3 COVID challenges hit first-generation students harder

First generation students more likely to suffer mental health problems and food and housing insecurity
By: | August 24, 2020
First-generation college students are more concerned about paying fall semester tuition than are their classmates. (GettyImages/playb)First-generation college students are more concerned about paying fall semester tuition than are their classmates. (GettyImages/playb)

First-generation students were more likely than other students to see their college careers disrupted in three key ways during the COVID-19 pandemic and online learning, a study has found.

First-generation students have faced more severe financial hardships, more difficult home environments and greater difficulties adapting to distance learning, according to the survey by the Student Experience in the Research University Consortium based at UC Berkeley. 

Financial hardships: First-generation college students were more likely to lose wages from on- or off-campus jobs while also having to contend with increased living and technology expenses, the survey found.

As a result, these students remain far more concerned about paying for their education in fall 2020, considering their families were also more likely to have lost wages during the pandemic.


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Some 57% of first-generation students surveyed identified as low-income, poor or working-class compared to 12% of students whose family members have previous college experience.

Less safe home environments: First-generation students reported living in homes where physical, emotional and substance were more prevalent, the survey found.

They are also more worried about being able to afford food and housing, and experiencing higher rates of mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression.

Online learning challenges: Lack of adequate technology and space to do course work posed greater obstacles to first-generation students, who also faced challenges attending virtual classes when higher education shifted to online learning.

About 15% of the first-generation students had to take care of children during the pandemic, compared to 7% of other students. About 18% were caring for adults, compared about 12% of other students.


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Solutions for first-generation college students

The authors of the report recommended the following strategies for first-generation student success:

  • Provide additional scholarships, grant funding and work-study opportunities by proactively reaching out to first-generation to notify them of these programs.
  • Extend campus career services to family members who have also lost jobs and income.
  • Ensure students know they are eligible for financial aid, and help them complete FAFSA applications.
  • Open emergency housing for students who face unsafe home environments, and develop plans to help them transition to more stable housing.
  • Expand hours of campus food pantries, while also offering free, no-touch options for picking up food.
  • Reduce on-campus housing rates and allow students short-term stay should they need to leave home temporarily.
  • Tailor mental health services to the unique challenges of first-generation students, such as those who experience ” imposter syndrome,” in which students doubt they belong on a college campus.
  • Faculty can adjust class schedules to better fit the needs of first-generation students.

UB’s coronavirus page offers complete coverage of the impacts on higher ed.