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For some students, the idea of going to college is expected; their parents or siblings may be graduates. As a result, their families may make choices based on prior family college experiences. The choices that first-in-family college students make and the ways they pay for school, however, can be very different.

According to How America Pays for College 2018, four in five families (79%) with a college student in the 2017-18 school year have had at least one parent who attended college (second generation). That prior experience with college can have a big impact. Families with a parent who attended college are more likely to feel confident in how they’re paying for college, more likely to apply for scholarships, and spend slightly less on their college education.

Parents of first-in-family students contribute more money and borrow less

Parents who have not attended college themselves (first in family) differ greatly from second generation, both in the amount and the source of funds they contribute toward college expenses. Parents who did not attend college contribute more out-of-pocket money than those who attended college, and they borrow less.

On average, first-in-family parents

On average, second-generation parents

How the typical family pays charts

First-in-family students borrow less

Student borrowing may include federal and private student loans, credit cards, or other types of borrowing. First-in-family students borrow $3,345, which pays 12 percent of costs. Second-generation students borrow $3,993, which pays 15 percent of costs. Students from both groups contribute similar amounts from their own income and savings ($3,109 for first generation and $3,421 for second generation), which pay 11 percent and 13 percent of their respective costs

Second-generation students seem to be savvier scholarship searchers

While they borrowed less, students who are the first in their family to attend college are also less likely than second-generation students to use college scholarships to help meet the cost of college: only five in 10 first-in-family students applied for scholarships, compared with seven in 10 second-generation students.

Scholarship activity by parent college experience chart

Scholarships pay $6,825, or 24 percent of costs, for families in which the parent did not attend college. For second-generation families, scholarships pay $7,529 toward college, meeting 29 percent of the total cost.

Differences in the decision-making process

First-in-family students and parents are less likely to share the decision-making for how to pay for college than their second-generation counterparts. Among families with the first-generation student attending college, 31 percent said parents and students either shared the decision-making or discussed how to pay, while 38 percent of second-generation families said they shared decision-making or discussed how to pay.

Among families who did not share information or decisions on how to pay for college, first-in-family parents were more likely to decide on their own how to pay for their student’s college education (46%) than second-generation parents (38%). Students were equally likely in both types of families to decide on their own.

First-generation college families paid about 6 percent more for college ($1,676), on average, than their second-generation counterparts.

Prior experience with college may boost confidence. Eighty-three percent of second-generation families say they are confident they made the right decisions regarding how they are paying for their students’ college education compared to 79 percent of first-in-family.

Expectations about repaying student loans

Among parents who borrowed to help pay for their student’s college education, those who attended college were more likely to say they expect the student to share the responsibility for repaying those loans (57%) or that the student will be wholly responsible (12%) compared to those who hadn’t attended (33% and 7%, respectively). On the other hand, parents who attended college are more likely to start making payments on their student’s loans while the student is still in school (21%) than first-in-family parents (14%).

Different approaches to paying for college

While being a first-in-family college student can instill a sense of pride, it comes with responsibility and a series of decisions, which these families approach differently than those families in which a parent previously attended college.

Find out more about How America Pays for College 2018.

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Families and the FAFSA—filing, finances, and fears
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Most families are using scholarships to pay for college—is yours?



About this study

How America Pays for College 2018, a national study by Sallie Mae and Ipsos, explores how much families of undergraduates spend on college, how they pay for it, and how they reach their funding decisions.

Source: How America Pays for College 2018, from Sallie Mae and Ipsos.