Funding STEM Education as a First-Generation College Student

Going to college is a milestone decision in many people’s lives. For students whose parents and grandparents didn’t attend college, being the first in your family to go to college is even more significant.

The decision to attend a university can provide a bright future for first-generation college students. There’s often more earning potential, the ability to secure a job in your dream profession and the opportunity to obtain a fulfilling education that can serve you for a lifetime.

But for first-generation college students, there are also unique challenges. These include not having an example to look to for guidance and the sometimes difficult decision to leave family and loved ones for school.

If you’re a first-gen college student who has to work to pay for school, balancing studying with a part-time or full-time job can also be demanding. If you’re the first in your family with college in your future, you may be wondering how to handle the complexities as you go after your goals.

Know that if you want to pursue higher education, the value is often worth the price. According to a 2018 report by the United States Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment rates and median usual weekly earnings vary according to educational attainment for full-time workers ages 25 and older.

  • High school diploma: 4.1% unemployment rate, $730 median usual weekly earnings
  • Bachelor’s degree: 2.2% unemployment rate, $1,198 median usual weekly earnings

Using these figures, over 40 years of work, a graduate with a bachelor’s degree will make $973,440 more than a worker with a high school diploma. 

According to U.S. News & World Report, the average annual cost at an in-state public college for the 2019-2020 year was $10,116. This can be hard to pay upfront, but you can lessen costs with grants and scholarships. If that still isn’t enough, you can also take out personal loans to pay for school.

Students who study for a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) degree may be able to earn higher-than-average starting salaries depending on their career. Most of the top 2019 college majors with the best starting salaries, according to PayScale, are STEM majors. These include:

  • Petroleum engineering
  • Electrical engineering and computer science
  • Actuarial mathematics
  • Electrical power engineering
  • Aeronautics and astronautics
  • Systems engineering

Other STEM majors include astronomy, biology, chemistry, earth sciences, health sciences, information technology and physics.

Pursuing a STEM degree may make financial sense. A 2018 report by Pew Research Center found STEM training in college is associated with higher earnings, even when a graduate is not working in a STEM occupation.

If you’re a first-gen college student and you’re wondering what to major in, a STEM education can be personally and financially fulfilling. But there are unique challenges you may face as a first-generation college student. Here’s what first-gen college students who are considering studying STEM majors should know.

First: what’s it like to be a first-generation college student?

As the first generation in a family to enroll in college, you need to master how to succeed in school without the aid of an example from your family. A 2018 report by the U.S. Department of Education found one-third of first-generation students dropped out of college after three years. Some issues first-gen students face include:

  • Challenges in succeeding academically after enrollment and in completing a degree
  • A lack of college-going experience from parents who can help students navigate the higher education system
  • Demographic and enrollment characteristics, such as low socioeconomic status, that are associated with dropping out

“Most first-generation students are faced with complete unfamiliarity with the demands of a university education,” STEM student Ralph Wiser, studying mechanical engineering at University of Texas at Austin, told “The Daily Texan.”

“Having parents who know the answers to questions such as how to handle financial aid and how student loans work would have been helpful,” Wiser said.

EAB reports 90% of low-income, first-generation college students don’t graduate within six years. Navigating school, implementing solid study habits and having to work to pay for school can all contribute to challenges with graduating on time.

Another unique challenge that first-generation college students may face is “breakaway guilt,” according to former first-generation college student, college professor and researcher Linda Banks-Santilli.

“While their families often view them as their savior, delegate or a way out of poverty and less desirable living conditions, many first-generation students struggle with what has been described as ‘breakaway guilt,’” Banks-Santilli said. “A student’s decision to pursue higher education comes with the price of leaving their family behind.”

You may feel like you’re abandoning your parents or siblings by going away to school, while your family may feel like they’re being rejected.

This guide walks first-generation college students through the options for funding a college education in a STEM subject.

What is a STEM degree?

As mentioned, STEM degrees fall into science, technology, engineering and mathematics majors. According to a report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, while enrollment overall in college has decreased, enrollment in STEM programs has increased.

STEM degrees are important because some of the world’s most in-demand professions fall into these categories. This includes application software developers and medical technologists.

According to the Occupational Outlook Handbook:

STEM degrees are challenging to pursue, but the skills learned are in demand in a variety of industries. As technology evolves, big data use increases and scientific developments enhance lifestyles, STEM skills will continue to be valuable in a wide variety of professions.

How much does a STEM degree cost?

Base tuition prices for STEM degrees may be the same as other majors, but some STEM students end up paying more for books and equipment. One report found seven of the top 10 most expensive textbooks majors are used in STEM-related majors.

Also, some schools may apply a surcharge to students enrolled in certain majors, or charge upper-level students more per credit hour, according to a report by the Delta Cost Project.

Sometimes STEM degrees cost students more because it costs more for schools to provide them an education. There’s equipment, the cost of instructors, the cost for lab space, etc.

A 2017 research paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found STEM majors, like physical sciences and engineering, cost schools twice as much to fund as the least expensive majors, like library sciences and business. Computer science is the only STEM-related field that is below average in cost.

If you’re interested in how much a particular major will affect you financially,  the Department of Education expanded the College Scorecard in May 2019 to include data about the level of debt students take on to study a certain major at a specific college. You should contact the schools you’re considering to find out about average costs beyond tuition for STEM majors.

