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Kessler Scholars Collaborative: An Emerging Initiative to Support First-gen Students at Six Diverse Institutions

Shakima M. Clency, M.S. & Gail Gibson, Ph.D. , Cornell University & University of Michigan / The Center / October 14, 2020

Amid the broad-scale disruption in higher education due to COVID-19, a new multi-institution project intended to create robust and innovative support for first-generation college students has emerged as a bright spot of promise.

The Kessler Scholars Collaborative includes six diverse colleges and universities that provide cohort-based support systems for limited-income, first-generation college students. The first Kessler Presidential Scholars program was established in 1998 at the University of Michigan by Judy Kessler Wilpon and Fred Wilpon, the longtime owner of the New York Mets. Fred was first in his family to go to college when he earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan.

Steadily, the Wilpons have expanded their investment in first-generation student support, establishing new programs at Saint Francis College in 2015 and the Kessler Presidential Scholars program at Cornell University in 2019. This fall, we saw the launch of three additional programs at Queens College, Syracuse University, and at Johns Hopkins University, where the Wilpon family collaborated with Bloomberg Philanthropies to create programming intended to reimagine how first-generation students experience higher education.

By building community and connecting students with one another and staff dedicated to their success, Kessler Scholars are empowered to be leaders.

At each institution, the model of the Kessler Presidential Scholars program combines highly individualized staff guidance with distinct, cohort-driven programming to build a layered system of support for students as they navigate academic, financial, personal, and institutional challenges. The Kessler Scholars model looks beyond the initial point of access to consider what resources and opportunities will allow students to thrive and experience a clear sense of belonging across their undergraduate journey.

“By building community and connecting students with one another and staff dedicated to their success, Kessler Scholars are empowered to be leaders,” Fred Wilpon said in explaining his vision for this expanding network of first-generation student support. “In turn, we know these same students will give back to their communities and the students who follow behind them.”

Even though the size and scope of the programs vary based on local institutional context, the Kessler Scholars Collaborative stands out in the higher education landscape with the intentional collaborative spirit of this emerging network. Leaders from each institution meet monthly to share best practices, co-design programs, and establish goals and outcomes. One goal of the collaborative is to offer opportunities for the Kessler Scholars to come together in community through joint programs. Another goal is to use multi-institutional data and lessons learned to inform our decision making and enhance our collective work in support of first-generation students.

Evaluation and assessment support for the project is being led by the Center for Education Design, Evaluation, and Research, based in the University of Michigan’s School of Education. The evaluation team supports each institution with site-level program tracking and measurement. More broadly, the evaluation team will provide regular reporting on the collective work of the schools, exploring distinct features of the model across sites, what aspects of the model promote the strongest outcomes, and how community-building influences student experiences.

While the Kessler Scholars Collaborative is unique and launched under unprecedented conditions, may it serve as a model to inspire more cross institutional collaboration and engagement to capitalize on shared knowledge, expertise, and strategies to transform the first-gen student experience.

For more information on the Kessler Scholars Collective at Cornell University, please visit their website here.