Are you the first in your family to go to university?

Basic Guide by Jade Archer

Starting university can be a daunting experience for anyone but it can feel especially nerve-racking if you’re a ‘first generation’ student.

By that, I mean you’re the first in your family to attend university. It’s often thought there are more barriers facing first generation students when it comes to higher education; your parents’ attendance, or non-attendance at university can shape your behaviours and attitudes towards certain aspects of higher education such as financial support, researching courses, location of institutions and so on. From my personal experience, I would have to disagree with the idea that being a first-generation student puts you at a disadvantage. Here’s why…

Being the first in my immediate family to attend university, and coming from a single-parent background, my Mum couldn’t give me much knowledge or advice about going to university. My family were always completely supportive of my decision – but before I actually got to university, I stressed a lot about so many aspects of it, including finance, debt, whether I’d fit in, whether I’d even be able to cope with the level of study.

But, after a week or so of starting university, my 15 other housemates and I were getting to know one another, and I realised that several of us were first-generation students. In the academic year of 2015-16, more than 50 per cent of undergraduates came from families where neither parent had a bachelor’s degree, and more than 59 per cent of those undergraduates were also the first sibling in their family to go to university.

Numbers going up
In 2016, the number of first-generation students attending university had gone up by 42 per cent, compared with 2009. So, more and more first-generation students are attending higher education institutions each year. Like hundreds of other students, before starting university I believed that money would be my biggest problem but to my surprise, it wasn’t. I was awarded the highest maintenance loan possible because I came from a low-income household, plus a bursary for selecting Essex as my first choice, and I worked part-time throughout my degree.

Money worries
The second worry for me and my family was the debt that I was going to accumulate. After graduating, I had accumulated around £53,000 worth of debt from my three-year undergraduate course. When you initially hear that figure, it can knock you back a few steps, but researching into student finance and how you make repayments can eliminate that worry and panic.

It’s important to note that the Government only expects that around 30 per cent of current full-time students will repay their student loans in full; that leaves roughly 70 per cent of us who aren’t expected to repay our entire debt.

college students

Once you’ve completed your course and you’ve graduated, you’re only required to pay back your student loan once you’ve started to earn over £26,575 annually, or £2,214 monthly – NB this information is correct at the time of writing, please check the latest information on the student finance website and the Money Advice Service website.

Once you’ve started earning over this threshold, you’ll only pay back 9 per cent of any income that is above this threshold. So, if you’re taking home £2,250 per month, then you’ll repay £3 per month because £3 is 9 per cent of £36. When you look at student finance repayments this way, it’s clear to see that when you do start paying them back, the monthly deductions from your income will barely be detectable.

Unexpected obstacles
The only obstacle I stumbled across during university was finding a guarantor for my second- and third-year accommodation. In my first year, I lived on campus in student accommodation but for my second year, I had decided to move in to a six-bedroom house with my friends. As I had not rented a property before, I wasn’t aware of what a guarantor was, or why I needed one; I didn’t know that in order to rent most properties you need a guarantor.

A guarantor acts as a guarantee by providing assurance that the landlord will receive their rent on time, and that the property will be maintained correctly. Guarantors are usually required, by landlords and letting agents, to earn over a certain threshold in order to uphold their guarantee. Due to my low-income background and my small family, I was unable to provide a family member who could fill this role. Luckily enough, a member of one of my housemates’ family agreed to act as my guarantor for the duration of my studies.

There are also guarantor services that can provide students with a guarantor for a small charge. Of course, this issue was quite specific to my situation and won’t be an obstacle for every first-generation student, but it’s good to know before you’re at the letting agents. It’s important to note that any member of your family can act as your guarantor if their annual income is above the threshold.

Scholarships and bursaries
Many higher education institutions provide their students with scholarships and bursaries depending on their individual circumstances. Bursaries and scholarships work differently from loans in the way that they do not have to be paid back and are essentially free money.

Every higher education institution works differently in terms of how they distribute and allocate their scholarships or bursaries; some will automatically enrol you whereas others will require you to apply for them. The conditions and requirements for each bursary or scholarship can differ; many universities, such as Anglia Ruskin University, provide bursaries for students from low income backgrounds. There are also scholarships and bursaries that are directly for first-generation students such as the York Opportunity Fund and the Denton’s Bursary.

There are also several other routes that you can take to obtain financial support during your studies, including hardship loans directly from your university or loans from other organisations and charities. It’s a good idea to see what financial support you may be entitled to, as it could be more than you think. Why not start by checking out the Student Finance Calculator or your chosen institutions fees and funding page?

If you’d also like to know more about working part-time during your studies, check out my Basic Guide. 

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"From my personal experience, I would have to disagree with the idea that being a first-generation student puts you at a disadvantage."