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Top 30 Colleges For First-Generation Students

The significance of first-generation college students cannot be overlooked, especially in today’s world where the economy is rapidly growing, demanding more highly educated and skilled individuals. However, being the first in their family to attend college can present various obstacles.

Nonetheless, if one is committed to obtaining a superior education and pursuing a successful career, there are numerous opportunities available. Many colleges have implemented exceptional programs to aid prospective students from non-traditional backgrounds, as illustrated in this list.

Several institutions are accustomed to admitting students whose families lack a college experience, while others have initiated initiatives to enhance the integration of first-generation attendees. Moreover, certain states have a plethora of colleges that actively seek to enroll more students from non-academic backgrounds. The key is to research and locate these institutions.

What to Consider When Choosing a College as a First-Generation Student:

  • Look for programs and opportunities that support first-generation students
  • Check if the college has a first-gen center or initiative with resources and support from faculty and staff

Criteria for NASPA’s “First-Gen Forward” Designation:

  1. Creation of institutional goals to serve first-gen students
  2. Attendance at monthly community meetings to discuss best practices
  3. Hosting first-gen celebration events to promote a sense of community
  4. Submission of annual reports to the Center for First-Generation Student Success

Methodology for Ranking the Best Colleges for First-Generation Students:

  • Recognition in the 2022-23 NASPA Center for First-Generation Student Success Cohort
  • Six-year graduation rates for students pursuing a four-year degree at a designated college
  • The average cost of attendance for each college
  • Percentage of students receiving financial aid (loans, scholarships, and grants)
  • Institutional accreditation status

1. Yale University

Yale, a prestigious Ivy League university, is dedicated to providing comprehensive support for first-generation students to ensure their success. The college is committed to making education accessible for low-income students by offering a cost of just $3,918, according to College Greenlight. Moreover, Yale’s graduation rate for Pell Grant recipients is exceptional, standing at 96% – one of the highest in the country. The college’s efforts to aid first-gen students are continually improving, with the introduction of initiatives such as a first-generation student conference, which provides insights from accomplished Yale alumni. Study.com recognizes Yale’s exceptional efforts in supporting students from non-academic backgrounds. Furthermore, The Washington Post reported that Yale had launched a new program covering the hospitalization insurance of low-income students, saving them $2,332 annually.

2. University of California, Berkeley

The University of California, Berkeley’s commitment to providing financial aid is one of the reasons why its first-generation students excel, according to various methodology lists. For instance, Study.com highlights the Incentive Awards Program, which awards up to $32,000 to students who are the first in their families to attend college. College Greenlight reports that low-income students at Berkeley have a net price of $8,607, while Pell Grant recipient graduation rates stand at an impressive 88%. According to RobertKelchen.com, 37% of aided students at Berkeley are first-gen, and Washington Monthly ranks it as the seventh-best college for students from non-academic backgrounds. Overall, 17% of the university’s students are the first in their families to pursue higher education.

3. Stanford University

Stanford University’s needs-blind admissions system enables low-income students to attend for an average cost of just $2,841, as reported by College Greenlight. The university’s support system is also exceptional, with a 91% graduation rate among Pell Grant recipients. Stanford’s admissions and support systems have garnered praise from the First Generation Foundation. The university has a dedicated office for diversity and first-generation students, which has been operational since 2011. Stanford recognizes the significance of social class in addressing diversity issues, a mindset that other colleges can learn from.

4. Cornell University

Cornell University has several programs and initiatives aimed at supporting first-generation students. Study.com highlights the McNair Scholars Program, which assists low-income, first-generation students in pursuing medical degrees. While the average cost for low-income students at Cornell is higher than many colleges, at $11,665, College Greenlight notes that the investment is worthwhile. Pell Grant recipients at Cornell enjoy a high graduation rate of 92%. Additionally, the university is actively hiring staff who were first-generation college students themselves to better serve this student population, as reported by The Washington Post. Cornell’s First In Class Program provides a platform for students to connect with each other, learn about resources and opportunities at the university, and work towards achieving their goals.

