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Parents or guardians of first-generation college students tend to be very invested in their student’s success. And that’s a good thing!

College is an amazing opportunity to learn, grow, and make life-changing friends and memories. But since many parents of first-generation college students can’t speak from experience about thriving in college, it can feel daunting to try and share good advice.

The most important thing you can do for them is simply be available for support. Having a safe space to process all the change and challenges as well as the fun and success can make an enormous difference for college students. Below are five specific pieces of advice you can share to help them get everything they can out of college.

1) Get academic support early

The majority of students will find some classes much more difficult than others, and there is nothing wrong with that. Tell your student to seek out support sooner than later. If they wait until they’re failing a class near the end of the semester, it may be too late to turn things around. But if they find help via tutoring as soon as they recognize they are struggling with a class, they’re much more likely to improve their grades.

In many cases, struggling with a class has less to do with the subject matter, and more to do with understanding a professor’s expectations or teaching style. College professors usually have a number of “office hours” available every week to meet with students. Encourage your student to take advantage of those hours to get the help they need. There’s no shame in getting support, only wisdom.

2) Choose the right friends

There’s a popular saying when it comes to teenagers and young adults, “Show me your friends, and I’ll show you your future.” That’s never more true than in college. Advise your student to choose the people they hang out with wisely. If they hang out with kind, responsible, motivated students, they’re far more likely to share those values and get significantly more value out of college.

3) Don’t take on too much work

First-generation students often feel a lot of pressure and stress about succeeding in college. When that’s combined with financial limitations that require getting a part-time job, they’re susceptible to becoming overwhelmed. Maintaining a healthy workload is crucial to thriving in college. Tell your student to be careful not to stretch themselves too thin. If taking one less class that semester or reducing the hours they spend at work can protect their mental health, it’s usually worth the trade-off.

4) Learn how to manage stress

Speaking of mental health, it’s important that your student learn how to take care of themselves when things get difficult. Stress is unavoidable in college, and your student will inevitably face challenging circumstances. There’s nothing wrong with reaching or surpassing their limits—what’s important is how they respond to those circumstances. Encourage your student to take the breaks they need, find fun and rewarding activities to balance their schedule, and reach out for help from friends, family, or professional counseling when they need it.

5) Be clear about your financial aid

Financial aid packages for college can be very confusing, especially for parents of first-generation students. Unfortunately, many colleges fail to adequately explain the scholarship and loan options available to pay for college—some simply send you applications for federal loan programs and ask you and your student to sign the dotted line. Do your research and ask the financial aid office plenty of questions about the options available and what it will look like to make payments now or in the future. If you’re interested in general tips for making college more affordable, you can also check out our article on paying for college without student loans.

In the end, your first-generation student’s success in college depends on their own hard work and responsibility. But any help and advice you can give them will only leave them that much more prepared for a rewarding college experience.


ScholarShare 529, California’s college savings plan, publishes the College Countdown website and articles to provide resources and to ease the minds of parents preparing to send their kids to college. Visit ScholarShare 529.