Best Colleges for First-Generation Students

 December 8, 2021
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First-generation college students — those whose parents didn’t complete a four-year college degree — face unique challenges during an already challenging time of life. They may not get the same kind of support that students whose families have experienced college firsthand enjoy, such as help with the college application process, choosing classes or deciding majors. They may also come from lower-income households, making college even harder to afford — and creating a lasting wealth gap after graduation.

But when it comes to helping first-generation students find their way successfully, not all colleges are created equally. Student Loan Hero researchers looked at five key metrics to rank the 300 largest public and private schools by enrollment to see how often their first-generation students are successful. Among the metrics, analysts looked at net price and five-year repayment rates (the percentage of first-generation students that can keep up with their student loan payments during the five years after graduation).

Some of the findings are surprising — and all of them are important to this vulnerable demographic.

Key findings

  • California offers the best colleges for first-generation students. Among the 10 best schools, the Golden State occupies eight spots. Seven are in the California State University system, with the other a part of the University of California system.
  • While California dominates the top 10, a New York school lands in the No. 1 spot. Baruch College, a City University of New York school, is boosted by holding the eighth-best net price among the 300 schools. The median debt load for the institution’s first-generation students is $9,500 — 16th-best. Baruch College is followed by California State University, Long Beach, and California State University, Fullerton.
  • The top-ranking private school for first-generation students is Brigham Young University. The Provo, Utah, school has the 12th-best five-year repayment rate for first-generation students and the 15th-best median debt load. Its high ranking comes despite its rate of first-generation students being just 13.8% — fifth-worst among the 300 schools.
  • On the flip side, Ohio has three schools in the bottom 10 — the most of any state. Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, is the worst college for first-generation students among the 300 ranked. The school’s five-year repayment rate for first-generation students and net price contribute to finishing last. Just ahead is Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia and Tulane University in New Orleans.

Looking for the best college for first-generation students? You might want to head to the West — but New York is an option

Traveling west to follow dreams and opportunities is a long-standing American tradition — and for contemporary first-generation college students, it may make good sense. Of the top 10 colleges for first-generation students, eight are in California and one is in Washington state.

Given that the West Coast isn’t exactly known for its general affordability, that might be surprising at first. But according to the study findings, California schools enjoy some of the lowest net prices — the actual cost of college to a student and their family — in the nation.

In the Golden State, the California Dream Act makes it possible for eligible students brought into the U.S. before their 16th birthday to apply for state-based financial aid, even if they don’t have immigration documentation. This may be part of the reason many California schools tend to have relatively high percentages of first-generation college students on average.

10 best colleges for first-generation students
Rank School State
1 Baruch College NY
2 California State University, Long Beach CA
3 California State University, Fullerton CA
4 University of California, Davis CA
5 California State University, Stanislaus CA
6 California State Polytechnic University, Pomona CA
7 California State University, Fresno CA
8 California State University, Northridge CA
9 California State University, Sacramento CA
10 University of Washington WA

There is, however, an East Coast fly in the West Coast ointment. The No. 1 position goes to a New York school — Baruch College, part of the City University of New York family. With a net price of just $3,562 a year and a median debt load among first-generation students of $9,500, Baruch could top the list based on sheer affordability alone. Plus, just over half its enrollment consists of first-generation students.

The University of Washington rounds out the top 10, boasting an above-average percentage of first-generation college students who manage to complete their degree within six years, as well as a relatively high five-year repayment rate. This data suggests that even though the school may be more expensive upfront than most in the top 10, students’ experiences at UW are reliably leading them to the academic and financial success they need to pay off their loans.

Attending the best private colleges for first-generation students will take you to Utah or Idaho

For students set on a private college, first-generation friendliness is a little harder to find. The highest any private school appears in the rankings is at No. 38 — Utah’s Brigham Young University.

In fact, all three of the top-rated private colleges for first-generation students will take them to the intermountain west:

  • Brigham Young University, Utah: No. 38 overall
  • Western Governors University, Utah: No. 40 overall
  • Brigham Young University-Idaho: No. 42 overall

While the relative merits for each school, from a first-generation college student perspective, vary, it’s noteworthy that two of the three are sponsored by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The median debt loan for first-generation students is less than $10,000 at all three institutions. And although BYU’s main Utah campus has an extremely low rate of first-generation student enrollment (13.8%), its five-year repayment rate is among the best across the 300 schools at 83.6%.

Of the three, Western Governors University enjoys the highest percentage of first-generation college student enrollment — almost half the student body (47.1%). This could be because the institution is an online school; remote learning may increase accessibility for first-generation students with existing family commitments.

