News from the Kessler Schools Collaborative

Defying the odds: From a start amid the pandemic, more than 100 first-generation students this spring reach college graduation with comprehensive support from the Kessler Scholars Program


  • Three programs celebrate first graduating cohorts from fall 2020 launch
  • Ten new programs conclude a first year leading robust first-gen programming

Graduating Kessler Scholars celebrate at Cornell University.

(May 2, 2024) Across the United States, as many as one-half of all students who enroll in college each year come from families where their parents did not earn a bachelor’s degree. These students are resourceful and trailblazing, bringing distinct strengths to the colleges where they enroll. But research shows that less than one-third of first-generation students who start the college journey complete a bachelor’s degree in four years compared to 60 percent of their peers who grew up in households with parents who attained a degree. This graduation season, the Kessler Scholars Collaborative continues to rewrite that story, with an expected 113 graduates earning a college degree across our six inaugural partner campuses. Guided by the distinctive four-year, comprehensive support model of the Kessler Scholars Program, these new college graduates are poised to make broad contributions to their communities and reshape opportunities for future generations.

For the Class of 2024, the path to college graduation presented unprecedented challenges. Students graduating this spring started their college journey in the fall of 2020, amid the constraints of the global COVID-19 pandemic. That fall, the Kessler Scholars Collaborative also launched new programs at three diverse institutions: Johns Hopkins University, Queens College (CUNY), and Syracuse University. This commencement season marks the first graduation for student cohorts at those institutions, each of which has established through the Kessler Scholars Program a distinct cohort-based space of support for first-generation, limited-income students that is responsive to the unique needs of students and goals of the institution. For students, the new program provided a much-needed affirming community at a time of profound disruption. 

“My first encounter with the Kessler Scholars was the summer before my freshman year, and the cohort all met each other online. I was nervous going into college. When we had that first Zoom [meeting], it made it all a little bit easier,” says Kelvin Kwaku Boakye, a Syracuse University senior graduating with a degree in public health. Today, Kelvin says, “My best friend right now – I met her at that first Zoom. What are the odds?”

At Johns Hopkins, the Kessler Scholars Program focuses on support for students pursuing academic majors in the humanities and social sciences, an important distinction at a campus that already has extensive support for students pursuing STEM fields. “Being a Kessler Scholar here at Hopkins has truly enriched my experience, not only by allowing me to form a community with like-minded individuals … but also through providing truly beneficial guidance in navigating undergrad as a first-gen student,” says graduating senior Alex Solis.

Operating within a primarily commuter institution, the Kessler Scholars Program at Queens College has provided support to students to manage costs around transportation and offered an empowering space of connection for first-generation students who otherwise might not find one another on campus. “The word ‘community’ really summarizes what the Kessler Scholars means for me,” says new graduate Luca Xia. “It extends beyond friendship—it extends to social, academic, and personal development. Kessler made me feel like I belong at Queens College.” 

In addition to the first graduating cohorts from these three institutions, the Kessler Scholars Collaborative also celebrate new graduates from earlier established programs at Cornell University, St. Francis College, and the University of Michigan. These seniors will join a Kessler Scholars alumni community of more than 400 program graduates, and in a survey conducted by external evaluation partner Ithaka S+R, 96 percent of graduating seniors said they would encourage high school seniors to become Kessler Scholars at their institution.  

he Kessler Scholars Program Class of 2024 receive their stoles at the University of Michigan graduation celebration.

The reach of the Kessler Scholars for incoming college students does continue to grow. This spring, campus programs at the 10 additional institutions are marking the conclusion of the first year of operations of new Kessler Scholars Programs that launched as part of a unique partnership with the American Talent Initiative (ATI) to promote college access and success for high-achieving students from lower-income families. 

With the award of a $1 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Judy and Fred Wilpon Family Foundation, these institutions joined the Kessler Scholars Collaborative and over the past year have supported some 400 first-year, first-generation students through the start of their college journey–with distinct support to follow the student across their undergraduate career. The 10 new Kessler Scholars partner institutions include diverse representation across higher education, including: Bates College, Brown University, Centre College, Saint Mary’s College (IN), The Ohio State University, University of California-Riverside, University of Dayton, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, University of Pittsburgh, and Washington University in St. Louis. A survey of incoming students in fall 2023 showed that 96% of incoming Kessler Scholars rated their experience with the program as meeting or exceeding their expectations.

“The colleges and universities that are part of the Kessler Scholars Collaborative are proving that comprehensive support designed across the four-year college experience can change outcomes for first-generation, limited-income students,” said Gail Gibson, Executive Director of the Kessler Scholars Collaborative. “Our goal is not just for students to survive the college experience but to assure that they actually thrive as part of a connected community that helps them to feel a strong sense of belonging on campus and to achieve their academic and professional goals.” 

The multi-institution work of the Kessler Scholars Collaborative draws on the model of collective impact, allowing schools to work together to outperform national student success data for first-generation students rather than working in isolation or competition. National education research group Ithaka S+R leads external evaluation of this initiative, and campus-based program leaders come together regularly to share best practices and promote student engagement with a broad network of fellow first-generation scholars. 

Learn more: Read profiles of new graduates from our partner institutions and learn more about the program model of the Kessler Scholars. This work would not be possible without the support of the Wilpon Family Foundation and Bloomberg Philanthropies. 

Contact us: Connect with Executive Director Gail Gibson to learn more or for media inquiries at