First-generation college students are among higher education’s most prominent yet precarious student demographics. Young college hopefuls who go into college without a bachelor’s-earning parent are unfamiliar with the “hidden curriculum” behind their academic journey, and recent data show that the less financially privileged these students are, the more detrimental their success rate is.
Despite first-generation college students making up one-third of today’s students, only 27% graduate in four years, according to NASPA’s Center for First Generation Student Success. Among those from low-income households, about 90% do not graduate within six years, according to EAB, an education consulting firm.
“First-generation students too often come to our institutions, and it seems like this maze of, ‘How do I get to where I think I want to go? How do I even figure out where I want to go?'” says Kessler Scholars Collaborative Executive Director Gail Gibson. “This is so critical to think about when working to find success for these students.”
The Kessler Scholars Collaborative embarked on a mission in 2017 to support this vulnerable slice of the student body at a handful of esteemed institutions, and its pilot program proved a success. First-generation college students’ four-year graduation rate at the University of Michigan reached 83%, one point less than continuing education students. At Johns Hopkins, students experienced a 100% first-to-second-year persistence rate. Consequently, its buzz is growing.
Fueled by a $10 million donation from Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Judy and Fred Wilpon Family Foundation, Kessler Scholars will expand in the upcoming academic year to ten more colleges, nearly tripling its institutional reach and quadrupling its support network to 1,600 first-generation students. The initiative now reaches 16 schools nationwide.
Institutions launching Kessler Scholars Programs must create a student cohort of 60% Pell-eligible students to emphasize support for lower-income students. “The challenges of the first-gen experience aren’t necessarily bound only by income, but we know that when there are income disparities, there are more challenges when the student gets to the institution,” says Gibson.
Funding the under-resourced
Each newly enrolled school will receive a $1 million grant to support the initiative’s operational costs. Such schools include Bates College (Maine); Brown University; Centre College (Ky.); Ohio State University; St. Mary’s College (Ind.); the University of California, Riverside; the University of Dayton (Ohio); the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Pittsburgh and Washington University in St. Louis.
Kessler Scholars trusts its network to spend the funding however it deems fit. Gibson understands how the needs of first-generation students may differ circumstantially, so Gibson stresses how important it is for each participating institution to spearhead its own operation.
“The schools are making those calls about, ‘What are the resources in our context that are the most critical?'” says Gibson. “If this project is going to work well, it has to be responsive to local context, and that’s why some of the determination about how the funds should best be used are best made at the local level.”
Some colleges have spent money on experiential or high-impact practice learning exploration, staffing, internship funds, research opportunities or emergency funds. For example, at Queens College, a commute-based college, Kessler Scholar students are given a transportation stipend. Syracuse University, whose been part of the collaborative since 2020, is using the funds toward laptop distribution.
While institutions can credit themselves for their solutions, the real magic of being part of the Kessler Scholars Collaborative is its school network. Aside from providing colleges funding, Kessler Scholars is facilitating collaboration between different institutions so that they can get better together—not apart.
“Universities and colleges tend to be pretty siloed places. One of the aims of this project from the start was how we can make this a space where we can truly and authentically bring those silos down,” says Gibson. “How can we re-serve these institutions’ competitive nature so that we are learning from each other that the success at one institution truly can be the success for this greater group.”
Syracuse University has created a powerful mentorship program, which Kessler has shared with other schools to save time and energy and streamline student success rates.