Marketing to first-generation students

First-gen students currently make up 56% of college undergraduates in the US, and early data suggests this number is likely to rise.

Higher education often has the biggest impact on the lives of first-generation students. They don’t hail from families with traditions of attending the same storied institution over several generations, or have a close family member to turn to for advice on college decisions. They are trailblazers and many feel immense pressure to succeed. 

The term ‘first-generation’ student is a tricky one; definitions vary from campus to campus. Some define first-gen students as those with parents or guardians who never attended college, others use the definition for students whose parents or guardians never graduated with a degree. These students are often minorities and are more likely to be older, with 28% aged 30 or above and almost one-third of them have dependents. Unsurprisingly, first-gen students are more likely to come from lower-income households, with the median family income being $36,200 less than continuing-generation students. 

This is an audience group that, unlike other students, has unique barriers to entry when journeying through the student funnel from awareness to enrollment. For university marketers, this means a different approach is needed when targeting and recruiting. 


Strategies for recruiting more first-generation students


By understanding who these students are, higher ed marketers can adapt their university’s marketing and recruitment strategy to the needs and background of first-gen students – which will make a big difference in their likelihood to enroll.

Where to target to reach first-gen students

In terms of where these students are physically applying to, the top spots may surprise you. The states in which there are a high proportion of first-gen students are mainly down South, but top of a recent Forbes list is California and Rhode Island. Other states with high percentages include Arizona, Nevada, Texas, Louisiana and Kentucky.

But for HEIs outside of these areas, this isn’t a green light to hit go on a campaign targeting these states. First-gen students are far likelier to opt for more local higher education options for a variety of different reasons. They are more price-sensitive than their continuing-generation counterparts, and with often less financial support from their families, first-gen students are likely to go for more local colleges to save on accommodation and travel costs.

This is evident by how 70% of students attending a private, non-profit 2-year institution are first-generation, which is a big difference when compared with private, non-profit 4-years, where the number is 41%. A far larger proportion of this student group are opting for the community college route instead of the traditional college experience, the latter of which often comes with leaving town.

For university marketers, this means that the most effective first-gen recruitment drives will often start in your own backyard and you don’t need to go too far afield when targeting. For instance, 4-year institutions looking for first-generation students to recruit should start at their local and regional community colleges.


Communication channels

Given the lack of family experience in college admissions, first-gen students naturally rely heavily on communication coming from universities. A recent Niche study that surveyed nearly 11,000 first-generation students found that 94% expect to receive emails and 82% want text messages from prospective schools. When targeting the first-gen funnel, don’t be afraid to utilize more direct communication channels. They want all the help they can get.

College and transfer counselors also play a large role in guiding first-generation students through the college application process. This means you shouldn’t neglect this channel in your outreach, as they act as a trusted third-party source for these students. Invest the time to set up a network of these counselors who can act as channels to distribute any need-to-know information, from financial aid to on-campus support services.



From a messaging standpoint, be delicate around the cost of your institution. The same Niche survey found that approximately 76% of first-generation students eliminated colleges from consideration based on sticker prices, and less than half said they would consider applying to a college with a total published cost of over $30,000 per year. Leading with net tuition after financial aid is imperative to not alienating students from these lower socio-economic backgrounds with intimidating fees. 

As we have pointed out, these students are likely to be local and living at home to save on costs. By highlighting the easy commute and transport links to and from your college campus, as well as the support and community aspects of college life – you can cater to this audience in your campaign messaging. 

Being a first-gen student can be isolating on campus. Juggling other commitments like work or child care are concerns not even on the continuing generation student’s radar. Building communities of other first-gen students on your campus helps students deal with the added pressures of being the first in their family to pursue a college degree. When it comes to showcasing these communities, using UGC and testimonials from your existing first-gen student body shows, rather than tells, that your institution is welcoming to these students. 


Student funnel behaviors

Traveling for campus visits is a privilege that lots of continuing-generation students can take for granted. According to a recent study, first-generation students were less likely to visit campuses before applying because of the associated costs. This doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t meet you face-to-face though, as first gen students were more likely to attend college fairs and meet with college recruiters.

The freedom to apply to multiple colleges is another privilege that this audience group usually cannot afford. First-generation students will apply to fewer colleges than their counterparts due to the cost of applying. Waiving these fees for students from lower socio-economic backgrounds will encourage students to be more open to applying. 


The number of first-generation students in the US is on the up. By shifting messaging and channel strategies to target these students, your institution can let it be known that you offer a welcoming community to these students. 

If your institution is needing guidance on how to make these adjustments in strategies, an experienced partner can help. Get in touch to discuss how Hybrid could help your institution.