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Navigating barriers to higher education for first-generation and minority students

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All students deserve equitable access to pursue higher education, regardless of their background or circumstances. Throughout K–12 education, educators and school professionals can provide support for students to better prepare them for college and career readiness. Assisting with standardized testing, offering ACT/SAT preparation, helping students find resources for themselves, providing support with the application process for schools, encouraging participation in school activities, and providing leadership opportunities are all ways schools with strong college preparation programs typically support their students. But it is equally important to prepare our students to navigate challenges and be successful after they have been accepted to a higher education institution. Some common barriers include:

  • Financial strain from unexpected costs such as textbooks, technology, food, and transportation
  • Lack of familial support in planning or navigating the higher education system
  • Feelings of anxiety or a lack of belonging

Being well-informed ourselves is imperative so we can offer the right support for our students. Learn more about the challenges that first-year college students, particularly first-generation and minority students, often face and how we can help students better prepare for them.

Financial challenges and hidden costs

For all first-time college and university students, many of the costs outside of their tuition may come as a surprise, and it is important for students to be aware of what these “hidden costs” of higher education consist of so they can plan for them early. 

First-generation college and EL or minority students are statistically more likely to come from lower-income families or may have fewer adults around them who have first-hand experience in higher education that can help them prepare for or meet these financial challenges. Some of these costs that students should be aware of include:


For any students living on or near their school campus, they will be paying for a meal plan or their own groceries, many for the first time. This is an often overlooked expense for new college students, and learning to meal plan and budget for grocery shopping is an important skill.


For any in-person or hybrid higher education program, transportation costs will arise. Students may need to commute from home or their school housing to classes, which might mean paying for gas and car expenses, rideshare programs, or public transportation. If they have a car at school, they will also likely need to pay for parking passes around campus. Many students will attend a school that is not local and will need to travel to campus and plan for transportation expenses going back and forth from school to home over breaks. 


Although students need at least one textbook for almost every college course, they are not included in the cost of tuition and can be an overwhelming purchase that students have to make at the start of each semester. Having the right materials is necessary to avoid falling behind or being unable to complete a course, and an important expense to take into account when preparing for higher education.


In this post-Covid world, education has become increasingly tied to virtual and online learning. Even students who are enrolled in person will likely have some online classes via Zoom, assignments that require web and email access, and need access to a computer for writing and submitting assignments and assessments. Many recent high school graduates may have used a family computer or computers supplied by their high school or district and will need to purchase technology before starting their higher education journey. 

Furnishing and decorating school housing:

If students are living on campus their first year, they are expected to provide some of their own furniture, including lamps, bedding, rugs, additional seating, and any decor. For students with housing that includes a kitchen, they will need to supply kitchen utensils and cooking supplies. Most first-year college students are living on their own for the first time and will need to purchase all of these items. There will likely be additional costs associated with cleaning supplies, laundry, and personal care items to consider when budgeting. 

Students can utilize budgeting apps to break down these costs and determine the best way to pay for them. There are also ways to limit or reduce spending through using coupons and discount grocery stores, opting for carpooling or rideshare programs over private transportation, renting rather than purchasing textbooks when possible, and even participating in work-study programs at their school to help with some of these costs. Educators can seek out and share scholarship opportunities with students that can be used to offset many of these transitional costs as well.

Self-esteem and anxiety

For first-generation college students and students who come from diverse backgrounds, it is common to experience feelings of anxiety and discomfort around entering higher education. Without guidance from parents who have navigated higher education themselves, these students may feel lost or overwhelmed. These students may have less cultural capital or clarity around what to expect than their peers.

In higher education, people of color and minority students have been historically underrepresented, and it can be an intimidating space to enter and fear being treated differently. It is important for students to have safe outlets and people in their lives that they can talk to about these feelings, often a trusted teacher or guidance counselor, that can reassure them and help better equip them with the right information so they feel comfortable and prepared to begin school. It is equally important to reaffirm that these students are capable of succeeding in these settings and developing a strong sense of belonging.

“Your grit, resilience, and multiculturalism will continue to serve you well throughout your life if you choose to see them as the assets that they are. And as you prepare to transition to life as a college student, remember that it's okay to feel out of place. It's okay to feel overwhelmed sometimes. But it's not okay to silence your voice because of these feelings. You belong in every room you enter. Your dreams are valid, your struggle is real, and your success is deserved. You have the power and the right to shape your future. To contribute to the conversation and to make a difference.” - Shirley Cardona, VP of Marketing at Ellevation.