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First Generation College Students Experience More Anxiety

Early identification of risks can help ease the transition to college life.

Key points

  • First generation college students are those whose parents/guardians have not completed a four-year degree.
  • First generation students are a vulnerable population; they are more likely to have difficulty in college.
  • Identifying areas of elevated risk can help lessen the stress of the college transition.
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By Stacey LeVan, M.Ed.

As a returning adult learner working on a master’s degree in 2020, I learned a term I had not known previously—First Generation College Student (FGCS). I became entranced; I was this person. I completed my bachelor’s degree in 1998, and as a student who had no college-educated parent or guardian, it was a struggle at times. I had only one other college-educated relative, an uncle, and at times needed to ask him questions that some of my peers could find answers to more easily. However, at that time, no one in higher education thought that someone in my “category” needed extra support, or if they had, it was not known to me. So, in 2020, as a master’s degree student at the age of 45, this term became synonymous with my experiences (some quite challenging).

FGCSs are one of the most vulnerable student groups in higher education and represent approximately one-third of all college students (Peralta & Klonowski, 2017). These students are at risk for elevated anxiety symptoms (Cataldi, et. al., 2018). However, it is unknown whether this risk emerges prior to college, during early to mid-adolescence, a developmental period marked by a dramatic increase in anxiety onset. Anxiety symptoms pertaining to school performance, navigating academic and social environments, and avoiding school due to these worries span across multiple anxiety disorder subtypes, for example, generalized and social anxiety. For potential FGCS, any small amount of anxiety surrounding attending special events, information sessions, or targeted social gatherings can have potential consequences for their transition to college life. This transition period is important for their continued success and retention.

Perhaps it was serendipity, because during my grad studies, I started working in the Emotion Development Lab on a study about anxiety development in adolescents. I had access to a wide range of data from our study and combined with an interest in FGCS, I set out to discover what early traits exhibited in anxious teens may make the transition to college more difficult, particularly when those very same adolescents are future FGCS.

Less maternal education is associated with higher levels of anxiety in girls so this confirms that teens (but specifically girls) may have a difficult time separating when they themselves are first generation college students. We also asked specific questions in our study about school worry. While conducting a clinical interview with parents, we asked if the child worries about school. Parents who reported fewer years of schooling also reported that their child worried more about school. This suggests a pathway or process by which FGCS status may put children at higher risk for poor transitions to college. For instance, it could be that parents are communicating or modeling anxiety about school. Or it’s possible that parents are only perceiving that their child is worried about school because we did not find the same link with child report. So, parents may simply be projecting their own worries onto their child. There are many questions left to address in our work.

The vulnerabilities associated with FGCS status may begin in adolescence or earlier, highlighting the need for interventions targeting students before the transition to college. Having parents with fewer years of education may put teens at a disadvantage when managing school-related worries. The lack of research in this area points to a need to investigate and understand this possible relation further.

Our lab is starting a new questionnaire-based study that will extend this work. Some of these questions will explore family dynamics, support structures, education level of parents/guardians and potential barriers such as needing to commute or work while a student. FGCS are more vulnerable as a population due to financial, familial, and educational difficulties and often fall into other demographics, such as low socioeconomic status, that are associated with higher rates of drop out (Lohfink & Paulsen, 2005). Identifying the potential barriers will go a long way to helping families prepare their teens to have a successful college transition. Higher education institutions can also help by offering program support to ease this transition. Most of these programs are often delivered through or provided by an institution’s success center or through the student’s academic adviser. Knowledgeable academic advising is often the key to student retention (McFarlane, 2013). Much research has been conducted that highlights the correlation between program investment for FGCS and matriculation rates. However, we have much more to do.

About the guest author: Stacey LeVan joined the Emotion Development Lab in 2019 as a Project Manager. She is a two-time Penn State graduate with a B.S. in Human Development and Family Studies with an emphasis on Adolescent Development and a M.Ed. in Higher Education. Her research interests include First Generation College Students and their transition to college life.


Cataldi, E. F., Bennett, C. T., & Chen, X. (2018). First-generation: Students, college access, persistence, and post bachelor’s outcomes (NCES 2018-421). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.

Lohfink, M.M., and Paulsen, M.B. (2005). Comparing the determinants of persistence for first-generation and continuing-generation students. Journal of College Student Development, 46(4), 409–428.

McFarlane, B. L. (2013). Academic advising structures that support first-year student success and retention (Publication No. 3594951) [Doctoral dissertations, Portland State University]. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.

Peralta, K. J., & Klonowski, M. (2017). Examining conceptual and operational definitions of "first-generation college student" in research on retention. Journal of College Student Development, 58(4), 630-636.

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