When Students Come First

Two programs improve outcomes for first-generation students by providing stability, support, and a sense of community.
When Students Come First

THE DATA IS IN: Thirty percent of incoming freshmen at U.S. higher education institutions are the first in their families to attend college, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Unfortunately, the first-year dropout rate for these students is four times that of their next-generation peers. Only 11 percent will complete their bachelor’s degrees in six years or less.

But many first-gen students don’t drop out of college because they lack academic ability. Rather, they lack the financial, social, and emotional support they need to navigate college successfully. This realization has inspired universities to provide a framework of services to support first-generation and low-income students. As the discipline that enrolls the greatest percentage of undergraduates on many campuses, more business schools are developing their own retention initiatives.

Two schools—Boston University’s Questrom School of Business in Massachusetts and Rutgers Business School in Newark and New Brunswick, New Jersey—recently adopted new approaches for serving first-gen populations. Although their initiatives have been in place for only a short time, the schools already are seeing positive results in the form of higher rates of enrollment, retention, and on-time degree completion.


Administrators at the Questrom School launched the inaugural Questrom Ascend program at the start of the 2017–2018 academic year. A cohort-based fellowship program, Ascend includes a weeklong course before the start of freshman year; sessions to build leadership skills; and professional development activities such as an executive skills course, corporate visits, and meetings with executives. The school accepted 19 freshmen and 11 upperclassmen into its inaugural cohort. In the future, it plans to accept as many as 50 students into the program.

Although Ascend is designed for students from a range of underrepresented backgrounds, it is particularly well-suited for the first-generation students who currently make up 20 percent of Questrom’s undergraduates, explains Thomas Harwell. Hired in January 2017 as Questrom’s first director of student diversity and inclusion initiatives, Harwell made it his first order of business to have sitdown conversations with students from minority backgrounds to “find their collective voice.” First-generation and minority students alike expressed a need for more academic support and more help navigating the business school system. Most of all, they wanted to feel less marginalized and find a greater sense of community on the BU campus.

Based on these conversations, Ascend was designed to be a “high-touch” program, one that encourages students to build strong personal and professional relationships. For instance, last summer, Ascend’s freshman fellows came to campus for a weeklong immersive experience, in which they met with current students, took tours of campus and the Boston area, made a site visit to Ernst & Young, and completed a ropes course together. During this time, they also met with faculty members from disciplines such as law, organizational behavior, information systems, and marketing; took part in faculty fireside chats; and met with Questrom’s dean, Kenneth Freeman.

FIRSTGEN-Questrom Ascend ropes course
Students tackle a ropes course as part of Ascend, a program for first-generation business students at Boston University.

As a result, once fall classes began, they already were on friendly terms with their professors, says Harwell. That made it far more likely that they would ask questions in class, visit faculty during office hours, and reach out for help when needed.

During their freshman year, Ascend fellows live together in a dedicated living-learning community on two floors of a building on campus known as The Towers, giving them a built-in community to call on for dinners, study groups, or birthday parties. They can attend informational sessions or review their résumés as a group.

The Ascend program will provide academic and professional development opportunities throughout students’ undergraduate experience, starting with a freshman executive skills workshop offered in the fall and taught by Harwell, who also has his career coaching license. In spring 2017, Ascend launched its first professional development series, which included dinners with Corey Thomas, CEO of data analytics firm Rapid7, and Ken Bouyer, director of diversity inclusiveness recruiting for Ernst & Young.

As students progress, the Questrom School will continue to provide opportunities such as job shadowing and career preparation sessions, and Harwell’s office will guide Ascend fellows through traditional Questrom student experiences, such as spending a semester studying abroad. Once the original fellows become seniors, Harwell hopes they will mentor incoming students.

Harwell coordinates Ascend with the help of Cecilia Yudin, assistant director of Questrom’s career development center; Jeffrey Allen, assistant professor and faculty diversity coordinator; and a student program coordinator. Together, they track closely how fellows are progressing through the program, paying particular attention to milestones that traditionally challenge all Questrom students. “Sometimes students sign up for too many credits during registration, or they don’t ask for help early enough after mid-terms because they think they can figure it out on their own,” says Harwell. “We’ll check in at every step to make sure that everybody’s on the right track.”

To support aspects of the program, the Questrom School has been able to repurpose some of its existing resources. Take, for example, the Ascend living-learning community. Boston University historically had dedicated two floors in The Towers to management students, but those floors usually did not fill. Harwell asked Questrom’s assistant dean and BU’s residential director if those floors could be reallocated to Ascend students, and they quickly agreed to the change.

