Educating the First Generation

St. John’s University turns to mentoring and experiential learning programs to retain first-generation and at-risk students.
Educating the First Generation

WHAT CAN BUSINESS SCHOOLS do to focus on retaining the students who are most likely to drop out—that is, students who are from low-income families or who are the first in their families to attend college?

The numbers show how much they’re at risk. According to the Council of Independent Colleges, approximately 27 percent of all high school graduates are from homes where neither parent has obtained a degree beyond a high school diploma. Of those who continue on to college, most attend public institutions. In fact, only 11 percent of first-generation students attend private doctoral-granting universities.

About 45 percent of undergraduates at both four-year and two-year institutions receive Pell or other federal grants—although this number is only 33 percent at private four-year institutions. But despite the availability of aid, in six years, only 21 percent of students who are both low-income and first-generation will have earned a bachelor’s degree, compared to 57 percent of their peers whose parents attended college. It is clear that, while financial assistance enables students to gain access to higher education, it does not guarantee their success.

These students face hurdles that are more than simply financial—they also must deal with academic, social, and cultural challenges. For instance, first-generation and low-income students tend to be less engaged in college activities than their peers. If universities and business schools want to help these students thrive, it is critical that we find the strategies that are most effective in admitting, retaining, and graduating them.

St. John’s University in New York City, currently the second-largest Catholic university in the U.S., has nearly 12,000 full-time undergraduates, including nearly 2,500 business majors. Of the students who entered our business program in fall 2016 as first-years, nearly 30 percent were eligible for Pell grants, and almost 20 percent were the first in their families to attend college. At the Peter J. Tobin College of Business, our population is also ethnically diverse: Of all the business students at our school, nearly 20 percent are international, and more than 35 percent identify themselves as non-Caucasian. In fact, a recent U.S. News & World Report ranking placed St. John’s among the 25 most diverse universities in the U.S.

These percentages reflect the school’s original mission to educate the sons and daughters of immigrants in New York. While the profile of the immigrants walking through our gates has shifted, the challenge we face remains the same: How do we provide the necessary educational support for these students, considering the current resource and structural constraints at private universities?

Given our size, our mission, and our location, we believe that St. John’s has a responsibility to find innovative solutions to this question. Some of the strategies we have devised are open to all undergraduates, while some are specific to business majors. We divide our strategies into two categories—structured advising opportunities and experiential learning opportunities. The programs in both of these categories complement each other and have proved effective in retaining first-generation students.


Educational researchers have found that positive student-faculty interactions enhance both the social and academic skills of all undergraduates—in particular, those of first-generation and low-income students—which in turn will improve their rates of persistence and graduation. The first year at any university is critical, so it is important to strengthen the bond between students and faculty advisors as early as possible.

At St. John’s, the advising of new students is centralized across all schools in the University Freshman Center. This ensures consistency and coordination in advising and mentoring activities, as well as the sharing of resources. The university also offers three programs designed to promote student success.

SAFE (Student and Faculty Engagement). This program provides first-year students with faculty mentors who can help them transition from high school to college. We match at-risk students with faculty in their respective majors or with administrators, and these mentors meet with students all year to encourage their engagement in college life.

R.I.S.E. (Reach, Inspire, Succeed, Empower). The goal of this program is to increase the retention and graduation rates of our black and Latino students, many of whom are first-generation. First-year students who want to improve their academic and personal development are invited to participate. Each participant is assigned a R.I.S.E. Network leader—a student who has demonstrated academic success, embraced social responsibility, and shown dedication to mentoring fellow students. R.I.S.E. leaders are primarily upperclassmen who are also black and Latino, and many have been through the program themselves. Network Leaders mentor between three and four students at a time, and program administrators also act as mentors. Applications for the leader positions have exceeded availability, and thus such mentoring opportunities have become competitive.

Bria Robinson is a finance and accounting major who joined R.I.S.E. as a freshman mentee. She credits the program with helping her establish a solid foundation for the rest of her college career and molding her into “the studious and proactive student that I am today.” First, she says, R.I.S.E. familiarized her with campus resources such as the career center, where advisors assist students with job and internship applications, and the University Learning Commons, where students can receive tutoring in a variety of subjects.

“It also helped me stay focused on my coursework through the implementation of study sessions throughout each week, as well as midterm meetings, where we would review my grades to pinpoint the areas in which I needed extra help,” she says. When she became a sophomore, Bria acted as a mentor to freshmen within the R.I.S.E. Network; she also was a member of the executive board for the St. John’s chapter of the National Association of Black Accountants.

In the 2017–2018 academic year, the R.I.S.E. program included 315 students, 55 student Network Leaders, and two administrators. We made a strategic decision to grow the program because of the success of our students who have already participated in the program.

Aspire Mentor Program. To support student success after freshman year, in the fall of 2016 we launched this program aimed at students who want to improve their professional readiness skills. Students are matched with alumni mentors who are selected for their work experience, their willingness to engage with our students on a regular basis, and their desire to help students develop the necessary soft skills and competencies for career success.

Many first-generation students in the Aspire mentoring program benefit from the guidance of mentors who provide specific information about how best to prepare for roles in their chosen professions. These mentors also serve as role models of what it means to be a successful professional. By helping current students succeed, our alumni contribute to the university’s ongoing commitment to service and social justice. The population identified for this program includes sophomores and juniors who have demonstrated commitment to career development though previous participation in career workshops or advising activities; however, we are willing to make exceptions for other students who express an interest in participating.

