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30 Incredible First-Generation Student College Options: Students From Non College Families Succeed At These Universities

First-generation college students are important. The growing economy of the world means that employers need increasing amounts of intelligent, well-trained people. But still, for someone who is the first person in their family to go to college, there are many hurdles to overcome. However, if you're determined to get a better education and achieve a great career, the opportunities are out there. In fact, it's much easier than you think. And, as this list reveals, many colleges have incredible ways of helping prospective students from non-typical backgrounds.

Some colleges are used to students whose families have never been to college. Others have started programs that are aimed at making first-generation college attendees more integrated. In fact, some states are filled with colleges that proactively want to take on more students from non-academic backgrounds. You just have to know where to look.

Up until now, identifying these first-generation, student-friendly colleges has been a challenge. The internet has many conflicting sources and guides to potential colleges that don't actually offer any concrete information. This list aims to correct that. We've scoured multiple sources and cross-referenced their statements with the recommended colleges themselves.

Whether you want to be an architect or a zoologist, we've tried to select a diverse range of college options, so that you have the best information and hopefully the perfect educational destination. But if none of the colleges below are right for you, then this list is still a resource that you can use. It will show you what the best colleges are doing for first-generation students, meaning that you'll know what to look for in your own options. The first steps to getting into the best possible college for you begin below.


The sources for our list are diverse. There are few comparable lists to this one, but and First Generation Foundation have both provided high-quality assessments. However, the colleges on these lists were only the starting point of our research. Other sources have come from analyzing data that would naturally include students from non-academic backgrounds, such as low-income student college recommendation lists. Additionally, recent newspaper articles that document the colleges that are implementing an ever more friendly atmosphere for students who are the first in their families to go to college also form a key part of our results.

Our sources are as follows:, 10 Great Colleges for First Generation Students:

College Greenlight, Best Colleges for Low-Income Students:

First Generation Foundation, Colleges & Universities:, Which Colleges Enroll First-Generation Students?:

The Washington Post, Low-income, first-generation students have - finally - established a beachhead at Ivy League schools. Now the real work starts:

USA Today, Is college worth it? Just ask first-generation students embarking on the American Dream:

Washington Monthly, 2018 College Guide and Rankings National Universities:

Washington Monthly, 2018 College Guide and Rankings Liberal Arts Colleges:

After finding the colleges that these sources agree to be the best for first-generation college students, we've sorted the results into the below list. The college choices are ranked from 30 to one. Each entry also includes a summary that shows why we've included the college. Overall, there are two kinds of colleges on our list: ones that enroll a lower percentage of students whose families haven't been to college but ensure that they succeed through support services; and ones take on a large number of non-academic background students and have lower graduation rates, but which are still respectable on a national scale.


30. Florida Institute of Technology


45% of the students at Florida Institute of Technology are from families who have no college attending parents. This is fortunate, as Washington Monthly considers this college to be the sixth best in the country for first-generation attendees. While no other methodology lists feature this college, there are certainly many reasons why it should be a premier destination for students, no matter their background. Perhaps the top reason is that Florida Institute of Technology is the best university for graduate median earnings in the state of Florida.

29. Blue Mountain College


Over half of this college's student body is made up of low-income Pell Grant recipients, according to College Greenlight. And one of the college's goal statements is to, "offer an affordable education for the greatest number of its applicants and remain competitive with peer institutions' costs." This means that the college takes on many first-generation students. Additionally, the college has a wide range of scholarship opportunities, meaning that many potential students from non-academic families can be given a unique opportunity to attend college that would not usually be available.

28. Grand Canyon University


Washington Monthly states that Grand Canyon University is the fifth best college for first-generation students and has a 49% enrollment of students whose parents didn't attend college. Grand Canyon University certainly has first-generation students in mind with its community outreach work. For example, it has the Students Inspiring Students Scholarship program, which takes on 200 local high school graduates who wouldn't have had the opportunity to study at college otherwise. Additionally, this college offers many online college programs, which can serve as an appealing alternative form of study to students from non-academic backgrounds.

27. University of Phoenix, Arizona


Washington Monthly states that this is the national university that is the best for first-generation students. It also notes that 54% of enrolled students at this college are from families whose parents didn't attend college. However, no other methodology sources feature it. And University of Phoenix, Arizona is certainly a college that some will find incredibly useful, while others will not. It's a for-profit college, where many of the degrees are online. In some corners, it is well regarded. For instance, the student review generated gives the college four stars out of five based on over 12,000 student reviews. And as well as being online, the University of Phoenix, Arizona's course offerings appeal to first-generation students in a number of ways. Its classes are shorter, with smaller course loads, and its professors have extensive experience in working with students from unique backgrounds.