The program also is supported by funds provided by an alum who is passionate about increasing the representation of historically underrepresented groups at college, as well as gifts from other corporate partners and individual donors. Much of this funding goes to pay for the weeklong immersive summer experience for freshmen.

With the program’s first year complete, Harwell hopes to do more to educate faculty about the needs of these students—particularly how their identification as minority, low-income, or first-generation can affect their ability to be successful in college. “It can keep them from bringing their full selves to Harwell is proud that even though Ascend is still a young program, students already have expressed gratitudethe classroom,” says Harwell.

Harwell is proud that even though Ascend is still a young program, students already have expressed gratitude for the community it provides. “One young woman wrote that the idea of coming to Boston University was daunting, but that her experience in Ascend has given her a renewed sense of self and of her ability to be successful,” he says. “These students are making Questrom their own space—they’re working in the undergraduate development centers, the graduate admissions office, the dean’s office. They’re living up to the high bar they set for themselves as a collective, and they’re demanding the same of us. That has been really inspiring.”


At Rutgers Business School (RBS) at Rutgers University in New Jersey, the key to supporting first-generation students is a suite of programs called RBS-PLUS (Pathways Leading to Undergraduate Success), launched in 2013. Delivered through the business school’s office of diversity, RBS-PLUS doesn’t just support its current first-generation and low-income undergraduates. It also reaches out to high school students to offer guidance just as they’re beginning their college preparation.

RBS-PLUS comprises a series of programs, each targeting students at a different stage:

RBS NextUP is designed for freshmen and sophomores in high school. Each year, the school invites 100 high school students from disadvantaged backgrounds to each of its campuses—located in Newark and New Brunswick—for a free one-day college exploratory experience. NextUP students interact with faculty and staff, corporate leaders, and business students to learn more about Rutgers Business School and the benefits of business education.

RBS-PREP, or the Pre-College Enrichment Program, is a free 16-week college program that invites applications from 11th graders at high schools across the state of New Jersey—especially those who already have participated in NextUP. Forty students are selected to enroll, 20 on each campus. Every Saturday during the spring semester, those 40 students spend the morning taking a business course alongside traditional undergraduates; they will earn full academic credit for the course. After lunch, they spend the afternoon touring campus, preparing college applications, writing résumés, taking field trips, or listening to guest speakers. They also meet with faculty, staff, and representatives from student campus groups.

It’s a “power-packed program,” says Charles Brown, assistant dean. “Students who complete RBS-Prep earn three college credits before they’ve even entered their senior year of high school.”

Brown’s office maintains contact with these high school seniors, bringing those who are interested back to campus for a college preparation workshop. There, they are given financial aid information, as well as application fee waivers if they choose to apply to RBS.

B-STAR, or the Business Student Transition at Rutgers, is the final stage of RBS-PLUS and its signature program. Through this two-tier program, the business school identifies and supports high-performing, high-potential freshmen who identify as minority and first-generation. Students who have B-STAR, or the Business Student Transition at Rutgers, is the final stage of RBS-PLUS and its signature program. Through this two-tier program, the business school identifies and supports high-performing, high-potential freshmen who identify as minority and first-generation.

In the program’s first tier, B-STAR students have the option of attending an intensive, six-week summer academic and residential program before they begin freshman year. While living on campus from Monday to Friday, they take two courses for academic credit, again at no cost. Students at Newark take English composition and management information systems courses; those at New Brunswick take expository writing and introduction to business courses. When they’re not in class, they visit corporate offices and attend career-building and résumé-writing workshops.

In its second tier, B-STAR follows up with these students throughout their undergraduate programs, providing support services, resources, and leadership development opportunities. Every B-STAR student must meet with Brown or the program coordinator at least once each semester. “This way, we’re able to put out any smoke before it turns into fire,” says Brown.

Students who have gone through all three stages of RBS-PLUS have two significant advantages once they enroll in the business school as freshmen. First, they are very familiar with the Rutgers campus. “Our B-STAR students actually become ambassadors who help our other first-year students,” Brown says. Second, they enter their freshman years with nine academic credits under their belts.

FIRSTGEN-Rutgers B-Star 2
Students in Rutgers Business School's 8-STAR program went to New York City last summer to participate in a job shadowing experience at the Federal Reserve Bank and the Museum of American Finance.

When Brown describes the program to parents and guidance counselors, he makes certain to emphasize the head start these college credits can provide to students. “We let them know that while we don’t offer scholarships, we estimate that we save students around US$15,000 in tuition, books, and room and board,” says Brown.

