I would suggest avoiding a secured card. As long as your college is accredited and is listed on the credit card application page, you will be fine with a student card. I built credit the same month I entered college. I recommend starting off with the student card your primary bank offers (if it has one). The normal student kinds (aka no rewards) are usually "starters" for students like you. I didn't get my Discover until my senior year in college. I'm not sure if their student version approves people with no history as I've read that some do, and some don't, so YMMV. My friend tried applying for the student version as her first credit card, but got denied...but Capital One gladly offered her the Journey Student Rewards card.
1. How difficult is it to get approved for the Discover It for Students as a freshman going into college with no credit history?
Some with no history have been approved, while others have been denied. YMMV
2. If I do apply for it and get denied, how will the hard inquiry on my FICO score affect it and to what degree?
One inquiry is not the end of the world like many people on the internet claim. Your score will be fine. Maybe a 2 point drop?
3. In the likely chance that I do get denied, will it hurt my chances of attaining a secured credit card?
No, nor will it hurt your chances of attaining another student card. A normal, non-rewards variant one of the big banks offer will be easier.
4. Once I do get a secured credit card, will closing the card hurt my credit score once I am able to upgrade to an unsecured credit card.
Depending on the secured card, when it "unsecures" it's still the same account so it won't affect your score. And even if you have to "close" it, see if you can PC it to another card so your account stays the same. But if you close it, it won't immediately affect you for 10 years.
Also, I'd like to add that store credit cards are a great way to start building credit as well. I believe that secured cards aren't worth it, especially when there are other ways to BUILD credit since you are a student. If you aren't a student however, secured or store cards (YMMV..) may be the only way to go. And secured cards are the only way to go for rebuilding credit as well. But take advantage of your student status and apply for cards with no deposits! Just use credit responsibly
AMEX BCE ($20,000), Citi Forward ($6,800), Discover IT ($5,250), BoA Travel Rewards ($1,800)