New CIC Report Demonstrates Effectiveness of Independent Colleges in Educating First-Generation, Low-Income Students

Laura Wilcox | | (202) 466-7230
April 22, 2015 · Washington, DC
The Council of Independent Colleges (CIC) today released a report, Expanding Access and Opportunity: How Small and Mid-Sized Independent Colleges Serve First-Generation and Low-Income Students, which documents the superior record of these institutions in providing effective college learning environments and ensuring positive educational outcomes for students from first-generation and low-income backgrounds. The full report is available as a PDF at
CIC President Richard Ekman noted the significance of the report’s findings, saying, “This study lays to rest a couple of persistent and troublesome myths regarding small and mid-sized independent colleges. First, these institutions are not gated communities that serve only the privileged elite; rather, they enroll a higher proportion of first-generation students than the public sectors and a higher proportion of low-income students than other sectors of four-year higher education. Second, many people assume that the best choice for low-income and first-generation students is the state university with its lower sticker price. In fact, these student groups tend to complete their degrees on time if they attend a smaller private college, and a higher proportion of low-income students graduate with no debt at smaller private colleges than at public universities.”
Contrary to the prevalent stereotype that smaller private colleges are elite institutions accessible only to high-achieving students of means, the report findings demonstrate that independent institutions enroll students from a wide range of family educational and economic backgrounds. In fact, smaller independent colleges offer a pathway to upward social mobility by creating access for students who are underserved by other higher education sectors.
At Stetson University, for example, Maria Wrabel, who graduated in 2012, had high financial need, but was able to attend Stetson with a combination of academic scholarships, grants, and modest loans. Wrabel was the first in her immediate family to attend a four-year institution. While at Stetson, she was deeply involved in poverty and homelessness community engagement programs, coming to understand the importance of food security, food aid, and hunger internationally. Upon graduation, she spent a year volunteering in Vietnam through Volunteers in Asia and is now a fellow with the Jessie Ball duPont Fund in Jacksonville, Florida. Wrabel will begin graduate studies at the London School of Economics this fall. She says her experience at Stetson University “was a period of discovery and growth where I developed a ‘real world view.’ It may sound trite, but because of the small classes—from my first class my freshman year to seminars my senior year—professors were always there for me. They helped me be at my best academically and as a person, and helped me understand what a significant life should really look like.”
Perhaps most noteworthy, the success of smaller independent colleges in serving low-income and first-generation undergraduates extends beyond mere access to college attainment; report findings indicate that these students are more likely to graduate in four years from a smaller private college than from a public college or university. This exemplary track record results from the focus of smaller private colleges on providing personalized academic experiences, rigorous educational programs, and high levels of extracurricular engagement.
The story of two sisters—who hail from the Bronx and are children of Cambodian refugees who fled the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s—demonstrates the success of these colleges. Saveth Vann, a 2004 Susquehanna University graduate, earned a business administration degree with an emphasis in global management that led to her current position with Manhattan-based Vita Coco—a young, rapidly growing firm that is the leading producer of coconut water in the United States. Her younger sister, Julie Vann, didn’t think she also would be able to attend college because their father—a maintenance worker who provided the main support for his family—died while Julie was still in high school. Their mother, who suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, struggles with English and earns little money doing odd jobs. Yet Saveth’s life-changing experience at Susquehanna led Julie to dream of going to the same college. Julie worked with financial aid officers and is now enrolled as a first-year Susquehanna student.
As a sector, private nondoctoral colleges and universities perform better than other types of postsecondary institutions on many dimensions:
Access to Higher Education
  • Private colleges serve a higher proportion of first-generation and low-income students than public and private doctoral universities.
  • A higher proportion of first-generation and low-income students graduate with no student loan debt from private colleges than from public doctoral universities.
College Experiences
  • The first year of college is critical to student persistence and success, and during this time, first-generation and low-income students at private colleges are more likely to be taught by a faculty member and to experience classroom environments more conducive to learning than students at any other type of institution.
  • First-generation and low-income students at independent colleges are more likely than their peers at public doctoral and nondoctoral universities to report meeting with an academic advisor in their first year and having informal discussions of academic matters with faculty members outside of the classroom by their junior year.
  • Over half of all first-generation and low-income first-year students at independent colleges report that they regularly take essay exams, and more than three-quarters report that they regularly write papers for their college courses—larger proportions than at public doctoral and nondoctoral universities.
  • In their junior year, first-generation and low-income students who attend private colleges are nearly three times as likely as their peers in public universities to report becoming involved in community service or volunteer work because it is a class requirement.First-generation and low-income students who attend smaller independent colleges are more likely to participate in a range of extracurricular activities such as athletics, school clubs, and fine arts performances; such activities have been found to strengthen student success and persistence.
College Outcomes
  • First-generation and low-income students who attend private colleges are far more likely to graduate—and to do so on time—than their peers at larger public universities.
  • Most first-generation and low-income students at independent colleges express satisfaction with the quality of their undergraduate education six years after matriculation and are more likely to be satisfied than their peers at public doctoral and nondoctoral universities.
  • First-generation and low-income graduates of private colleges tend to stay more civically-engaged after graduation by voting and volunteering in their communities.
To achieve national goals such as reducing educational disparity, fostering social mobility, and advancing national competitiveness, a number of practical steps based on the report findings can be taken:
  • At the local level, high school guidance counselors should encourage first-generation and low-income students to consider enrolling in the institutions where they are most likely to flourish, namely smaller independent colleges. Early in the college search process, students and their parents should be made aware of the affordability, accessibility, quality, and effectiveness of these institutions.
  • At the state level, policymakers should view smaller private colleges as part of a larger postsecondary ecosystem in which individual institutions use different means and methods to contribute to the same public purposes. Consequently, state initiatives to increase access and opportunity for underrepresented populations should include smaller private colleges in both their design and execution, as these institutions have demonstrated tremendous success in these areas.
  • At the federal level, policymakers should recognize the private nondoctoral sector as highly effective in fostering the social mobility of first-generation and low-income students. Smaller independent colleges should be viewed as priority partners in accomplishing the federal government’s graduation goals as set forth by the college completion initiative.
Reflecting on the policy implications of the report, P. Jesse Rine, CIC’s director of research projects and the report’s principal author, said, “Because American competitiveness depends upon educating students from all social and economic backgrounds, it’s imperative that we recognize the conditions most conducive to supporting low-income and first-generation students and then direct resources to the institutions that have proven adept at fostering those kinds of educational environments. Smaller private colleges should be viewed as priority partners of state and federal governments in reducing educational disparity and supporting economic prosperity.”
Working in tandem with small and mid-sized private colleges, local, state, and federal officials can create conditions that ensure these providers of educational opportunity and success maximize their contributions to achieving national college completion goals and to restoring the social mobility essential to securing America’s future.

The Council of Independent Colleges is an association of 750 nonprofit independent colleges and universities and higher education affiliates and organizations that has worked since 1956 to support college and university leadership, advance institutional excellence, and enhance public understanding of private higher education’s contributions to society. CIC is the major national organization that focuses on providing services to leaders of independent colleges and universities as well as conferences, seminars, and other programs that help institutions improve educational quality, administrative and financial performance, and institutional visibility. CIC conducts the largest annual conference of college and university presidents. CIC also provides support to state fundraising associations that organize programs and generate contributions for private colleges and universities. The Council is headquartered at One Dupont Circle in Washington, DC.