First-Generation Strategies

How higher education can clear away obstacles and open doors to better serve underrepresented student populations.

As a college education is increasingly seen as a path out of poverty, higher education institutions are re-examining the financial and academic support they make available to first-generation students. As a result, they’re doing more in the following four areas to better serve this unique demographic:

Dedicated scholarships. Last September, Harvard Business School received US$12 million from donors Jeannie and Jonathan Lavine, who want most of the funds to be used to help first-generation students finance their educations. Of that amount, $10 million will support the Lavine Family Fellowship Challenge Fund, which has been created to encourage others to make gifts that support scholarships. The Lavines’ gift also will include two $1 million endowments to create the Lavine Family Fellowship and the Herbert J. Bachelor Fellowship.

“For many students, being admitted to Harvard Business School becomes a reality only when they know there is financial support available to make it possible for them to attend,” says Nitin Nohria, dean of Harvard Business School, in a school statement. For this reason, once students gain admission based on merit, their individual financial situations will be evaluated to assess fellowship eligibility. The Lavines have asked that students who are first in their families to attend college be given particular consideration, in honor of Jeannie Lavine’s father Herbert Bachelor, who was first in his family to receive a college degree. “We know that intellect is not distributed based on income,” says Jeannie Lavine, “and neither should a top education.”

Another school dedicating scholarship money to first –generation students is the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin. For the first time, it will offer a full-ride scholarship to a participant in Subiendo: The Academy for Rising Leaders. Started in 2009, Subiendo (Spanish for “rise” or “advance”) is McCombs’ weeklong summer leadership program for high school students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Each summer, the school brings 80 seniors from across Texas to campus to experience college life firsthand, as they attend lectures and workshops; these students also complete a team challenge focused on policy issues such as healthcare and energy.

The annual scholarship will be paid for through a $1 million endowment, established from a donation by Gary Crum and Sylvie Crum of the Houston-based CFP Foundation. Eventually, their donation will support two scholarship recipients through four years of college.

In addition, McCombs has received $500,000 from Carolyn and Preston Butcher, which will be used to establish a third endowed Subiendo scholarship. The school is currently seeking another donor to endow a fourth.

Ninety-seven percent of Subiendo participants eventually enroll in college. Of these, about a third attend McCombs, while others matriculate at a range of universities across the U.S.

“These scholarship opportunities will open doors for students who may not have perceived the college of their dreams as a possibility, and it's not because the talent wasn't there,” says Subiendo director Letitia Acosta. “I have no doubt that these gifts are going to make a big impact in many students’ lives.”

One-on-one coaching. Some universities are turning to firms that specialize in improving student enrollment, retention, and graduation rates. One such firm is InsideTrack. With offices in Portland, Oregon, and Nashville, Tennessee, InsideTrack has provided its student coaching services since 2001.

Cory Kirshner-Lira, a senior coach at InsideTrack, has worked with thousands of first-generation students. With no family and few friends who have enrolled in college, first-generation students often lack exposure to the networks and norms that drive upward social mobility, she says. “It’s critical to assist them in developing effective networking and communication skills, along with the self-confidence to demonstrate their value no matter the setting.”

She refers to Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis in Indiana as one school that has embraced strength-based coaching for first-generation students. At IUPUI, InsideTrack coaches connect with at-risk students via face-to-face meetings, phone, email, and texts on an ongoing basis. In addition to academic support, the coaches help students develop “noncognitive” skills, such as time management, communication, and personal accountability. Using this approach, IUPUI has seen its retention rates for at-risk students increase from 50 percent historically to 63 percent in the fall of 2017.

“First-generation students typically arrive with a wealth of experience navigating challenges and persevering through adversity,” says Kirshner-Lira. “I see my role as supporting these students in applying these strengths to the higher education context.”

Lisa Thompson, an InsideTrack senior coach who specializes in working with business students, emphasizes the importance of confirming students’ underlying motivations for studying business. “Business is an extremely broad major, and for some first-generation students, it can simply be shorthand for ‘increased upward mobility,’” she notes. If that’s the case, students might enroll in business programs only to discover that they have very little interest in pursuing business careers.

Thompson mentions the Strong Start program at Penn State World Campus as an example of a program that works to ensure that students choose their careers more deliberately. Through Strong Start, coaches work with students upon admission to help them define their educational goals, select programs that best fit those goals, connect to campus resources, and develop plans for completing their studies. This approach has helped the school decrease the rate at which admitted students do not enroll—the “melt rate”—by 9.75 percent. Coaches continue to work with students through the beginning stages of their college careers to develop skills such as time management and self-advocacy.

Both Kirshner-Lira and Thompson offer a final piece of advice to business schools that want to improve outcomes for their first-generation students: engage students via multiple channels of communication. Smartphones are more likely to be the primary computing device for these students, making texting and mobile apps strong tools for initial engagement. However, these coaches stress that mobile communication should supplement, not replace, voice, video conferencing, and in-person interaction for the long term.

