Credit: Jeff Haynes / Signal Cleveland

Navigating higher education can be challenging for anyone. Yet the paths for first-generation college students whose parents didn’t graduate from college often face extra barriers. 

The Center for First-Generation Student Success spells it out this way: “While first-generation students are often quite academically skilled and contribute in many ways to a campus community, navigating the tangled web of college policies, procedures, jargon, and expectations can be a challenge.” 

Even just figuring out how to apply can be overwhelming. It’s never too early to start thinking about that next chapter. To mark First-Generation College Celebration Day on Wednesday, Nov. 8, Signal Cleveland created this guide for current high school students who are the first in their families to plan on attending a university, a two- or four-year college, or a credentialed trade program

It’s a companion piece to the profiles of local first-generation college students and graduates we’ve been sharing on our Instagram account this fall. 

In our next guides, we’ll tackle topics such as paying for college and navigating your first semester on campus. Right now, these tips can be a good starting point.  

What’s your next step?

Nancy Dunn, senior manager of advising programs and services at College Now Greater Cleveland, recommends checking out a free federal website called

You take a quick survey about your interests and then get matched with careers that may be a good fit. Plus, it also shows what levels of education may or may not be needed to get various jobs, along with other relevant data points such as how much you could earn. Keep in mind that not all degrees or credentials lead to high-paying or stable jobs.   

Why should you talk about going to college?

Being a first-generation college student can be tough for both young people and their families to navigate, said Cullin Fish, interim director of Cleveland State University’s TRIO Student Support Services. TRIO programs are federal supports designed for low-income and first-generation students. 

“You may have the most supportive, wonderful mother, father, or guidance figure in your life, and they are always there for you, but they may not be able to answer those questions that you have about college,” said Fish. 

One suggestion: Try to learn from a first-gen college graduate or current student who is already in your world. Ask around. Maybe that’s a teacher, a friend of an older sibling, or a coach of a sports team. 

Here are a few conversation starters to use once you’ve identified those people: 

  • How was your time in college? 
  • What was the hardest part about your first day on campus? 
  • Is there something you wish you would have known before you started? 
  • Would you change anything about your experience? 

“Everyone usually gets pretty excited to talk about that kind of stuff,” Fish said. 

Take ownership of your college journey 

Advocating for yourself is your best bet, Fish said. Once you do, there’s a chance more support will emerge, he added. 

“Understand that there are no silly questions,” Fish said. “Understand that there’s no need to be embarrassed. Understand that there’s no need to feel like you don’t belong. The best thing you can do is to ask questions if you have them.”

Mia Basit-Hightower, a current first-gen student at Baldwin Wallace University, advises approaching things with this mentality: “Speak up. Ask. Plan.” 

How do you research colleges?

Deana Waintraub Stafford, senior director at the Center for First-Generation Student Success, also suggests specifically searching “first-gen resources” on institutions’ websites to see what, if anything, pops up.  

If that search shows resources such as a dedicated first-gen center or point person to connect with, it signals the institution “cares about first-gen students and they have created a system where first-gen students can be seen and supported,” she said. 

CSU’s Fish also recommends connecting with as many campuses as your resources allow. For example, maybe your dream school is 10 hours away, and another institution you don’t think you’re interested in is 10 minutes from home. 

“Still visit the local school, ask those questions, but then do your due diligence and set up a phone call or a Zoom interview with someone from that dream school,” he suggested. “That will give you a little bit of insight on both perspectives.” 

If you want an official visit where you can talk with administrators and current students, it’s best to arrange it ahead of time. Scroll down for the contact information of the admissions offices at each of Cleveland’s three biggest colleges: Case Western Reserve University, Cuyahoga Community College, and Cleveland State.  

What type of coverage is missing when it comes to higher education in Cleveland? Our reporter Amy Morona wants to know what you think! Send her a note by filling out this form.

How do you pay for college?

There’s a lot to be said when it comes to figuring out how to pay for college. The biggest thing you should keep in mind right now, though, is the importance of filling out the FAFSA, which stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid

It’s a federal form that requires the financial information of your parents and/or guardians. Filling it out early gives you the highest chance to secure money to pay for your higher education classes, and you’ll need to complete it every year to remain eligible for any potential aid. 

The FAFSA recently underwent big changes. The latest iteration of the form is shorter and easier to complete than previous versions were. This year, it is set to open in December for the 2024-25 academic year. 

College Now Greater Cleveland offers lots of help on this front for free. The organization’s contact info is below. 

Celebrate yourself! 

If Stafford from the Center for First-Generation Student Success could go back in time and tell her younger self something, it would be to slow down. She was too set on figuring out the next thing, she said. 

“You don’t celebrate yourself enough,” she said. “You don’t acknowledge the number of accomplishments and successes that you fulfill along your academic and professional journey.” 

She said that’s mainly because of the different identities she possesses: a student-athlete, an international student, and a first-gen student. That last one isn’t one that visible without disclosing it, yet it stays with you long after graduation, she said. 

“For first-gen students and first-gen professionals, it is an identity that is a lifelong identity,” she said. “It is not just tied to a higher education institution.” 

Resources to bookmark

College Now Greater Cleveland offers all kinds of support, including talking through financial aid options and finding scholarships, for local high school students. 

Here are the addresses, websites and contact information of the admissions offices of Cleveland’s three biggest higher education institutions: 

Case Western Reserve University (a private university)

  • Undergraduate Admissions Office: Wolstein Hall, 11318 Bellflower Road, Cleveland, OH 44106
  • Phone: 216-368-4450
  • Email: 
  • Website:

Cleveland State University (a public university)

Cuyahoga Community College (a two-year public community college) 

  • Addresses to each of the college’s campuses:
    • Eastern Campus: 4250 Richmond Road, Highland Hills, OH 44122
    • Metropolitan Campus: 2900 Community College Avenue, Cleveland, OH 44115
    • Western Campus: 11000 Pleasant Valley Road, Parma, OH 44130
    • Westshore Campus: 31001 Clemens Road, Westlake, OH 44145
    • Brunswick University Center: 3605 Center Rd., Brunswick, OH 44212
    • Hospitality Management Center: 180 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland, OH 44114
  • Phone: 216-987-6000 (press 1 to be connected with admissions after the automated message plays)
  • Email:
  • Website:

Cleveland Metropolitan School District students can learn more about careers in  skilled trades through the district’s Career-Technical Education department. 

Higher Education Reporter (she/her)
Amy, who’s worked in both local and national newsrooms for nearly a decade, previously covered higher education at Crain's Cleveland Business in partnership with the national nonprofit news organization Open Campus. A first-generation college graduate, Amy is committed to highlighting the voices of students in her coverage.