Wal-Mart's $10-Million Diplomas

Grants to colleges help first-generation students graduate

Kristine Paulsen for The Chronicle

Susie Sanchez-Goss (right), a student at Salish Kootenai College, in Montana, gets help from a skills tutor.
February 14, 2010

Students quit college for all kinds of reasons. They can't pay; they have to work; they struggle academically. When they're the first in their families to pursue higher education, the hurdles can seem higher. Just getting to college does not guarantee success.

Numerous studies have found that first-generation students are much less likely to graduate. They enroll less prepared and less confident than their classmates whose parents have degrees, and their performance is worse, according to data from the Higher Education Research Institute and the U.S. Education Department.

There is more consensus on these disparities than there is on the solutions. The Wal-Mart Foundation is trying to change that.

Calling the graduation of first-generation students a top priority, Wal-Mart has awarded nearly $10-million in the last two years to help colleges raise their retention rates.

The focus is no surprise. Margaret A. McKenna became president of the Wal-Mart Foundation in 2007, after more than 20 years as president of Lesley University, in Cambridge, Mass., where first-generation students represent about a third of the undergraduates. National statistics are similar. More than a third of undergraduates in 2007-8 had parents with, at most, a high-school diploma, according to the Education Department. Nineteen percent had parents with some postsecondary experience but no degree. And those numbers are expected to grow as the high-school population diversifies.

By 2022, almost half of all new public high-school graduates are projected to be members of minority groups, many of which have been historically underserved in higher education. If those students go on to college, they are more likely than their white counterparts to be the first in their families to do so.

At the same time, national discussions on accountability and student success have directed more attention to first-generation students. And educators are saying that many more of them will have to graduate to meet President Obama's goal of the United States' having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.

Campuses with Wal-Mart grants are pursuing a variety of strategies to help more students graduate. "Our goal," says Ms. McKenna, "was to encourage schools to do what they thought made sense."

Different Approaches

Wal-Mart has given $5.3-million to the Council of Independent Colleges, to make grants to its small, private members; the group announced 20 in 2008 and plans to award 30 more next month. And the foundation has given $4.2-million to the Institute for Higher Education Policy, which made 15 grants to minority-serving institutions last year and will announce another 15 this month. All awards are $100,000, except 10 of the next CIC grants, which will be half that. The small private colleges are largely focused on improving retention through student services, and the minority-serving institutions, through academics.

Ripon College, in Wisconsin, for example, is concentrating on career preparation. It has placed first-generation students in shadowing positions—an anthropology major in a museum, a psychology major in a school counseling office—and paid them. Other colleges have developed summer preparation programs or series of workshops on study skills and stress management; some are providing scholarships or textbook stipends. The College of Saint Scholastica, in Minnesota, is reaching out to first-generation students' families, with receptions on the campus and monthly newsletters to explain processes like registering for courses and choosing a major.

Many of the academic projects at the minority-serving institutions involve faculty development, remedial courses, or learning communities. At Norfolk State University, professors are meeting to discuss self-directed learning among first-generation students. LaGuardia Community College is helping its continuing-education students transfer to degree programs and enroll in learning communities. Both groups of grantees have compared notes and shared ideas at summer meetings and on campus visits. The higher-education institute is assigning consultants to each campus, and the independent-colleges group plans to develop Webinars and an e-mail list.

Measures of Success

Several institutions were wary of singling out students and perhaps reinforcing their doubts. "The great challenge when you do something like this is that you not marginalize or stigmatize the students," says John N. Gardner, executive director of the Policy Center on the First Year of College. But many campuses were surprised at students' response. Bellarmine University, in Louisville, Ky., created a program that offers workshops, peer mentors, and T-shirts, which Sean J. Ryan, vice president for enrollment management, expected students not to wear. He was wrong: "They walk around campus with the shirts on, 'I'm a Pioneer Scholar.'"

Who counts as first generation can vary. By the most common definition, neither parent has a bachelor's degree. At some institutions, particularly two-year colleges, neither has an associate degree, either. Whether foreign diplomas count is another question. But however colleges define first-generation students, they're trying to track them.

Retention and graduation rates are the main measures of success, but not the only ones. Campuses with Wal-Mart grants are also looking at scores on placement tests after summer programs, pass rates in remedial or introductory courses, GPA's, and participation in voluntary first-generation activities. When the grants run out, colleges hope that encouraging data will keep their programs alive. If fewer students are dropping out, the logic goes, it will make financial sense for institutions themselves to support these efforts.

Successful strategies will be published by both national groups in a few years' time. "We want programs that can be picked up and adapted by other institutions," says Lacey H. Leegwater, director of programs and planning at the Institute for Higher Education Policy. The small private institutions, with the discretion and scale to experiment, may find some approaches that large public universities can mimic, as they have with honors programs and living-learning communities, says Barbara Hetrick, senior vice president of the Council of Independent Colleges. "The state universities," she says, "would be well advised to look at what privates are doing."

Curiosity is running high. A few institutions joined the independent-colleges group just to qualify for the Wal-Mart grants. And some universities that did not win awards from the higher-education institute attended its summer meeting anyway, to pick up ideas. Meanwhile, Wal-Mart may not be finished giving out money. "There's enormous interest," says Ms. McKenna, "in figuring this out."