Open-enrollment programs. Several preparatory programs at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business in Ann Arbor are open to students from all backgrounds. However, Michigan Ross has made sure to embed within these programs features that specifically meet the needs of first-generation and underserved students. These include MREACH, an outreach program that exposes high school students to college life and business careers; and the Ross Summer Connection, a four-week residential program that immerses incoming freshmen in campus life.

A third program, the Preparation Initiative (PI), is a good example of a program that is available to all students, but whose design keeps underserved students in mind, says Rhonda Todd, the school’s director of academic success. Open to U-M freshmen who intend to apply to the Ross BBA as sophomores and who have enrolled in at least one prerequisite course, PI is geared to students who “have demonstrated the skills to become socially responsible leaders,” says Todd. “We provide them with the resources, mentorship, and support to prepare them to attend Michigan Ross and follow their career paths.”

Students are responsible for meeting the program expectations, such as attending weekly seminars, advising meetings, and coaching sessions; in addition, they are required to meet biweekly with a Ross BBA who also participated in PI. They also have the option to take mock exams twice prior to every midterm and final exam. “We continue providing resources to students once they are accepted into Ross,” says Todd. “And, of course, we find time for social events and senior graduation celebrations.”

Through PI, Michigan Ross has increased the number of successful applications to its undergraduate program. Most notably, says Todd, four-year graduation rates for PI students are 13 percent higher than for similar students who did not participate in PI.

As an example of this success, Todd points to one PI participant, Amber Blanks, who graduated from Ross with her BBA in 2016 and stayed on to earn her master’s in accounting in 2017. “Amber immersed herself in the business school environment and learned about career options, first as a participant in PI, then as a mentor, and then a seminar assistant her junior and senior years,” Todd says. “By the time she enrolled in the MAcc program, she became an administrative assistant in PI, and she's now working at EY in Detroit. The professional and personal development she gained through her time in PI is just one illustration of how these programs are truly impactful.”

Exchange of best practices. Some schools have joined forces to amplify the impact of their first-generation programs. The University Innovation Alliance (UIA) is one such example, formed as a consortium pf 11 public research higher education institutions. UIA member schools include Arizona State University, Georgia State University, Iowa State University, Michigan State University, Oregon State University, Purdue University, The Ohio State University, University of California in Riverside, University of Central Florida, University of Kansas, and The University of Texas at Austin.

Since its launch in September 2014, the UIA reports that its member schools have increased their college completion rates for low-income graduates by 24.7 percent; they’ve also increased the total number of undergraduate degrees they have conferred by 9.2 percent, from 79,170 to 86,436. At that rate, the UIA predicts these schools will graduate an additional 94,000 students by 2025.

The UIA touts several of the successful strategies implemented at its member schools. For example, DirectConnect at the University of Central Florida in Orlando was created to increase the number of Hispanics who earn college degrees. Through DirectConnect, students who are denied admission to UCF as freshmen, but who go on to receive associate’s degrees from community colleges, are guaranteed admission to UCF as juniors. The program has increased the number of associate degree holders who transfer into UCF’s undergraduate program by 69 percent.

The UIA now is promoting the adoption of predictive analytics strategies at all of its member schools, so administrators are better able to identify at-risk students and intervene with academic or financial solutions. One such system is eAdvisor, developed at Arizona State University in Tempe. The data mining platform tracks students as they enroll in courses and complete milestone assignments. When students fall behind, fail to enroll in required courses, or do not declare their majors on schedule, the system throws up flags to let them know they’ve gone off track and suggests what they need to do to correct their course—or, if necessary, to rethink their plans. Since ASU implemented this system in 2008–2009, it has increased its freshman retention rate by 9.5 percent and its six-year graduation rate by 19.3 percent.

A similar program at Georgia State has increased semester-to-semester student retention by 5 percent and decreased time to degree completion by a half semester. The school reports that this intervention saved the members of its 2014 graduating class nearly $10 million in tuition and fees.

The UIA has asked ASU and Georgia State—along with UT-Austin, which has implemented a similar system to identify freshmen who might need additional preparation before they start classes—to mentor its other member schools as they implement similar programs. The UIA estimates that if all U.S. public universities employed predictive analytics, they would potentially keep 335,000 additional students in college each year and save students $2.2 billion in annual tuition and fees.

In its most recent project, the UIA will provide completion grants to students at its member universities to help remove financial obstacles that could keep them from graduating. All UIA campuses are matching funds donated by philanthropic organizations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Lumina Foundation, Ford Foundation, ECMC, Great Lakes Higher Education Corporation & Affiliates, Strada Education, and the Kresge Foundation.

“Three years ago, 11 presidents and chancellors set ambitious public goals and agreed to hold each other accountable by publicly reporting on their progress,” says Bridget Burns, executive director of the UIA. “At the same time, the opaqueness around results for Pell grantees—often a proxy for low-income students—makes it difficult for us to benchmark our progress nationally. We hope that more universities join us in setting and reporting on ambitious goals so that together we can help unlock the promise of a postsecondary degree for more students.”

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

To learn more about InsideTrack, Subiendo, and the University Innovation Alliance, visit their websites at,, and