26. University of Pikeville


The University of Pikeville tops Washington Monthly's list of the best liberal arts colleges for first-generation students. Over half of the students at this college are from families where neither parent went to college, and many of them benefit from a full scholarship that the college calls The Pikeville Promise. It's for low-income students who are Kentucky residents, but even if you're not a Kentucky local, you can probably access other forms of financial aid from the college. Additionally, the University of Pikeville's student services come highly recommended by current and former students. Olivia Charles says, "As a first-generation college student, I came to UPIKE with a lot of mixed emotions […] However, with the help of my Student Success advisor I found answers to all my questions."

25. University of Chicago


This is one of several colleges on this list that take on a small percentage of first-generation students but is included due to evidence of this changing. It is also included because there is strong evidence that the college really caters to its current students from non-academic backgrounds, no matter how small enrollment is. Washington Monthly notes that 13% of the college's students are first-generation. College Greenlight states that 14% of the college's students receive Pell Grants. Impressively, these students attain a 92% graduation rate. The Washington Post notes that recently, however, University of Chicago has hired Nelida Garcia, who was the founder of the Harvard First Generation Student Union when she studied at that college. Her current role is directly involved with bringing more students whose parents didn't go to college to the University of Chicago. One of the ways that this can be seen is through the college's establishment of a first generation, low income and immigrant network.

24. Salem College


Salem College's Pell Grant recipient cost is among the highest of College Greenlight's best colleges for low-income students, at $12,272. However, there are many reasons why first-generation students should consider attending this college. It's one of only four private colleges where more than half of students receive a Pell Grant, for example. Additionally, Washington Monthly named it the 12th best liberal arts college for non-academic background student performance. The college also runs the Salem Firsts program, which is a series of lunch and learn workshops which acclimatizes students unused to academics to the demands of college attendance.

23. Florida International University


As one of America's 10 largest colleges, it's great to see that Florida International University takes on so many first-generation students. College Greenlight reports that the total number of students receiving a Pell Grant stands at 58%. That many of these recipients are also students whose parents didn't go to college is backed up in a college news update from 2012, which stated that at the time, 53% of students were first-generation. Additionally, for low-income students, Florida International University costs $9,039. 53% of Pell Grant recipients graduate. And the college's First Generation Scholarship Program continues to gain strong support. In 2018, the state of Florida even decided to donate $2 per $1 donated to its First Generation Scholarship Program.

22. California State University, Stanislaus

Website notes that over 60% of California State University, Stanislaus students are the first in their family to attend college, making it the third highest four-year public college in terms of most first-generation students. However, what ensures its placement on this list is its relatively high graduation rate and incredibly cheap cost. According to College Greenlight, 53% of Pell Grant recipient college students graduate from this college, which is impressive for the number of non-academic background students it takes on. Additionally, the site notes that the price of this college for low-income students is only $3,794. As well as students, California State University, Stanislaus has many faculty and staff members who were themselves the first in their family to go to college, meaning that they can help its student body succeed.

21. College of the Ozarks


College of the Ozarks doesn't reveal the percentage of its students that are first-generation, but the Pell Grant data shows that it must be high. 62% of college students take Pell Grants, and 60% of these students graduate. However, this college's unique approach to college tuition and payment is not for everyone. College of the Ozarks is known as the, "work hard U." This is because the college doesn't charge students for its education. Instead, all students must work on campus. Additionally, it is a Christian college, which will clearly be suited to some people more than others.

20. University of California, Riverside


This is one of four public colleges on this list where over half of the student body comprises of low-income Pell Grant recipient students. College Greenlight states that 56% of enrolled students receive this grant. What's even more impressive is that 68% of these students graduate, which is 9% higher than the national average graduation rate. The college ensures that it achieves this high rate through a range of innovative initiatives. One is the college's campaign to identify first-generation student professors who are willing to be mentors to current students who are from a similar background.

19. University of Pennsylvania


This college's current first-generation student enrollment is somewhat low, but there are numerous signs that this is changing. Washington Monthly states that 18% of students are the first in their families to go to college and places it at 118th for the quality that it offers to these students. College Greenlight states that the number of Pell Grant recipients is lower, at 14%. But The Washington Post reports that in 2018, University of Pennsylvania hosted 1vyG, which is the, "largest conference for first-generation, low income (FGLI) students in the world!"

18. Brown University


Washington Monthly reports that 18% of students are the first in their family to go to college at Brown. The source names the college the 112th best for first-generation students. However, College Greenlight features it on its list of the best colleges for low-income students, noting that the college costs $3,186 for these students and results in a 93% graduation rate for this demographic. The Washington Post notes that there is an entire center for non-traditional students on campus. This center helps any student who comes from a background that means that they are not familiar with the college experience.

