The Intersection

Supporting First-Generation Students through a New COVID-19 Environment

February 26, 2021

The Challenge

COVID-19 has disrupted higher education instruction and the academic experience of thousands of first-generation students, particularly those with an intersectional low-income identity, who face various difficulties such as a lack of permanent housing, transportation issues, food insecurity, and concern over lack of income from on-campus or local employment. As such, stakeholders of institutions of higher education (IHEs) are grappling with how to best support first-gen students in adapting to a university environment during online, remote instruction.

First-generation students – students whose parent(s) have not obtained a degree from an IHE – account for more than a third of national undergraduate enrollment. Among all undergraduates, the Department of Education has classified 41% of Black and 61% of Latinx students as first-generation. In contrast, 25% of white and Asian-American students were found to belong to this demographic. Further, first-generation students showed lower median household income than non-first-generation students, and 27% percent of first-generation students came from households making $20,000 or less, which is below the federal poverty line for a family of three.  As education stakeholders work to close the higher education equity gaps, this data indicates that supporting first-generation students is necessary.

As the American economy adapts, many students see higher education as an avenue for social mobility, with the opportunity to gain social capital and access to a career. Therefore, IHEs are seeing a greater enrollment of first-generation students. However, first-generation students of color and of other marginalized backgrounds often face intersectional difficulty during their educational journey, and these difficulties have been exacerbated by the disproportionate consequences of the coronavirus pandemic.

A year into the pandemic, thousands of students still struggle to obtain the reliable technology necessary to complete online coursework. The persistent digital divide continues to disproportionately impact students of color, low-income families, and students from rural communities – many of whom also identify as first generation. As universities move towards sustained digital transformation to provide students with a high-quality education during a remote learning environment, education leaders must work to understand the needs of this student demographic and provide equitable support.


Issues Impacting First-Generation Students

Mental Health

First-generation college students, especially low-income and underrepresented minority students, may encounter increased stressors brought forth by consequences of the pandemic. These stressors at home can be due to scarcity in basic needs, access to healthcare, or technology required to continue their academic coursework. As IHEs closed for traditional in-person learning last spring, many students moved back to their hometowns and saw an increase in household responsibilities for child care and financial support.

Before the pandemic, first-generation students were often marginalized from campus-based mental health care systems and support resources, and are now facing even greater worries. A study at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found a steep increase in self-reported mental health problems as the pandemic stretched on. Results showed a 40 percent increase in anxiety and a 48 percent increase in depression with students during the pandemic. Further, the same study found that the pandemic had a disproportionate impact on students of color, who are more likely to be first-generation students. For example, 61 percent of Black students reported an increase in symptoms of depression in June 2020, nearly double as many before the pandemic. In addition, the stigma surrounding mental health treatment provides further implications for student needs.


A study by the Student Experience in the Research University Consortium (SERU), based at University of California Berkeley, found that first-generation college students have faced more severe financial hardship during the pandemic than their continuing-generation peers. First-generation students were found to be nearly twice as likely to be concerned about affording their education for fall 2020.

Another financial aspect of the coronavirus pandemic that has negatively impacted the education of first-generation students during remote learning is the persistent digital divide. Data has found that 85 percent of students who have had access to only one device were classified as underserved students (low income, first-generation, or minorities). Further, nearly 47 percent of students who relied on only one device depended exclusively on a cellular data plan for internet access. First-generation students from low-income backgrounds continue to struggle to afford the necessary resources to adjust to remote instruction which can have further implications on their academic learning, career readiness, and higher-education completion rate.

Home Situation

The same SERU study found that first-generation students often reported living in households where physical and emotional distress were more prevalent. Further, because of the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 consequences, many first-generation students worry about affording food and housing.

As first-generation college students returned home, studies found that first-generation students were more likely to be responsible for child care as younger children in the household also had transitioned to virtual learning.  This factor creates an environment not conducive to remote learning, which has negative implications on their academic coursework.


Policy Considerations  

A growing wealth gap shows a clear indication that fewer first-generation, low-income, Black, and Hispanic students applied and are applying for the upcoming higher education admission cycle. The Common App, accepted by more than 900 IHEs, reported that applications from students whose parents never went to or finished college dropped by three percent. To support first-generation college students’ policymakers must:

Prepare Faculty | Educators should be able to understand the student’s needs while providing an online instruction format that is relational, culturally relevant, flexible, and inclusive. Therefore, education stakeholders should work to provide faculty with professional development, support, and resources necessary to provide all students with a high-quality education.

Support Community Building | The transition to college is difficult for many teenagers, but first-generation students often report feeling uncomfortable in the collegiate atmosphere, as these students may come from a different cultural background and have different levels of college preparation than their non-first-generation peers. Therefore, education stakeholders should work to build a sense of community for all students by leveraging peer mentors, student leaders, and organizations who can personally reach out to support new and returning students in a virtual setting.

Adapt Mental Health Opportunities | Schools can leverage emerging telehealth treatment options by establishing designated affinity group spaces for vulnerable student populations. The McLean/Massachusetts General Brigham Youth Scholars’ Identity and Student Wellbeing workshop series has been converted to a virtual platform to provide culturally informed support to students of color, low-income, and first-generation students during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Mental Health Matters group model has been similarly adapted for virtual delivery in providing cognitive behavioral therapy, peer support, and opportunities for coalition-building among all underrepresented and vulnerable student groups.


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