Student success and equity are intrinsically linked. Students from lower-income, first-generation, and historically underserved backgrounds face deeply entrenched systemic inequities and a myriad of obstacles both on college campuses and beyond. With such students attaining bachelor’s degrees at a lower rate as compared to their advantaged peers, it is important to provide additional institutional support and resources to lower-income and first-generation students to help them persist, succeed, and thrive on campus. With increased learning loss in K-12 education due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the rising cost of college tuition, and the widening disparity gap in average debt, all of which disproportionately limit access and opportunities for lower-income students and students from historically disadvantaged backgrounds, advancing equity in the academic experience is and will continue to be imperative to improving student success. Recognizing the importance of this effort, 46 members of the American Talent Initiative (ATI) formed a community of practice in 2020 to promote greater equity in the academic experience.

To build on the momentum of this community, a one-time honoraria opportunity was made available to ATI members in Summer 2022. With funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Gray Foundation, three ATI members each received a $7,250 honorarium to tackle research on key topics of academic equity. Awardees were selected from 13 proposals, which were considered for their proposed research scope and topic, institution type and context, proposal completeness, ATI member interest in the research, and final deliverable applicability. Shared below are descriptions of the projects from the three awardees of these Academic Equity Topical Research Project honoraria, with links to their full final deliverables, ranging from research briefs to praxis guides.

George Mason University

Summer bridge programs and first-generation college student success at George Mason University: insights and promising practices for bridge program development.

Authors: Amber Holton-Thomas, PhD and Co-Principal Investigator; Graziella Pagliarulo McCarron, PhD and Co-Principal Investigator; Lex Lewis-Semien; Nakia Waters; Rommel Aguilar; Syed Mustafa Hassan; AJ Ryan; Sumera Shaikh

Summer bridge programs are a high-impact practice in higher education designed to support college transitions and retention. These programs, particularly with respect to first-generation and low-income learners, equip students with skills and resources to succeed throughout their collegiate experience. George Mason University’s (GMU) Academic Equity Topical Research Project explores the nexus between first-generation college student identity and summer bridge program experiences by examining its Student Transition Empowerment Program (STEP). Through surveys and interviews with STEP scholars who have completed the summer program, GMU’s project team identified a range of findings, including but not limited to how STEP participants saw mentorship as essential to personal, professional, and academic development and how, amongst co-curricular programs, student organizations and clubs most contributed to participants’ sense of personal growth. Grounded in evidence-based insights, GMU’s research project provides a comprehensive “blueprint of possible pathways and structures for program-building” that can help other colleges and universities enrich their own summer bridge programs for first-generation college students and other historically marginalized student populations. Read more here.

Marist College

Supplemental peer instruction reduces DFW rate among Pell eligible students in a general biology course

Authors: Elizabeth Godin, PhD; Leslie Kate Wright, PhD; Alicia Slater, PhD

Introductory gateway STEM courses are known to be significant barriers to student success, and research shows that Pell-eligible students have higher DFWI rates (for grades of D or F, withdrawals, and incompletes) in gateway STEM courses as compared to their non-Pell peers. To improve student success and equitable outcomes, Marist College’s Academic Equity Topical Research Project focused on implementing supplemental peer instruction to one section of Marist’s General Biology I course and exploring the effectiveness of this intervention in improving the success of Pell-eligible students. Marist’s project team provides a digestible research brief demonstrating that supplemental peer instruction “is a promising means to improve student success in General Biology I for students who are Pell-eligible, first generation, and from underrepresented ethnicities.” Read more here.

Muhlenberg College

Student engagement in experiential learning opportunities: identifying barriers and solutions for participation

Authors: Michele Moser Deegan, PhD; Regina Lau, Class of 2023; Jake Ghamar, Class of 2023

Experiential learning opportunities and other high-impact practices have been shown to improve student learning outcomes and increase retention and graduation rates. However, access to these opportunities varies widely and students, particularly those from lower-income and historically underrepresented backgrounds, may encounter barriers to participation. Muhlenberg College’s Academic Equity Topical Research Project centers on answering two questions: “to what extent do students engage in high impact practices; and what barriers are students experiencing that prevent them from engaging in high impact practices?” By reviewing literature and examining their research findings, Muhlenberg’s project team provides an in-depth overview of the different situational, institutional, and dispositional barriers to student engagement in four high impact practices—study abroad, internships, independent research, and community engagement—and shares that while students cited multiple barriers, the most common one was the lack of effective institutional communication about such opportunities. Read more here.


We hope that ATI Academic Equity Topical Research Projects and their findings bolster efforts at other colleges and universities to advance equity in the academic experience. By committing to reduce equity-based gaps in student outcomes and strengthening support for the most vulnerable student populations, higher education institutions can not only maximize access and success for students from lower-income, first-generation, and historically underserved backgrounds, but also expand opportunities for all students.


The American Talent Initiative would like to thank:

  • The individuals and project teams at George Mason University, Marist College, and Muhlenberg College who devoted their time and energy to the Academic Equity Topical Research Projects
  • The individuals and ATI member institutions who submitted a proposal for the Academic Equity Topical Reach Project honoraria opportunity
  • The members of the ATI academic equity community of practice, especially those who engage regularly with the community and work on their respective campuses to promote greater equity in the academic experience
  • Advisory committee members for the community of practice—Heidi Elmendorf, Susannah McGowan, and Randall Bass of Georgetown University; Brooke Vick of Muhlenberg College; Meg Daly of the Ohio State University; and April Belback of the University of Pittsburgh—for lending their time and expertise to advancing this critical work
  • The staff of the Aspen Institute and Ithaka S+R who devote their time and energy to the American Talent Initiative
  • Emily Schwartz and Martin Kurzweil for their guidance and support in the coordination of the Academic Equity Topical Research Projects
  • Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Gray Foundation for supporting the work of ATI

The American Talent Initiative (ATI) is a Bloomberg Philanthropies-supported collaboration between Ithaka S+R, the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program, and an alliance of top colleges and universities committed to expanding access and opportunity for students from low- and moderate-income backgrounds. If you have any questions about ATI or its Academic Equity community of practice, please reach out to Sunny Hong at Sunny.Hong@ithaka.org. Please follow this link to access shared resources for the ATI Academic Equity community of practice.