17. University of California, Irvine


USA Today names the various Universities of California as the engines of social mobility in its state. It also notes that across the entire University of California system, 42% of undergraduate students are first-generation. University of California, Irvine is definitely playing a strong role in that process. The college is Washington Monthly's 12th best college for students who are the first in their families to pursue higher education, noting that it has a slightly higher enrollment of this demographic when compared to the average University of California college, at 44%. And College Greenlight notes that 87% of low-income students graduate. Perhaps the best department for students whose parents didn't go to college at the University of California, Irvine is Social Sciences, where they've unrolled the First Generation First Quarter Challenge. This program aims to ensure that all first-generation students succeed in their first year.

16. Pomona College


The graduation rates at Pomona College are incredibly high. Washington Monthly states that 94% of those enrolled graduate within 8 years. It also notes that 23% of students are first-generation and ranks it the fourth-best liberal arts college for students of a non-academic background. College Greenlight reports that for Pell Grant recipients, the cost of tuition is $5,807. And Pomona College is incredibly dedicated to getting these students into high-quality careers. For example, it recently arranged a business trip to San Francisco for first-generation students, so that they could experience business activities that they may not have been familiar with.

15. University of Michigan, Ann Arbor


Peer support is the answer to the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor's first-generation college student success. Both and First Generation Foundation praise the college's support networks. They have been running for over a decade and create meetings, scholarship connections, academic resources, and events. College Greenlight notes that the college's cost for low-income students is $5,470 and its Pell Grant recipient graduation rate is 82%. However,'s findings mean that the college ranks lower on our list, as the research reveals that University of Michigan, Ann Arbor has one of the smallest percentages of students whose parents didn't attend higher education of any public college. But for students from non-academic backgrounds that do enroll in the college, success often follows, as the college's website is quick to show in its many testimonials.

14. Oberlin College


This college is one of several that are difficult for first-generation students to get into, but once they do, they are on a path to success. College Greenlight notes that low-income students pay $11,788 for tuition. But 89% of Pell Grant recipients graduate. First Generation Foundation notes that the campus of the college is incredibly friendly, inspiring and fun. However, notes that only 8.5% of Oberlin's students are the first in their families to go to college. However, there is strong evidence that Oberlin College is addressing its barriers to first-generation student entry. For instance, it now has the Multicultural Visit Program and First Gen/Low-Income in STEM event.

13. Harvard University


Harvard is undoubtedly still challenging for first-generation students. But it is included in this list due to evidence of working to address this challenge. Both First Generation Foundation and The Washington Post highlight groups within the college that are assisting with non-academic background student success, namely the First Generation Student Shared Interest Group and the Harvard First Generation Student Union. Harvard itself notes that its population of students who are the first in their family to attend college is now 15% and that it has implemented a range of resources for these students. However, it also acknowledges that it needs to do more for this demographic.

12. University of Illinois at Chicago


Almost half of the University of Illinois at Chicago's students are low-income Pell Grant recipients, according to College Greenlight. This means that first-generation college students won't feel like they're in the minority in terms of their background. Washington Monthly also holds this college in high regard due to its treatment of students from non-academic backgrounds, naming it the 24th best college for these students. First-generation students at the University of Illinois at Chicago benefit from a summer program that prepares them for the world of college before starting.

11. University of California, Merced


On College Greenlight's best public colleges for low-income students list, it reveals that the University of California, Merced has the highest number of Pell Grant Recipients, at 60%. Additionally, the cost of this college for low-income students is $8,720, and 59% of Pell Grant Recipients graduate. But the college also has many first-generation students who do not receive the Pell Grant. Overall, 72.3% of the college's students are the first in their family to attend college. If you want to be in a college that is filled with other non-academic background students, the University of California, Merced may be your best option!

10. Georgia Institute of Technology


Georgia Institute of Technology specializes in STEM degrees. This has benefited the college, as more first-generation students, in general, are choosing these subjects. In fact, College Greenlight states that 19% of Georgia Tech's attendees are now Pell Grant recipients. This may be because, as the old saying goes, it's cheaper in the South. Georgia Institute of Technology definitely seems to have taken this statement to heart, as College Greenlight also notes that the low-income student cost of the college is $6,138. First Generation Foundation commends Georgian Institute of Technology's FirstGen student community. In fact, the college has many examples of students from non-academic backgrounds succeeding.

