Making the Transition: A Gift to Acclimate First-Time Students to an Elite University

Dan Lewis/shutterstock

Dan Lewis/shutterstock

One of the hottest trends in higher ed funding right now finds donors looking to expand accessibility to elite colleges.

Michael Bloomberg famously gave Johns Hopkins University $1.8 billion for financial aid. A few months later, the Perelman Family Foundation made a $65 million commitment to house Princeton’s soon-to-be-expanded undergraduate population, and with it, more low-income students.

But what happens after these students get accepted to said elite institutions? The data here isn’t encouraging. Faced with a host of academic, social, financial and health-related challenges, economically disadvantaged students tend to drop out, on average, at a much higher rate than their more well-to-do peers. All of which makes news out of Hanover, New Hampshire intriguing.

Dartmouth College announced it is “reaffirming and expanding its commitment” to help first-generation and low-income students, thanks to $13 million in private gifts, including a $10 million commitment from A. George “Skip” Battle ’66. The gifts will “create a more robust and comprehensive package of initiatives to support first-generation, low-income students as they make the transition to a highly selective academic environment.”

The funding will enable Dartmouth to expand its First Year Student Enrichment Program’s (FYSEP) pre-orientation “introduction to college life” initiative from five days to four weeks and create a cadre of peer academic coaches to help students get acclimated. Established in 2009, FYSEP supports incoming students of limited financial means who are the first in their families to attend college. The program will be fully expanded by 2020 and will serve approximately 100 members of the Class of 2024. Dartmouth intends to raise the remaining $5 million needed over the coming year.

For lead donor Skip Battle, the issue is a highly personal one. “Income inequality is one of the urgent concerns of our time,” said Battle, who was the first member of his family to attend a four-year college. “Over the past decade, Dartmouth has done a good job of opening its arms to prospective students who have the character and the capability to do well here—regardless of their resources—but making the transition today can be so much harder than when I was a student.”

Acclimation Challenges

On the surface, it would appear difficult to find anything wrong with a donor giving big to help an economically disadvantaged student gain access to an elite institution like Johns Hopkins, Princeton or Dartmouth. But that hasn’t stopped critics from calling into question the utility of these kinds of gifts.

Opponents like Vox’s Dylan Matthews argue that the millions flowing to already wealthy schools (Dartmouth’s endowment stands at $5.5 billion) could be better spent combating malaria, opioid addiction and suicide prevention. Within the realm of higher education, researchers like Ray Franke, an assistant professor of higher education at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, and Bill Spriggs, an economics professor at Howard University, have called attention to the woeful lack of private support for historically black colleges and universities.

Writing in the Washington Post, Helaine Olen notes that the City University of New York—hardly a magnet for big donor dollars—ranks No. 1 in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s list of four-year colleges offering the highest chances of social mobility for low-income students. Ivy League schools? Not so much.

And in his analysis of Bloomberg’s Johns Hopkins gift, Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, noted that “unless Hopkins is also willing to provide a preference in admissions to disadvantaged students, it’s unlikely that they’ll be admitted in large numbers.”

Equipped with Bloomberg’s money, Hopkins plans to raise the share of freshmen who qualify for Pell Grants from 15 percent to at least 20 percent by 2023. For the sake of context, as of 2014, 21.4 percent of Columbia students had Pell Grants. Harvard was next at 19.3 percent, followed by Cornell at 16.3 percent. Dartmouth was ranked sixth, at 13.8 percent.

Even if these numbers have crept up in the last five years, there’s a catch: A 2016 Gallup survey of more than 400 college and university presidents pegged the graduation rate for Pell Grant students at 46 percent. In contrast, the six-year graduation rate for first-time, full-time undergraduate students who began seeking a bachelor’s degree at a four-year, degree-granting institution in fall 2010 was 60 percent.

“Building Up Speed”

News over the past six months suggests that a growing number of alumni donors want economically disadvantaged students to reap the benefits of a “highly selective academic environment.” Yet the Gallup data backs up Battle’s assertion that “making the transition today can be so much harder than when I was a student.” So what is to be done?

First, donors acknowledge that getting these Pell Grant or first-generation students to the finish line requires robust counseling and mentoring before they walk through those elite doors in the first place. Michael Bloomberg understands this. While his foundation has provided support for the American Talent Initiative, which seeks to expand the number of high-achieving, low- and moderate-income students in the nation’s most prestigious public and private colleges by 50,000 by the year 2025, it’s also focusing attention on the retention issue. For example, it’s supporting College Point, which has already matched 40,000 students with college counselors through texting, video chat, phone calls and emails. The plan here is to reach half of the country’s high-performing, low-income high school students by 2020.

Second, donors will need to ensure that these students have the tools they need to adjust to the rigors of college life once they set foot on campus. Dartmouth’s initiative provides a compelling case study in this regard. Its “introduction to college life” session “offers sample classes with faculty in a low-pressure environment and introduces strategies to address some of the challenges—academic and social—that students may face in their first year.” Once classes start, its FYSEP program provides students with ongoing enrichment activities, mentoring and other resources.

Dartmouth also acknowledges that not all obstacles are academic or social in nature. The school intends to triple funds available to cover emergencies and other needs not met through financial aid, ranging from medical costs and eyeglasses to professional attire for interviews and living expenses during unpaid internships.

“I compare it to a bicycle race,” Skip Battle said. “Students who come from really good schools and whose parents attended college come to the starting line with momentum. Many first-generation students come to the starting line less prepared for the race to begin, so it takes them a while to build up speed.”

A Successful Initiative

Is Dartmouth’s program successful? The answer, according to the university, is a resounding “yes.” FYSEP students have achieved a higher grade-point average than their peers who did not participate in the program, their current six-year graduation rate exceeds 95 percent compared to a national average of less than 50 percent, and FYSEP students are likely to tap into a variety of on-campus support programs.

I suspect this data resonated with Battle and the cadre of donors who are underwriting the expansion of the program. Which brings me, at long last, to Battle himself.

After graduating from Dartmouth in 1966 and receiving his MBA at Stanford, he held a variety of positions at Arthur Andersen LLP and then Andersen Consulting LLP over 27 years. He is now a senior fellow and senior moderator at the Aspen Institute and has served on the boards of several corporations during the past three decades, including Expedia, LinkedIn, Netflix and OpenTable.

Battle’s $10 million gift is his second major commitment through Dartmouth’s $3 billion Call to Lead campaign, raising his campaign support to $15 million. Fundraisers are also drumming up support for the campaign’s No Loans Initiative, which “aims to eliminate loans from financial aid packages so that our students can graduate unburdened by student loan debt.”

In 2015, the Battle family made a challenge gift to spearhead fundraising for the new Moosilauke Ravine Lodge, which opened last year. Prior to the campaign, Battle has provided gifts to Dartmouth’s Ethics Institute and women’s rugby program.

“Supporting first-generation and low-income students is a great investment,” says Battle. “We’re helping make these students more influential within the campus community, which benefits everyone at Dartmouth—and ultimately, it benefits the communities where they’ll live, and our entire country.”