As the growing wealth gap between families nationwide impacts student experiences across the country, a new model of scholarship support for first-generation college students pioneered at the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts (LSA) at the University of Michigan is expanding to schools nationally. 

The Kessler Scholars Program—a comprehensive, proven program for first-generation students that uses research and real-time student feedback to transform the first-generation experience with both scholarship and wrap-around community support beyond funding—is formally expanding to Johns Hopkins University, Queens College, St. Francis College, and Syracuse University. These schools join Cornell University, which launched a Kessler Scholars Program in fall of 2019, and U-M to form the Kessler Scholars Collaborative, a first-of-its-kind collaboration for sharing best practices and key findings to ensure first-generation students have the resources necessary to thrive on campus and beyond. 

“It is vital that all students feel a sense of belonging and a sense of their worth on campus,” said Fred Wilpon, a New York-based business executive and principal owner of the New York Mets, who founded the Kessler Scholars Program with his wife, Judy Kessler Wilpon. “By building community and connecting students with one another and with staff dedicated to their success, students in the Kessler Scholars Program are empowered to be leaders and, in turn, give back to their communities and the students who follow behind them.”

Fred and Judy Wilpon are both alumni of LSA and U-M, and Fred Wilpon was the first in his family to pursue a four-year degree. From that experience, he understands firsthand the importance of students having a strong support system on the ground if a parent or guardian cannot easily share guidance about college life. The Kessler Scholars Program meets that need by providing one-on-one guidance from professional staff, peer mentoring, and access to innovative programming designed to help students navigate social, cultural, academic, and professional aspects of higher education.

Recognizing this same need exists at institutions across the country, the Wilpon family—in collaboration with Bloomberg Philanthropies at Johns Hopkins University—has expanded the reach of this cohort-based scholarship program. Michael Bloomberg’s historic $1.8 billion gift to Johns Hopkins in 2018 made clear the critical need for supportive programming specific to first-generation students, and that need will further be fulfilled by the new Kessler Scholars program at Hopkins. 

According to the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, first-generation students are more than twice as likely to leave school within three years compared to students whose parents have a bachelor’s degree. While there is a common perception that first-generation college students do not exist in large numbers, they make up one third of the student population enrolled in postsecondary education. 

Positive outcomes in Michigan, where the Kessler Scholars Program supports 150 students across all four years of undergraduate study, paved the way for the expansion of the program. The four- and six-year graduation rates for Kessler Scholars are 81% and 95% respectively, higher than the overall student completion rate at U-M and at comparable institutions across the United States.

Now in its twelfth year at LSA, the Kessler Scholars Program underwent a significant redesign in 2017, developing a stronger path for first-generation scholarship support at LSA. Part of the revamp included campus partnerships for tutoring and other academic support; a seminar for first-year students to connect with university leaders, key campus resources and strategies for success; career workshops for upper-level students; and the Peer Mentor Program, connecting first-year scholars with upper-level scholars to help foster their academic, social, and professional progression.

"The experience of students in the Kessler Scholars Program at U-M has shown us the importance of wrap-around support, when we pair full financial aid with community building, peer mentoring, and individualized academic, social, and career guidance. This ongoing support and the cohort model set up first-generation students to thrive on campus and in their careers," said Anne Curzan, dean of the University of Michigan's College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. "Working with other world-class institutions not only expands opportunity, but also enables us to evaluate how we can best support first-generation students on different types of campuses in different parts of the country."

Much of the power of this expansion effort lies in the collective work and knowledge building that will emerge across the colleges and universities involved, and a mechanism for sharing information, resources, and outcomes is paramount to the success of the expansion. With support from the Wilpon Family Foundation, the Center for Education Design, Evaluation, and Research, based in the U-M School of Education, will study the collective work of the schools, exploring why the model works, the institutional landscape, each school’s implementation of the model and how community building changes outcomes for students.

"The Kessler Scholars Collaborative is driven by academic research which shows that community building and support is as critical to student success as funding," said Gail Gibson, director of the Kessler Presidential Scholars Program. "This program and the work being done to study the results of the program at the School of Education will chart the course for meeting the needs of first-generation students nationwide."