During the yearlong commitment, we expect mentors and mentees to “meet” one or two times per month, whether in person, via phone, through Skype, or through email. The best method to connect really depends on the individual mentor and mentee pair, and we have found that virtual options can be as successful for some participants as face-to- face visits. In addition, technology allows us to bring in mentors who travel extensively or live out of town, as well as full-time students who must keep up with work and family obligations.

In the inaugural year of the program, we invited a select group of students to participate based on their academic performance and their demonstrated interest in professional development. In that first year, 70 students registered, completed training, and were matched with alumni mentors. Senior Joshua Ossai, an international student majoring in finance, was matched with an alumnus who is a managing director at Citibank. Joshua and his mentor spoke by phone or Skype every few weeks as they worked toward a set of agreed-upon goals. For instance, they sculpted Josh’s personal story so it would be relevant to employers, and they worked on perfecting his cover letters.

“My conversations with my mentor were encouraging and very honest,” Josh says. “My mentor’s retrospective view on his journey and career gave me confidence and direction on my next steps in my career at a time when I needed reassurance the most.”

To grow the program, the university has invested in a software platform that will give us a more automated way to recruit students and match participants. About 100 students participated during the 2017–2018 school year; in the fall, we plan to roll it out to all rising juniors who want a mentor.

In addition to these university-wide programs, the Tobin College of Business is working with its board of advisors to ramp up coaching programs that are specific to business majors. Since these programs are optional, students may opt out if they have other commitments.


While mentoring and advising programs can enhance student engagement in university life, we believe that they need to be complemented by academic programs to improve student outcomes in the areas of persistence, retention, and graduation. To accomplish this goal, we offer a series of academic programs with experiential learning components designed to integrate all students into the learning community.

Academic Service Learning Courses. Every student must complete two experiential learning activities that are part of an academic course, carry course credit, and offer no financial reward. These activities also must serve a real and existing need identified by a community agency; involve students in community service that benefits the common good; and have a reflective component in which students consider issues related to social justice. We find that the practical and service aspects of the course appeal to all students—but especially to those most at risk.

In addition, the activities must involve reciprocal relationships. For instance, when we partner with area nonprofits—such as the Ronald McDonald House on Long Island—our students provide pro bono counseling on a strategic challenge presented by the organization. Therefore, while the students gain valuable experience in teamwork, industry research, and executive interaction, the executives gain fresh insight into their challenges. We believe such reciprocity is essential, because service reinforces learning and learning strengthens service.

At the Tobin College of Business, our two required Academic Service Learning courses include our sophomore course in organizational behavior and our senior capstone course, both of which help students develop their skills in communication, teamwork, case analysis, and service. In each course, student teams consult with area nonprofits, which rotate on an annual basis. Executives from these organizations serve as judges every semester when students from the senior capstone course present the final rounds of their consulting cases. The incentive for the teams is not a monetary award, but rather the opportunity to present to executives from these not-for-profit firms.

Global courses. While the Academic Service Learning Courses are required, we give students additional opportunities to enhance their global skills if they choose.

One way is by participating in the Global Loan Opportunities for Budding Entrepreneurs (GLOBE) program, in which students raise money to provide small loans to entrepreneurs in emerging nations. Through GLOBE, students gain experience in donor relations, microlending, and project oversight, and they travel abroad on fully funded trips to visit the countries where they are distributing loans. These include Nicaragua, Vietnam, the Philippines, Kenya, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Nigeria. Since the GLOBE program was founded in 2009, it has collaborated with the Daughters of Charity, a Catholic religious organization, to distribute loans to 160 borrowers. Loans have ranged from US$100 to $3,000. More than 300 students have graduated from the program, which now enrolls nearly 50 students each year. (For more details, see the sidebar “A Fund for the Globe” from the July/August 2017 issue of BizEd.)


Students at St. John’s often report that the courses described here are the most valuable ones of their undergraduate careers. These programs certainly are effective at keeping students in school. Over the past few years, our internal metric of student retention from first to second year has already increased by 4 percent for St. John’s University—and by 6 percent for the Tobin College of Business—and that’s the first big step in keeping students in school all four years.

We know that students who earn bachelor’s degrees benefit in many ways: They enjoy higher rates of employment, higher wages, better nutrition, and longer life expectancies. Society benefits as well, because graduates with bachelor’s degrees enhance economic productivity, lower costs for social welfare and health programs, are more engaged with the community, and contribute to a more diverse workforce. Thus, we will continue to look for ways to attract and retain first-generation students pursuing their bachelor’s degrees.

Given that first-generation and low-income students are particularly susceptible to being left behind—and left out of experiential opportunities—we view it as our responsibility to provide an advising and academic framework that will enhance success for all students, regardless of the income or education level of their families. Our primary objective is, and will always be, success for every student.

Norean R. Sharpe is the dean and the Joseph H. and Maria C. Schwartz Distinguished Chair at the Peter J. Tobin College of Business at St. John’s University in New York City. Kathryn T. Hutchinson is vice president for student affairs at the university.

Read more about ways to support first-generation students in "When Students Come First" and "First-Generation Strategies."

This article originally appeared in BizEd's July/August 2018 issue. Please send questions, comments, or letters to the editor to [email protected].