The encouraging news is that although a STEM major education may cost more, those costs are likely going to be recovered in the professional world. A report on the value of majors by the Center on Education and the Workforce found graduates with STEM degrees make more at entry-level and mid-career levels compared to those with health, business, arts, humanities, liberal arts, teaching and serving majors.

How to finance a STEM degree

Studying for a STEM degree can be rewarding while in college and throughout your professional life. Though you may face challenges working your way through the college admissions and enrollment process, there is help available every step of the way.

You should research the STEM program you’re interested in to get an idea of the financial expectations for the four years it takes to complete the degree program. Attending an in-state public school will likely be considerably less expensive than attending a private school or an out of state university, but it will depend on the financial aid packages offered to you by the schools you apply to.

Once you have an idea of how much you’ll need to pay, you and your family can start planning using the funding options below.

529 plan

A 529 plan is a tax-advantaged college savings plan. Money can be invested in a 529 plan on behalf of a beneficiary, which means that a parent can set up a 529 plan for a child, or the person can name themselves as the beneficiary.

Students who plan on going to college can start a 529 plan while they’re in high school. Families can create one for them at any point, too.

The 529 plan allows the plan holder to invest in a range of mutual funds, similar to an IRA, which means that students and plan holders have the potential to grow their savings more meaningfully than they would using a basic bank savings account. Earnings are exempt from federal income taxes as long as withdrawals are used for educational expenses.

This college savings option  includes prepaid tuition plans, which are similar to prepaying for a semester or more at a certain college. This means that even if inflation increases college costs in the future, the student will have already paid for part of school at the lower tuition rate, which saves them the extra money they’d have to shell out for the increased tuition rate. This could work for students who are working in high school or whose parents can contribute to paying for college now.

Financial aid

The Federal Student Aid office gives aspiring college students the opportunity to apply for grants and scholarships, which is free money to help cover college costs. Grants are usually awarded based on need, while thousands of different scholarships are available depending on unique criteria, including high performance in high school.

College scholarship sites usually list scholarship options that are specifically granted to first-generation college students. You can find some options for first-generation students on these sites.

To apply for grants and scholarships, you will need to fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form.


There are also a number of types of loans you can use to pay for college. A loan is money that must be paid back with interest. Loans for college can come from the federal government, a bank or other financial institutions and organizations, and can be taken out by the student or their parents, who can cosign on loans if need be.

The federal student loan program provides four types of loans:

  • Direct Subsidized Loans, which are based on students demonstrating financial need. The school determines the amount that can be borrowed, which can’t exceed a student’s financial need.
  • Direct Unsubsidized Loans, where eligibility is not based on financial need. The school determines the amount borrowed, which is based on the cost to attend and other financial aid the student receives.
  • Direct PLUS Loans, which may be made available to parents of dependent undergraduate students and require a credit check. A maximum amount is determined based on the cost to attend school, minus any other financial aid a student receives.
  • Direct Consolidation Loans, which enable loan holders to combine all eligible federal students loans into a single loan. This means that instead of having to make multiple student loan payments, there’s only a single monthly payment.

You may also consider taking out a personal loan. A personal loan typically doesn’t require collateral to qualify. This type of loan is usually based on credit scores and may feature fixed interest rates and fixed monthly payments.

Resources for females and minorities

Considerations for certain subsets in first-generation STEM students are unique. Pew Research Center found that while 75% of employed adults in health-related positions are female, women are underrepresented in other STEM fields.

Here’s the percentage of women working in each related field.

  • Math: 46%.
  • Life science: 47%.
  • Physical science: 39%.
  • Computer: 25%.
  • Engineering: 14%.

According to iD Tech, women make up only 18% of computer science undergraduates.

Black and Hispanic people are also underrepresented in the STEM workforce. In all occupations, African American workers represent 11% of the industry and Hispanics represent 16% of the industry. But in STEM jobs, African American workers represent 9% of the industry and Hispanics represent 7% of the industry.

Female and minority students can tap into the resources that are designed specifically for first-generation students. The Center for First-Generation Student Success has programs, services, research and policy updates, news and blogs available to help educate readers.

There are also thousands of scholarships for women and scholarships for minorities that students can apply for. There is no limit to how many scholarships you can apply for, and many students have paid for school entirely through grants and scholarships.

Go for your dream as a first-generation STEM student

STEM fields have some of the biggest professional potential for aspiring college students. If you’re the first in your family to attend college, there will be some hurdles to navigate, but the rewards you’ll reap when you graduate can set you up for a lifetime of success.

You have financing options available to you, including free money in the form of grants and scholarships. Make sure to fill out the FAFSA and research and apply for scholarships that can help you pay for school.

If you need more financial assistance, personal loans are a solid option. You can get set up on a payment plan and know what you’ll need to pay. When you enter the workforce as a STEM graduate, you can start earning more and pay off your loans.

Nicki Escudero

Contributing Writer

Nicki Escudero is a freelance writer and journalist with more than 18 years of experience in the publishing industry, writing for international publications such as USA Today, Entrepreneur, Marketing Land, American Art Collector magazine and the Arizona Republic. She is passionate about helping readers discover helpful tips that lead to happier, healthier lives. A former Australian expat, Nicki has a passion for world travel and loves to learn about new cultures.