To learn more about the Kessler Scholars Program, visit the Kessler Scholars Program website.


Here's what leaders at Kessler Scholars Collaborative partner institutions are saying about the program:

Shakima M. Clency, the Peggy J. Koenig '78 Associate Dean of Students for Student Empowerment, Director of First-Generation and Low-Income Student Support, Cornell University

"This year, we launched the Kessler Presidential Scholars program at Cornell University, which provides 20 academically talented and community-engaged first-generation college students with financial support and greater access to talented people, unique places, and meaningful experiences that will foster a life-long bond. As we prepare to welcome the second cohort of Kessler Scholars, we are eager to participate and contribute to this cross-institutional collaborative. By bringing together a diverse group of college administrators and faculty from six different institutions, we are positioned to identify best practices, collect multi-institutional data, and create a national model to better support first-generation college students. This collaborative has the potential to transformatively affect higher education, and, ultimately, access and equity."

Sunil Kumar, Provost, Johns Hopkins University 

“The Kessler Scholars Program provides a remarkable opportunity for first-generation students at Johns Hopkins,” said Provost Sunil Kumar. “They will join a family of scholars with ties for life. We are grateful for the Wilpon family’s vision of increasing access for first-generation students across higher education institutions through the Kessler Collaborative. At a time when our own commitment to first-generation students through financial support and wraparound services is transforming the Homewood Campus at JHU, we are eager to welcome the incoming Kessler Scholars in Fall 2020 into the intellectual pathways and rigorous academic opportunities at Hopkins.” 

William Tramontano, Interim President, Queens College

"The Kessler Presidential Scholarship Program is a visionary opportunity for students who are aspiring to be the first in their family to graduate from college. Queens College proudly serves immigrants, the children of immigrants, and their descendants from over 150 countries. This inspiring program will propel many of our students towards the realization of the American Dream. Especially during these challenging times, we need a national model demonstrating how generous philanthropy can make an enormous difference in educating the future leaders of our country. We thank the Wilpon family for their extraordinary generosity in paving the pathway for our students and for those of participating colleges. As primary owners of the New York Mets, our nearby neighbor, the Wilpons have shared a close proximity with Queens College for many years. Our borough, indeed our community, has intensely felt the impact of the current challenging environment. During these critical times, this program stands as a beacon of hope for students who will be needed to strengthen our country’s very fabric in the years ahead."

Thomas Flood, Vice President for Advancement, St. Francis College

Note: At St. Francis College, the Robert J. McGuire Scholarship was launched five years ago by the Wilpon Foundation. The Kessler Scholars Collaborative builds on that program.

"To grow an educational movement of significance, you start with a shared commitment, you surround yourself with like-minded people, you have true partners in mission committed to the life-changing gift of education, and you listen, learn, and scale for the good of the whole, giving opportunity to those that want it, need it and deserve it, ultimately bringing the best out of each individual touched and growing global citizens of tomorrow.  That’s what this Kessler Scholars Collaborative is committed to, and we at St. Francis College are touched and beyond grateful to be invited and included in a journey that inevitably will change more lives, not only of those who are on the receiving ends of the scholarships, but every life the scholars touch thereafter.

"Jackie Robinson shared, 'A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.'

"We can and will have great impact by offering an educational opportunity and experience filled with excellence in the classroom and out, an opportunity to grow personally, professionally, and charitably in a community where serving others is at the heart of the mission—an experience that gives good preparation for life."

Dolan Evanovich, Senior Vice President for Enrollment and the Student Experience, Syracuse University

"With a longstanding commitment to first-generation student success, Syracuse University looks forward to working with all the members of the Kessler Scholars Collaborative to further strengthen the first-generation college student experience. Through our collective work, the ways in which we can enhance the pathways to higher education and support students across the socioeconomic spectrum who are first in their family will have a far-reaching impact. We are grateful to the Wilpon family for their leadership in transforming the first-generation experience, and for selecting Syracuse University as a partner school in this important effort."



Top photo by Scott Soderberg/Michigan Photography