are some tips to help you prepare for the road ahead.

First Generation Students Should Connect With High School Counselors

High school counselors are uniquely trained to help students identify their career interests, point students toward programs and schools to consider, prepare themselves academically, fill out college applications, identify financial aid opportunities, and more.

Schedule an appointment with your school counselor to discuss your goals and determine what’s involved to help you reach them. Your school might even offer summer bridge programs to help you succeed in college.

Visiting Potential Schools Is Important for First Generation Students

Any school worth attending should welcome prospective students to their campuses to discuss their offerings, the types of students they’re looking for, what it takes to be accepted, how financial aid works, and more.

Take a tour to get a feel for the environment and talk to admissions officers about what resources they offer first-generation students.

First Generation Students Should Apply for Financial Aid Promptly

Be sure to complete your FAFSA as soon as possible after October 1 of your senior year in high school (or the year before you plan to attend college). You don’t necessarily need to know which school you will attend before you apply.

Your high school counselor can also suggest scholarships you may qualify for based on your status as a first-gen student, your chosen field of study, your background or affiliations, and more.

How to Make Your School Choices and Apply

Any program you consider needs to meet your unique needs as a first-generation student.

For example, if you’ll need to work while attending school, does the school offer part-time options at night, on weekends, or whenever you can attend classes? Will it provide the necessary resources, such as academic support and financial aid? Will it offer a community of people, such as fellow students, alumni, and faculty, who will support you?

Then be sure you know the application requirements, including deadlines and whether essays are required, and start applying!

Identify Your Support System

Support is one of the critical factors in success for first-gen students. Be sure to seek out a supportive network of family and friends who will cheer you on, respect your study schedule, help you balance your school, work, and life obligations, and cheer you up when the going gets rough.

If English isn’t your first language, speak to your English as an additional language teacher or find a counselor who can help you find resources for those in your situation.

Work with your family to determine who will handle specific tasks once you start school, such as shopping, meal preparation, picking up kids, and more. Additionally, create a calendar to help you stick to a regular study schedule and ensure everything gets done.

5 Tips for Finding First-Generation Student Success

Despite the challenges you may face as a first-generation student, there are some things you can do to prepare yourself for a good experience and successful completion.

  1. Do well in high school. According to, more than 75% of students who earn A or A-plus grade point averages in high school complete college, versus only one-fifth of those with C averages.
  2. Seek out resources right away. Your college may offer student services, such as academic advisement, tutoring, and a career center—be sure to seek them out immediately.
  3. Get involved. Seek out communities, online or in person, for students who may be experiencing what you are. Talk to your classmates, faculty members, and advisors about relevant societies or clubs.
  4. Ask for help. Connect with your teachers frequently about any concerns or problems. Instructors want you to succeed. You might even seek counseling to talk about your struggles. (Self-care can also be helpful.)
  5. Celebrate success. Even small wins are worth celebrating. Recognizing achievements, even with a special dessert, is a great way to remind yourself why you should keep going and give you confidence.

Resources for First-Generation Students

"How to College: First Gen" podcast
This Apple podcast produced by first-generation graduates introduces listeners to students, graduates, and parents, talking about their experiences and sharing insights for other first-gen students.

Center for First-generation Student Success
An initiative of NASPA and The Suder Foundation, this organization’s “Are You a First-generation Student?” page offers valuable tips for students, resources, articles, and FAQs.

First in the Family
This website for first-gen students offers videos, inspirational stories, tips, and resources.

I’m First!
This online community was created to support first-gen students with stories from others who have been in your shoes, access to mentorship, lists of colleges supporting first-gen students, and more.

Top 5 Tips for Succeeding in Beauty School
This article focuses on how to succeed in cosmetology, esthetics, or other beauty programs.

The Ultimate Job Guide for Service Industry Workers
You can learn about different service industry jobs to help you decide on a future career or make some cash while you save for school

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