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The First Scholars Network: Unlocking success for state systems in higher education

Center for First-generation Student Success / October 12, 2023


shape of Tennessee with TBR and First Scholars logos

The Tennessee Board of Regents was looking for a way to improve first-generation student success for the thirteen community colleges in its system—comprising all two-year public institutions in the state.

With that goal in mind, Dr. Heidi Leming, vice chancellor for student success for the Tennessee Board of Regents, chose to attend an event held at the NASPA Annual Conference hosted by the Center for First-generation Student Success, where she learned about the First Scholars Network.

The First Scholars Network offers a national model for scaling holistic first-generation student success by engaging and empowering institutions of higher education to transform the first-generation student experience, advance academic and co-curricular outcomes, and build more inclusive institutional structures.

Dr. Leming saw an opportunity for the College System of Tennessee—all community colleges in Tennessee—to join the FIrst Scholars Network, partnering with the Center to empower first-generation students across the state through a systematic approach to first-generation student success.

“This is a systemwide effort to equip our two-year public institutions with the tools and resources they need to further first-generation student success,” said Leming. “A large percentage of the more than 70,000 students enrolled in our state’s community colleges identify as first-generation students, and it’s our goal to give each one of these students the support they need to graduate and achieve their career goals.”

In the ever-evolving landscape of higher education, the focus on supporting first-generation college students remains a top priority. Currently, 349 higher education institutions, representing 49 states and the District of Columbia, have not only joined but thrived within the First Scholars Network.

The Tennessee Board of Regents partnership, however, is unique in that it’s the first statewide system to join the Network as a group—and the plan is to use this as a template for other states to follow.

“The Center recently announced a commitment to serving over 700 institutions through the Network in the next five years,” said Kyle Nixon, director of Network Expansion and Operations for the Center. “This growth provides us the opportunity to enroll state systems as a group rather than individual colleges and universities. There are so many advantages to this approach for our Network Members: moving through the First Scholars Network journey with peer institutions in your region, learning from each other, and bringing a dedicated commitment to first-generation student success for all.”

“The impact of our partnership with the Tennessee Board of Regents and its community colleges extends beyond Tennessee; it will serve as a model for other states to emulate moving forward,” said Dr. Stephanie Bannister, assistant vice president at the Center for First-generation Student Success. “This is an opportunity for us to partner on system-wide transformation, and we are thrilled to get started.”

The next application cycle to join the First Scholars Network will launch in February 2024. If you are part of a state wishing to create system-wide change, consider completing the First Scholars Network Interest Form. A representative from the Center will connect with you, providing additional information and dates for upcoming interest meetings where you can learn more and ask questions.

“I want to encourage any institution or state system to fill out our interest form or contact us at [email protected],” said Zachery Holder, assistant director for Network Expansion with the Center. “Together, a partnership opportunity like this one can make a profound impact on first-gen student success across entire states, affecting thousands of students, for years to come.”