For years, Texas businessman Eric Suder funded scholarships at the University of Texas, as well as his alma mater, West Virginia University, so that deserving students with financial need would have a chance at a college education. Suder soon learned, however, that the scholarships alone did not guarantee the recipients would graduate.
Looking for other solutions, Suder began to learn more about the challenges faced by first-generation college students, who often lack the cultural capital necessary for college success. They may have high grades and high admissions test scores, but lack family and peer support, have little skill at navigating higher education bureaucracy, and have limited knowledge about the overall college experience. In addition, they often have doubts about their own abilities and a corrosive insecurity that they are not truly "college material."
These findings about the experiences of first-generation college students led Suder and his Suder Family Foundation to start the First Scholars program. This initiative provides scholarship funds for deserving first-generation college students, but also offers what the funder describes as a holistic program for student success that includes support in life-balance skills training, social and campus engagement, academic enrichment, and practical needs support.
What's more, First Scholars students receive this support throughout their college careers, with each year of the program emphasizing a different aspect of student development. The first year focuses on campus connection and helping students acclimate to the college environment. The sophomore year of the program emphasizes optimizing the higher education experience. The third year is all about expanding career opportunities, while the fourth strives to help students transition into the future, going from school to the workplace.
While the program is still relatively new, initial results appear encouraging. Data from the Suder Foundation indicate that First Scholars' participants lead other students overall, as well as other first-generation students, in credit accumulation and college GPAs.
With First Scholars, the Suder Foundation is drilling into an area of higher education philanthropy that many other funders have missed. Sure, other higher education funders are interested in better college access and success for first-generation college students, but Suder's First Scholars program targets a particular group of such students. There are numerous initiatives and funding strategies aimed at promoting college access and success for students with high achievements, as well as those considered at risk. Fewer funders, however, have directed resources at helping the many students situated in the middle. Suder, based in the affluent Dallas suburb of Plano, does just that with this program. First Scholars targets students with financial need whose high school GPA and SAT/ACT scores place them in the middle quartiles of their chosen universities' student bodies.
First Scholars' inaugural cohort entered the University of Kentucky in 2010, and an estimated 80 to 85 percent graduated in 2014. As of 2014, First Scholars serves an estimated 400 students at affiliated universities across the country. University affiliates include the University of Alabama, Southern Illinois University, Washington State, Kansas State, Washington State, and the University of Memphis.
Suder's First Scholars program is instructive in two ways—both for funders and organizations interested in college readiness and postsecondary success. First, it is a reminder that funders who are willing to invest the time in searching for a need not being met can develop a program with tremendous potential for success. Further, it reminds educators, advocacy organizations, and other grantseekers that they must be willing to search extensively for the right funding source for their program or activity.
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