A Guide for First-Generation Students

03/04/24 | 7 MIN READ

A first-generation college student is defined as any student whose parents did not receive a four-year degree and the first person who is attaining a four-year degree or beyond.

A first-generation college student might be the first in their family to receive an undergraduate degree, but they could also be the first in their family to receive a graduate degree, or it might be the individual’s first time for both. Since, an undergraduate degree is the stepping stone to other degrees, first-generation students working towards their four-year degree might face different barriers and challenges. This guide aims to offer current and future first-generation students resources and advice about the many items to consider in college. While this guide is broad, it offers a more comprehensive understanding of the many resources available to help first-generation students. 

Financial Aid

Most first-generation college students often wonder how they will financially support themselves and a college education. More often than not, we do not know what financial aid will be offered to us and how these financial resources can help fund our undergraduate education. The good news is that all institutions have some form of a financial aid office (it might just have a specific name), and financial aid will offer several options for you to fund your education. Options that might be offered to you in a financial aid package include Cal Grant, Pell Grant, loans, and outside scholarships. It is important to understand what each of these financial aid sources means because the sources of financial aid might affect the terms and conditions for its use, disbursement, and obligations. 

Cal Grant 

Cal Grant is a California state-offered financial aid program by the California Student Aid Commission and offers money to students to attend their four-year program at any of the California undergraduate colleges. Programs where the student is eligible to receive aid are the University of California, California State University, or California Community College. To check for eligibility for a Cal grant, the student must fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) or California Dream Act Application (CADAA). Cal Grant has three types of awards Cal Grant A, Cal Grant B, and Cal Grant C. Factors that are heavily considered in your application are your GPA, the type of California College you list/attend, whether you are a recent high school graduate, and since it is a need-based grant, the family’s income is also considered. Please keep in mind Cal Grant is only for California residents. If you are not a California Resident or looking to attend college at an institution in a different state, you might consider checking if other states offer similar financial aid programs. 

Cal Grant A

Cal Grant A helps pay for tuition and other additional fees at four-year colleges for students working towards their bachelor’s degree. Every student's award amount may vary by type of college — for 2022-2023, Cal Grants are up to $12,570 at a University of California campus, up to $5,742 at a California State University campus, and up to $9,220 at independent colleges. These award amounts are distributed to first cover tuition, and then whatever is left applies to campus fees. In the case that there are additional funds left over the financial aid department will disperse the rest of the awarded money to the student in the form of a financial aid refund. The refund is meant to help cover the student’s book fees, housing fees, or transportation fees.

To qualify, the student is obligated to fall within the GPA requirement. If you’re applying using your high school GPA, you must have at least a 3.0 GPA; if applying using your community college GPA, you must have at least a 2.4 GPA. Cal Grant A recipients are required to hold a certain GPA, be in good academic standing at the end of each quarter/semester, and make satisfactory progress toward their degree. Since the goal of Cal Grant is to help students with a course of study, their courses must lead directly to an associate or bachelor’s degree or qualify you for transfer from a community college to a bachelor’s degree program. The grant is also only available for up to four years, hence why the student is required to make satisfactory progress towards their degree because it ensures they are on track to graduate within the time allotted. Generally, this means you are taking around 15 units of coursework per semester or 12 units of coursework per quarter. 

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Cal Grant B

Cal Grant B provides a living allowance of up to $1,648 and also covers tuition and fee assistance. Cal Grant B, however, only covers tuition and provides fee assistance to those attending a two-year or four-year college after their first year. Most first-year students will get a living allowance only. This living allowance can be used to help pay for an expense of their choice. It is limited and they can choose to use it for either their living expenses (housing, food, etc), books, supplies and transportation, or tuition and fees. When and if the award is renewed beyond the first year, the student will receive the living allowance in addition to tuition and fee awards. In the case that tuition and fees are awarded the student will receive similar or the same financial aid assistance as Cal Grant A recipients. These numbers are as follows. Up to $12,570 at a UC campus, up to $5,742 at a CSU campus, and up to $9,220 at independent colleges.

To qualify for Cal Grant B the student is required to earn at least a 2.0 GPA. As for the degree they are pursuing, Cal Grant B tends to be more flexible. A student does not just have to be pursuing a technical degree to be considered for Cal Grant B. The student can receive support if they are also looking to receive support for vocational programs or a career in education.

Cal Grant C

Cal Grant C exists to only assist with the costs of a technical or career education. For recipients who qualify the award can be renewed making those eligible for the award for up to two years. Cal Grant C will provide up to $1,094 for books, tools, and equipment—and up to $2,462 more for tuition and fees. 