9. Amherst College


Washington Monthly considers Amherst College to be the eighth best liberal arts college for first-generation students, with 22% of the student body being made up of this demographic. College Greenlight provides similar statistics on its best low-income colleges ranking, noting that 20% of students at Amherst receive Pell Grants. The net price for low-income students at this college is an incredibly affordable $3,700. The 6-year graduation rate for Pell Grant students is 94%. Amherst runs a range of events for students who are the first in their family to attend college to ensure that they feel welcomed. These include family meeting sessions, student receptions, and tent dinners.

8. Berea College


College Greenlight states that 83% of students at Berea receive Pell Grants. This is because the college is specifically designed to offer, "a high-quality education to academically promising students with limited economic resources." In fact, no student admitted to the college pays tuition for their years of study. This must also be a reason why Washington Monthly has named Berea the fifth best liberal arts college for first-generation students. And of the graduating students, 41% of the 2017 class was completely debt free. Also, 51% of students are the first in their family to attend college. This makes it one of the highest percentages of non-academic students at a private college in America.

7. University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill


College Greenlight notes that 21% of students at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill are Pell Grant recipients. The cost of the college for these students is just $3,823, and graduation for them stands at 86%. First Generation Foundation backs up these statistics, noting that approximately 20% of students are the first in their family to attend college. The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill itself considers its first-generation students as being, "integral to our campus culture, contributing greatly to our diversity and intellectual life." The college's support services for these students are also incredible. One example is The Hogan Book Award, which provides free textbooks and course material to first-generation STEM college students.

6. Duke University


With a low-income student price of $8,777 and a 94% graduation rate for Pell Grant recipients, College Greenlight highlights that Duke University is a great choice for students who are the first in their family to go to college. First Generation Foundation also notes the Duke's network for non-academic students is one of America's strongest. And Duke University has recently been able to take on even more of these students, thanks to a $20 million donation from the highly successful first-generation student alumnus David Rubenstein. This new scholarship "covers the full cost of a Duke education."

5. University of California, San Diego


University of California, San Diego is Washington Monthly's 10th best college for first-generation students, noting that 36% of students are the first in their family to go to college. This population makes up a large proportion of the Pell Grant recipients of the college, which College Greenlight states are 43% of the overall student body. The source also states that the tuition cost of this college is $8,362 for Pell Grant students and that these students enjoy an 84% graduation rate. The University of California news feed states that students whose parents didn't attend college are doing so well at San Diego because of a program that pairs them up "with peer and professional ‘success coaches.'"

4. Cornell University

Website notes that Cornell has the McNair Scholars Program, which aides low income first-generation students in participating in medical degrees. College Greenlight notes that the average cost for low-income students at Cornell is $11,665, which is more than many colleges, but it is worth it. The college's Pell Grant receiving students enjoy a 92% graduation rate. Lastly, Washington Post notes that the college is one of several that are hiring staff who were themselves the first in their family to go to college, in an attempt to cater their services to these students. Further research reveals that Cornell is doing much more for first-generation student success, such as its First In Class Program, which allows students to, "come together to share each other's goals, learn about resources and opportunities at Cornell, network and work toward ensuring their success in college and beyond."

3. Stanford University


Thanks to its needs-blind admissions system, Stanford University costs low-income students on average just $2,841, according to College Greenlight. And the support system in place ensures that 91% of Pell Grant recipients graduate. Stanford's admissions and support systems are also praised in First Generation Foundation. Stanford has an entire office dedicated to diversity and first-generation students, which has been in existence since 2011. This office shows that the college considers social class to be an important factor in diversity issues, which is a mindset that many colleges could benefit from.

2. University of California, Berkeley


Many methodology lists cite the University of California, Berkeley's financial aid as a reason why its first-generation students do so well. For instance, notes that it runs the Incentive Awards Program, which gives up to $32,000 to students who are the first in their families to go to college. College Greenlight states that the net price of college for low-income students at Berkeley is $8,607 and that graduation among Pell Grant recipient students is an incredible 88%. states that 37% of aided students at the college are first-generation. Washington Monthly names it the seventh best college for students from non-academic backgrounds. Overall, 17% of the University of California, Berkeley's students are the first in their families study higher education.

1. Yale University


Though it's an Ivy League, world-class college, Yale is ensuring that first-generation students have everything they need to succeed. College Greenlight states that the cost for low-income college students is just $3,918. Even better, its Pell Grant recipient graduation rate is one of the highest in the country at 96%. And the college's aid towards students whose parents haven't gone to college just keeps on getting better and better. For instance, the college hosts a first-generation student conference, which shares the insights of many successful Yale alumni. also commends Yale's efforts in aiding non-academic background students. Lastly, The Washington Post reports that Yale has started a new program where it will cover low-income students' hospitalization insurance, saving them an additional $2,332 a year.

By BVS Staff
October 2018

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