Ensuring first-generation student success

UNC-Chapel Hill receives $1 million to join Kessler Scholars Collaborative, a national network of first-generation-focused institutions.

Students walking past South Building.
(Photo by Johnny Andrews/UNC-Chapel Hill)

In the wake of the pandemic, retention and graduation gaps between first-generation, limited-income students and peers from higher-income backgrounds and families with college degrees may widen even further. UNC-Chapel Hill has taken a big step toward closing the gap and ensuring first-generation student success by joining the Kessler Scholars Collaborative. With generous financial support from Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Judy and Fred Wilpon Family Foundation, the University will receive a $1 million, five-year grant to establish the Kessler Scholars cohort-based model on campus.

Selected as one of 10 American Talent Initiative members to receive this grant, Carolina joins a diverse network of colleges and universities dedicated to supporting first-generation students through direct financial support and cohort-based services.

“At UNC-Chapel Hill, our commitment to affordability, accessibility and opportunity runs deep,” said Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz. “The Kessler Scholars Collaborative expands our commitment to first-generation college students and aligns with our university’s mission and strategic plan — and our priorities as founding members of the American Talent Initiative. We are committed to sustaining the program and serving our students for years to come.”

Founded in 2008 at the University of Michigan, the Kessler Scholars Program connects first-generation students with critical resources and opportunities across campus — including individualized support and cohort-based workshops and programming designed to foster academic, professional and personal growth. Early results at Michigan indicate the promise of this model, with the Kessler Scholars graduating cohort attaining a four-year graduation rate of 83% — eight percentage points higher than their first-generation peers (75%) and virtually on par with their continuing-generation peers (84%).

As part of the Kessler Scholars Collaborative, UNC-Chapel Hill will receive onboarding guidance, curricular resources and technical support to implement the Kessler Scholars model on campus. Carolina and partner institutions in the network will meet regularly to share resources, evaluate best practices and participate in collaborative-wide student engagement and networking opportunities. And Carolina will build on the success of several signature programs focused on improving outcomes for lower-income and first-generation students, including the Carolina Covenant, the Carolina Student Transfer Excellence Program and Carolina Firsts.

The Carolina Covenant provides a debt-free path to graduation for students at or below 200% of the federal poverty guidelines, and the Carolina Student Transfer Excellence Program guarantees low-income community college students transfer admission to UNC-Chapel Hill. The Carolina Firsts Initiative, launched in 2008, provides a comprehensive set of programs that celebrate, engage and connect first-generation students to resources, opportunities and information to help them thrive in college. All three programs provide exemplary advising and other support services to ensure student success.

Through the Kessler Scholars Collaborative, UNC-Chapel Hill aims to further strengthen student success by focusing cohorts on first-generation, limited-income students from rural North Carolina.

“I am thrilled to have Carolina become part of the Kessler Scholars Collaborative,” said Rachelle Feldman, vice provost for enrollment at UNC-Chapel Hill. “This will help us build on our long tradition of welcoming first-generation college students and allow us to share best practices with peers while building a stronger and more formal network of support for these students. By concentrating the program on lower income, rural North Carolinians, we believe this grant will help UNC-Chapel Hill in its commitment to improving the lives of people across the state and developing leaders for the future.”

UNC-Chapel Hill joins the Kessler Scholars Collaborative alongside six current institutions, including ATI members Cornell University, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Michigan, as well as Queens College, St. Francis College and Syracuse University. Nine other ATI members will join the collaborative, including:

  • Bates College,
  • Brown University,
  • Centre College,
  • Ohio State University,
  • Saint Mary’s College (Indiana),
  • University of California, Riverside,
  • University of Dayton,
  • University of Pittsburgh and
  • Washington University in St. Louis.

Over the five-year grant period, July 2022 to June 2027, UNC-Chapel Hill will devote at least 40% of the total grant, or $400,000, to direct student aid. As a part of the proven Kessler Scholars model, participating students will benefit from high-touch, personalized advising and support from Kessler Scholars staff and peer mentors; cohort-based activities throughout their college experience to reinforce a sense of belonging; and programs designed to elevate first-generation students’ unique strengths, with a focus on ensuring they realize their academic and professional goals. The first cohort of up to 20 Kessler Scholars will arrive on campus in fall 2023.

For more information about the Kessler Scholars Collaborative and American Talent Initiative, visit kesslerscholars.org and americantalentinitiative.org.