MORE: Cheapest colleges where online-only students can study for less than $5,000 a year

Top-ranking colleges for first-generation students (by metric)

Each metric Student Loan Hero researchers looked at was weighted equally, so schools rose to the top of the list for various reasons. That said, here are the schools that came in first for each metric.

  • Percentage of first-generation students: California State University, Los Angeles (61.5%)
  • Median debt load for first-generation students: New York City College of Technology ($6,500)
  • Percentage of first-generation students who graduated within six years at the original institution: University of Notre Dame (93.5%)
  • Five-year repayment rate for first-generation students: Boston College (91.7%)
  • Net price: Lehman College ($1,814)

Ohio has strong representation among worst private colleges for first-generation students

Although Ohio’s tagline may be “Find it here,” students may want to look elsewhere when it comes to a first-generation college education — Ohio is highly represented among the worst 10 schools for such students, per Student Loan Hero’s ranking.

This may come as a surprise, given the Midwest state’s relatively affordable cost of living. But along with relatively low percentages of enrolled first-generation students, these schools also rank poorly for five-year repayment rates and the percentage of first-generation students who complete their degree within six years at the original institution — which may suggest higher rates of dropouts or transfers.

10 worst colleges for first-generation students
Rank School State
1 Miami University OH
2 Savannah College of Art and Design GA
3 Tulane University LA
4 Liberty University VA
5 University of Massachusetts Amherst MA
6 Kent State University OH
7 The University of Alabama AL
8 North Carolina A&T State University NC
9 Bowling Green State University OH
10 Western Michigan University MI

For example, just a little more than a third of first-generation students at Kent State University (36.6%) completed their degrees within six years without dropping out or transferring; for context, the average of all schools ranked is 52.4%. In addition, each of the lowest-ranked Ohio schools has median debt loads of more than $15,000 for first-generation attendees.

The worst-of list is rounded out by a smattering of schools across the South, as well as one in Massachusetts and one in Michigan. Still, no state besides Ohio is represented more than once in the bottom 10.

Bottom-ranking colleges for first-generation students (by metric)

Just as we collected the best-ranked school for each specific metric, here are the worst:

  • Percentage of first-generation students: University of Notre Dame (10.2%)
  • Median debt load for first-generation students: Syracuse University ($24,829)
  • Percentage of first-generation students who graduated within six years at the original institution: Georgia Gwinnett College (6.5%)
  • Five-year repayment rate for first-generation students: American Public University System (26.9%)
  • Net price: University of Miami ($46,949)

Full rankings

4 tips for first-generation college students

Applying to — and completing — college is a difficult and labor-intensive endeavor for anyone, but it can be especially challenging for first-generation students. Here are some tips to help make the process a little less overwhelming and stack the odds in your favor:

  • Apply to the right schools. While reading a list like this one is a great start, it’s also a good idea to check with individual schools you’re interested in to see if they offer any first-generation-specific resources. Texas A&M, University of Colorado and Rhode Island College are among dozens of schools nationally that award first-generation student scholarships. “Families should ask admissions and financial aid administrators at each school about the ways in which they support first-gen students,” says Andrew Pentis, a Student Loan Hero senior writer. “Schools that don’t answer that question well might be left off your college list.”
  • Get help from outside sources. Without parents who’ve gone through college applications firsthand, first-generation college students may have trouble with steps like filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) or finding scholarship opportunities. Even high school guidance counselors might not be much help, Pentis warns, as they’re often overworked and unable to meet the needs of the many families they work with. Still, further resources are available: Beyond 12, College Greenlight, QuestBridge, Strive for College and Student Success Agency are just a few of the organizations that help first-gen students fill in the gaps, according to Pentis. Others include the Center for First-Generation Student Success, the First Generation Foundation and the First Generation Civil Rights Fellowship. “Fortunately, many of the advice and services offered by these groups are free of charge,” he says.
  • Start at community college. Students of any background can stand to save serious money on their overall college experience by starting at a community college and transferring to a four-year institution later. In addition, Pentis points out, this can allow students to “test out” a potential major and figure out if it’s actually what they want to pursue before they invest the big bucks into studying it at a university.
  • Get on top of student loans right away. Most students will need some financial aid to pay for college — and repaying those loans is a lofty and challenging goal for any student, first generation or otherwise. “Talking to college financial aid administrators, federal loan servicers and certified student loan counselors, as well as researching loan repayment strategies, are all great steps to take,” Pentis says. Taking those steps as soon as possible after, and even during, school can help you get ahead of the five-figure debt totals that American students average.