First-generation students face unique challenges upon entering college. Compared to their peers whose families have a history of college attendance, these students are more likely to have additional responsibilities outside of the classroom, receive less financial support, and struggle more frequently with their sense of belonging at their institutions. As the first of their families to attend college, many first-generation students often navigate the transition to campus, academic rigors, and institutional processes of college on their own.

With support from the Judy and Fred Wilpon Family Foundation and Bloomberg Philanthropies, we are excited for Ithaka S+R to serve as the evaluation partner for the Kessler Scholars Collaborative. Established in 2020 by the Judy and Fred Wilpon Family Foundation, the Collaborative aims to increase successful outcomes for first-generation students. Its mission is to close equity gaps and promote social mobility by empowering first-generation students to reach their highest potential and achieve their educational and professional goals. The Collaborative’s six inaugural partner institutions—Cornell University, Johns Hopkins University, Queens College, St. Francis College, Syracuse University, and the University of Michigan (where the first Kessler Scholars Program began in 2008)—provide wraparound support through cohort-based programming for Kessler Scholars. In addition to scholarship funding, Kessler Scholars receive high-touch advising, peer mentoring, and other professional development opportunities designed to support them throughout their undergraduate study. The Collaborative guides program development and implementation for each of its partner institutions, and fosters knowledge-sharing across institutions on best practices. 

With the added support of Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Wilpon Family Foundation, the Collaborative expanded in April 2022 to include ten additional institutions from the American Talent Initiative (an initiative focused on improving access and opportunity for lower-income students, co-managed by Ithaka S+R and the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program). Each member will establish a new Kessler Scholars Program on their campus or expand existing cohort-based programs that support first-generation students. These new partner institutions are:

Over the next five years, Ithaka S+ R will conduct a multi-level and multi-site formative assessment of the Kessler Scholars Program to support implementation and maximize impact. We will assess each program’s implementation strategy, impact on the Scholars’ perceptions of the program and academic outcomes, and how these components contribute to the Collaborative’s overarching goals of increasing first-generation student success. This will involve evaluating the program’s impact on student experiences, retention, and graduation rates, as well as assessing the effectiveness of institutions’ programming on students’ belonging and success.  We will also assess the effectiveness of the Collaborative’s efforts to foster cross-institutional collaboration and contribute to campuses’ organizational learning and capacity building. 

Employing a mixed-methods approach, we will analyze both quantitative administrative data on student success and qualitative data on stakeholders’ experiences with the program collected from student and staff interviews, surveys, and focus groups. Ithaka S+R will synthesize the information from the various evaluation activities and share actionable insights with partner institutions and the Collaborative, with the goal of highlighting key lessons learned that can inform the program’s implementation and expansion over the next five years. In Fall 2022, we will begin collecting data and deploying staff surveys to the six inaugural institutions while the ten new partner institutions enter their planning year.

Supporting first-generation students is crucial to closing equity gaps in outcomes, and the Kessler Scholars Collaborative offers a promising model that directly addresses the challenges and barriers that these students face. Through our research, we intend to highlight evidence-based findings on best practices that promote first-generation student success across the Collaborative network. We look forward to working closely with the Collaborative and the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program, and sharing what we learn along the way.