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Our Story

The origins of the Kessler Scholars Collaborative trace to the University of Michigan and a single but profound question:

What more could an already robust college scholarship program do to change the lives of more students?

That was the challenge that Judy Kessler Wilpon and Fred Wilpon, U-M alumni who founded the Kessler Scholars Program as a traditional college scholarship award, posed in 2016 to leadership in the university’s College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. To that point, the Kessler Scholars Program, named in honor of Judy Wilpon’s parents, Irene and Morris B. Kessler, had provided last-dollar scholarship awards to more than 200 students over an eight-year period. Its emerging alumni were embarking on careers across every professional field and demonstrating a commitment to giving back that had defined the scholarship and its recipients from the start.

What more, though, might be possible? And what students would benefit most from a rethink of college scholarship support?

In 2017, the Kessler Scholars Program at Michigan welcomed 35 first-generation, limited-income students to a fully redesigned program focused on providing comprehensive support for students whose parents had not earned a four-year college degree. Drawing from research on the experiences and outcomes of first-generation students, the Kessler Scholars Program was restructured to pair financial support with cohort-based activities and individualized guidance—all designed to promote broad academic, personal, and professional success.
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 This refined vision of the Kessler Scholars reflected Fred Wilpon’s own college journey: before he became known as a highly successful New York-based real estate developer and the longtime owner of the New York Mets baseball team, Fred Wilpon attended the University of Michigan in the 1950s as the first person in his family to pursue a college degree. 

The early results from the revamped U-M program showed this was a model that worked. In 2021, the Kessler Scholars graduating cohort had a four-year graduation rate of 83%, higher than their first-generation peers starting at the same time in 2017 (75%) and nearly the same as peers whose parents had an earned bachelor’s degree (84%).

As the refined program model emerged at the University of Michigan, the Wilpon family expanded their commitment to first-generation student support. In fall 2019, the Wilpons supported the launch of a second Kessler Scholars Program at Cornell University. In fall 2020, the family invested in program expansion at Syracuse University and Queens College and at Johns Hopkins University, where early development of a Kessler Scholars Program also was supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies. Together with the McGuire Scholars Program at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, NY, these six campus programs made up the inaugural partners in the Kessler Scholars Collaborative, which began its cross-site work to connect program leaders and students in 2020. 
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In 2022, responding to the broad challenges that first-generation and limited-income students faced across the COVID-19 pandemic, the Judy and Fred Wilpon Family Foundation and Bloomberg Philanthropies agreed to work together to further expand the reach of the Kessler Scholars Collaborative. Ten additional institutions joined the Kessler Scholars Collaborative in 2022 as a partner project with the American Talent Initiative (ATI), a coalition of leading public and private institutions committed to expanding opportunity for low- and moderate-income college students.
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These ten ATI member institutions were selected to launch new Kessler Scholars Programs in fall 2023:


  • 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.