In fact, because these high school students are exposed to college so early, many take additional college courses outside of the RBS-PLUS program. For instance, one B-STAR student entered the program with so many credits that she was able to enter the business school as a junior.

While it might seem that high schools would be lining their students up to participate in RBS-PLUS programs, that’s not always the case. Brown says that one of the biggest challenges his office faces is getting the attention of K-12 administrators and guidance counselors. For instance, last summer Brown and his staff sent high schools information about the NextUP programs that would occur in November and December. By October, the school still had not filled the program’s 40 available slots.

Brown is shocked at how often this happens. “You would think we would have a line of students around the corner for a program like this.” His office uses hard mail and email to inform high school guidance counselors and administrators about the program, but he finds they don’t always share the information with students and parents in a timely fashion. Results are far better when Brown and his staff visit high schools in person, but they don’t have the capacity to travel to all the New Jersey schools. So far, Brown has addressed this challenge by asking several of Rutgers’ local nongovernmental organization partners to help get the word out.

That challenge aside, Brown hopes to expand the value of RBS-PLUS even more through the business school’s newly launched RBS-CEO network. Through the network, business leaders at companies such as Goldman Sachs, UBS, KPMG, and Ernst & Young come to campus multiple times each semester to connect with students at workshops, guest lectures, and etiquette dinners. “These meetings provide companies with opportunities to establish a rapport with our students,” says Brown.

Brown hopes the RBS-CEO network will lead to more internship opportunities and more funding to support additional diversity programming. Since the CEO network launched in spring 2017, several freshmen already have been invited by the school’s corporate partners to work as summer interns. Such opportunities put B-STAR students ahead of the game, says Brown, because most RBS students don’t secure internships until the end of sophomore or the beginning of junior year.

Also on Brown’s agenda: to conduct more outreach to parents, who are often as uncertain about the college process as their children. For instance, Rutgers Business School Newark is a Hispanic-serving university, so the business school plans to deliver some parental workshops entirely in Spanish. Brown and his team are also looking into new ways of disseminating information and updates to parents, perhaps through a dedicated newsletter.

Even though the office of diversity is still very young, Brown is extremely proud of what it has accomplished. Through RBS-PLUS, the business school has been able to increase its minority student population and streamline the admissions and recruitment process. Most important, so far 100 percent of B-STAR students have finished their freshman years, and 96 percent finished their sophomore years. Last year, AACSB International recognized B-STAR as one of its 2017 Innovations That Inspire.

But perhaps the biggest advantage of the RBS-PLUS program is its transformative power, says Brown. “These programs give us the ability to change one student’s life, and in doing so we have an opportunity to change generations to come,” he says. “Our students have grabbed hold of this opportunity, and they’re running with it. They are challenging themselves and trying so hard because they really see this as a way to transcend not just their own futures, but the futures of their families.”


When it comes to serving first-gen students, Harwell of Boston University offers faculty this piece of advice: Never assume that students will speak up if they need help. “That’s a poor assumption,” he says, “because these are students who have lived in a system that may or may not have served them well historically. Empathy is a key component of working with this group.”

Harwell encourages all educators to get to know more about the first-generation student experience by taking advantage of the ever-growing array of diversity-based content now available online. For his part, he regularly reads content such as Fortune magazine’s “raceAhead,” a daily digest of articles related to diversity in business, and listens to podcasts such as The New York Times’ “Still Processing,” in which journalists Wesley Morris and Jenna Wortham explore the experiences of minorities.

He also thinks it’s important for schools to do more to share and celebrate students’ stories in more visible ways. For example, Questrom recently created a dedicated Instagram page called “Humans of Questrom,” where it features students’ images and experiences. “It’s important to understand the individual narratives at play, and to understand and acknowledge the themes affecting our students,” Harwell says. Through Humans of Questrom, he adds, the school is able to feature students from a wide variety of backgrounds, but the platform also serves to amplify the voices of individual students who might have felt silenced in the past.

Both Brown and Harwell have found that most first-generation and low-income students have the intellect and ability to thrive in business school—they simply do not have a blueprint to follow when it comes to navigating the process, such as filling out college applications and financial aid forms. “Our students excel in academia, but they lack that encouragement,” says Brown. “We want to expose our students to different opportunities that they might not otherwise know exist and encourage and inspire them to push forward.”

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

Read more about best practices for serving first-generation student populations, including approaches adopted by the University of Texas, the University of Michigan, and others.

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