How small colleges can be leaders on first-generation student success

Centre College's cohort model, built on a transformational gift, is leading to higher enrollment and completion.

Good fortune struck Centre College eight years ago when David and Marlene Grissom pledged a record-setting donation to the Danville, Ky. institution that targeted first-generation students.

Since then, the Grissom Scholars Program not only has helped Centre College double the number of first-generation students on its rural campus, but it also has graduated nearly all of them. Its success has been punctuated by a $1 million boost from the American Talent Initiative to join its Kessler Scholars Collaborative as well as another anonymous donation of $10 million.

Poised to grow in the future, Grissom Scholars provides 10 students each year with full, four-year tuition scholarships. Not every institution has the capital to build out a program the way Centre has. However, associate dean and director Sarah Scott says colleges of any size—Centre has just 1,400 students—can be transformational for students who are the first in their families to go to college but often lack the support to get to completion.

“The percentage of first-generation students just keeps growing,” Scott says. “It’s a wise use of funding, especially for those who come from low-income families. It can break a cycle of poverty. It affects aunts and uncles, cousins, their future families. It’s so much more than the students. It’s really overwhelming to think of the ripples of positive change that have come from the students getting the opportunity to receive an excellent education. It’s a good thing for our nation. Any schools that are thinking about doing it should just do it.”

That’s because the outcomes can be fantastic, for both students and the institution. Centre’s first cohort in the Grissom program outpaced Centre’s overall graduating class for students going to graduate school and professional school, and they often  pursue doctorates at larger institutions such as Vanderbilt, the University of Chicago and Arizona State University. Students of color and those who come from out of state, where Centre traditionally pulls 50% of its overall pool have also increased.

Scott says simply, “They’re making this institution stronger.”

How they built it

For any college looking to build a strong first-gen framework, one important lesson learned by Scott and the Centre team was having the time to develop it. Scott was given a year to research other models, pitch its benefits and conduct interviews with various stakeholders, including high school counselors and community-based organizations.

“Probably the most helpful thing that I did in that year prior to the program beginning was to talk with the students and alums, just listening to what they had to say about what they would have liked and what they needed,” Scott says. “It was easy. It was free. I’ve tried to really listen to the current students and make changes as needed along the way.”

What they asked for was a four-year cohort structure and to be connected to those with similar backgrounds and interests. “First-generation students really wanted that continuity and to have a safe home base that they could talk about anything with a group who would understand the struggles.” Centre also latched onto the notion of a mentor piece – Big Brother, Big Sister – where older students could impart first-hand knowledge of pitfalls and resources available to them.

More from UB: How colleges can rise to a higher level to help first-generation students

It sounded great in theory, but Scott knew a big piece of the success would be how well other campus leaders would embrace it. Wondering whether it would get any traction, she sent an email to faculty and staff to gauge their interest in helping. “I sent it right before school started, perhaps the busiest time and the worst time to send an email soliciting help. Ninety people, faculty and staff, responded. A lot of them were first-generation graduates who were passionate about paying it forward. It was amazing. The first cohort of the Grissom program, those students paved the way for other students.”

The pipeline of first-generation students has been growing at Centre and institutions nationwide, with alumni and outside donors providing huge gifts to support them, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. The extra $10 million infusion Centre received in April, for example, will give every new first-gen student an extra $5,000 (Grissom scholars already get $5,000) that they can use toward academic pursuits such as research or internships, devices, health care needs or travel.

“One of the great things about the program is the emergency fund,” Scott says. “If there’s an emergency at home, it can be really difficult to commit to coming to school if you don’t have the resources to be able to go home quickly. We pay for their travel if there’s an emergency. We don’t want it to be a burden to connect with family. I’ve been here 20 years, and I’ve seen a lot of students leave different institutions because of something outside their control. That’s the last thing we want.”

Centre has worked hard to promote the benefits and merits of Grissom, both online and in traditional channels. It even created visual signifiers across campus specifically highlighting the success of scholars. “Students see it everywhere, and it makes a difference,” Scott says. “The other message they get is that we see first-generation students as leaders.”

Once in place, a program like Centre’s almost grows itself. Scott says she reached out to alums and students to ask them about their positive experiences, and she received six pages worth of testimonials. “I’m a crier, and that made me cry,” she says. “They know this is a place where there’s a tremendous amount of first-gen success.  I want them to see themselves as we see them. Sometimes, it takes a while for people to see their potential. What we’re trying to do at an early stage here is say, Centre is lucky to have you.”

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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