How This Foundation Helps First-Generation Students Stay on Track

We've written in the past about the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation's Dell Scholars program, a scholarship program that provides financial and other support to low-income and first generation college students. But there's a dimension of the program that hasn't received as much attention: the use of counseling services that help students cope with challenges ranging from financial and family challenges to the usual stresses of college life.

To provide these services, Dell contracted with ComPsych, the world's largest employee assistance program (EAP). Private and public sector employers have used EAPs to help employees better manage life challenges, ranging from finding day care for children to coping with issues such as substance abuse or the death of a family member. Through these programs, employees can call a counselor by telephone or reach one via an online chat. They can also be referred to an affiliated counselor for face-to-face help.

Dell thought the EAP model was a good fit for the college students served by the Dell Scholars program. ComPsych's customers include many colleges, but typically, those services have been aimed at faculty and staff members. However, the demand for similar options for students has grown in recent years. Student stress, often over money, is one of the biggest factors driving the demand. Studies have shown that challenges such as a past-due bill are enough to derail the educational success of some low-income students, many of whom must work and support their families in addition to attending classes.

Dell Scholars participants receive $20,000 in financial support over six years. They also receive a laptop computer, textbook credits, and access to a private networking group. With EAP-style counseling of the type offered by ComPsych, these students have an additional avenue of support as they navigate through college. Dell thought a counseling option such as ComPsych made more sense than training or hiring staff members for the work. Plus, the funder reports that ComPsych's costs were affordable, averaging $11 per student per year.

Research has shown that students from the bottom family income quartile who enroll in a university are far less likely to complete a degree than their wealthier counterparts. A recent study by the Pell Institute and the University of Pennsylvania found that only 47 percent of low-income college students complete degrees within six years, compared to 76 percent of wealthier students.

With college tuition costs steadily rising, policymakers are paying close attention to such gaps in graduation rates. For colleges and the funders who support them, this underscores the need to develop creative options for helping low-income and first-generation students persist to graduation. Take, for example, the University of Wisconsin's approach, which combines ComPsych services with a kind of early warning indicator system that uses data to flag students at risk of falling behind or dropping out. For example, if a student misses a few classes, academic advisers have been trained to offer the option of contacting a counselor.