5. University of California, San Diego

According to Washington Monthly’s ranking, the University of California, San Diego is among the top 10 colleges for first-generation students, with 36% of its student body being first-gen. Pell Grant recipients, who make up a significant portion of the student body at 43%, benefit from a tuition cost of $8,362 and an impressive graduation rate of 84%, as reported by College Greenlight. According to the University of California, the university’s success in supporting first-gen students is partly attributed to a program that provides them with peer and professional success coaches.

6. University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

According to College Greenlight, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has a Pell Grant recipient population of 21%, with an average cost of $3,823 and an 86% graduation rate. First Generation Foundation supports these statistics and reports that around 20% of students are the first in their families to attend college. The university recognizes first-generation students as a valuable part of their campus community, contributing significantly to diversity and intellectual life. The university’s support services for these students are impressive, including The Hogan Book Award, which provides free textbooks and course materials to first-generation STEM college students.

7. Duke University

Duke University is a top choice for first-generation college students, with a low-income student price of $8,777 and a remarkable 94% graduation rate for Pell Grant recipients, according to College Greenlight. Additionally, the university’s network for non-academic students is recognized as one of the strongest in the country by the First Generation Foundation. Recently, Duke has expanded its efforts to support these students with a $20 million donation from successful first-generation alumnus David Rubenstein, which covers the total cost of a Duke education for eligible students.

8. Berea College

Berea College has been named the fifth best liberal arts college for first-generation students by Washington Monthly, according to College Greenlight. The source notes that 83% of students receive Pell Grants, as the college’s mission is to provide high-quality education to promising students with limited economic resources. The college covers tuition for all admitted students, which likely contributes to the fact that 41% of the 2017 graduating class was completely debt-free. Additionally, 51% of Berea’s students are the first in their families to attend college, making it one of the private colleges with the highest percentage of non-academic students in the US.

9. Amherst College

According to College Greenlight, Amherst College is among the top low-income colleges, with 20% of its students receiving Pell Grants. The net price for low-income students is only $3,700, and the 6-year graduation rate for Pell Grant recipients is an impressive 94%. Washington Monthly also recognizes Amherst as the eighth-best liberal arts college for first-generation students, with 22% of the student body coming from this demographic. Amherst supports first-generation students through various programs such as family meeting sessions, student receptions, and tent dinners to ensure they feel welcome on campus.

10. Georgia Institute of Technology

Georgia Institute of Technology is renowned for its STEM degree programs, attracting a significant number of first-generation students who are interested in pursuing these fields. College Greenlight reports that 19% of the college’s student body are Pell Grant recipients, possibly due to the comparatively lower cost of living in the South. In fact, the college’s low-income student cost is only $6,138. Georgia Institute of Technology has established a thriving FirstGen student community, which has helped many students from non-academic backgrounds succeed. First Generation Foundation also praises the college’s efforts to support these students, providing resources such as academic and personal counseling, mentorship, and financial aid.

11. University of California, Merced

12. University of Illinois at Chicago

13. Harvard University

14. Oberlin College

15. University of Michigan

16. Pomona College

17. University of California, Irvine

18. Brown University

19. University of Pennsylvania

20. University of California, Riverside

21. College of the Ozarks

22. California State University, Stanislaus

23. Florida International University

24. Salem College

25. University of Chicago

26. University of Pikeville

27. University of Phoenix, Arizona

28. Grand Canyon University

29. Blue Mountain College

30. Florida Institute of Technology

Final Words

We have compiled a list of colleges that are considered to be the best for first-generation college students based on the sources we have consulted. The colleges are ranked from 30 to one and each entry includes a brief summary explaining why it has been included. Our list features two types of colleges: those that admit a smaller percentage of first-generation students but provides comprehensive support services to ensure their success, and those that enroll a large number of non-academic background students, resulting in lower graduation rates but still commendable on a national level.