Only those who will be attending a school other than a California Community College can qualify. Note that those attending community colleges on the route to transfer to a four-year school do not have to pay tuition. The California Community College system does not charge tuition, and your fees are waived as a Cal Grant recipient. For more information about technical career-driven assistance please see Cal Grant A or B, as this grant you are more likely to receive. Those who qualify will receive a notification via email or a mailed letter to complete the online Cal Grant C Supplement in Web Grants. The online application must be submitted by the deadline. With Cal Grant C a GPA is not required to apply, but anyone is welcome to apply and should because applying means you can only be considered for the award and you have nothing to lose from submitting. Please apply though to ensure you are eligible. 

Pell Grant

A Pell Grant is an award only for undergraduate students who display exceptional financial need and have not earned a bachelor's, graduate, or professional degree. The Pell Grant is provided by the federal government’s Department of Education and is based on the FAFSA report. As of 2022-2023, the maximum Pell Grant that can be rewarded is $6,895. 


As a student, the financial aid and scholarship office is only allowed to offer students financial assistance that meets their need-base. That means by federal law they are restricted from dispersing more money to you than you financially need/qualify to receive. To ensure that a student can still attend college, even if they do not qualify for financial aid, the school may offer student loans. Two types of student loans are available to you, but drastically different in their terms. These loans are subsidized versus unsubsidized loans.


Subsidized federal student loans are only offered to students pursuing undergraduate degrees for the first time and demonstrate financial need. With this loan, the U.S. Department of Education subsidizes—pays the interest on—your loan while you are in school, grace periods, and during periods of deferment. The subsidized loan is offered to those who qualify at the same time that their FAFSA application is evaluated.


An unsubsidized loan is borrowed through the direct loan program and it is offered to undergraduate, graduate, and professional students. This loan is a low, fixed interest rate with flexible repayment terms. You also do not need to show financial need to qualify. The largest factor that makes a loan unsubsidized is that the borrower begins to incur interest immediately after accepting the loan. This loan is not ideal but can be an advantage to individuals who need larger sums of money and cannot demonstrate financial need. Moreover, borrowing unsubsidized loans is generally better than private student loans. Unsubsidized loans will generally offer lower interest rates and can be more flexible with repayment terms. For instance, you can request deferments or the government can pause repayment, which is a rare case. 

Outside Scholarships 

Lastly, if needed, there are always plenty of outside scholarships that you can consider applying for to support your educational endeavors. Some scholarships come in smaller amounts to help with books and basic needs, while others can cover your entire tuition or housing/living expenses. Keep in mind, that undergraduate scholarships are usually major-based, but not always. If applying for an outside scholarship it is up to the individual to read the qualifications and requirements for their application. Some outside scholarships to consider applying for are the SMART scholarship program, Great Minds in STEM scholarships, employee-based scholarships, and community-based scholarships.

Read More 🔬: Scholarships



Another aspect to consider when pursuing an undergraduate degree is your housing situation. As a student, you can choose between on-campus housing or off-campus housing. 


On-campus housing is usually run through the University or partners with the school to provide housing to students. On-campus housing includes dorms, apartments, or a Co-Op (community housing programs). Depending on the campus you attend, some might require on-campus dorms for first-year students. After you can transition to apartments or Co-op housing. On-campus dorming is usually the most expensive option. Dorming has high costs because you will have a fully furnished room, access to the internet, other utilities, and a meal plan. While on-campus apartments are pricey, they are usually more affordable than dorming. Co-ops, on the other hand, are meant to be the lowest-cost housing because it is a space that helps low-income students with affordable housing. 

Read More 🔬: Freshman Tips. 


Off-campus housing can be living in an apartment not run by the University, a community house, or even living at home. It is in simple terms any housing not affiliated with the campus you attend. 

On-campus apartments and off-campus apartments can be about the same depending on where you live. Costs are always relative and depend on factors like how far away you are from campus, what amenities are available (pool and gym), and of course how many people you live with. Off-campus housing can either be drastically cheaper or much more expensive depending on how you cut costs. If a student wants to live in off-campus housing consider that your monthly bill extends beyond a single monthly payment. Instead, monthly costs will also be associated with utilities (trash and mail service, gas, electricity, water, internet, and groceries). Always keep these extra charges in the back of your mind when deciding the cost-benefit.

First Gen photo workout (1)

Need-Based Centers

As a first-generation student, if you ever need basic needs or items to help you progress in your college career, there are also need-based centers available. Basic needs you might find are initiatives that offer access to food pantries, professional closets, or books and supplies. Food pantries will be open during certain hours for students who can go to a distribution center and receive food. Professional closets can usually be found through on-campus centers that focus on promoting professional advancements. Books and supplies are other resources that can be provided through on-campus organizations that promote success by providing these resources to students.

Campus Programs 

That being said if you ever feel like meeting more individuals who can share information about being a first-generation college student, most colleges will celebrate and promote additional resources during First-Gen Week. Please consider visiting your campus during first-generation week when the time comes. If not, you can always find and join a campus program or ask your school administration office about their programs that support first-generation students. Most campuses will have some form of initiative that can help you navigate your college experience.



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