CIC Releases Report, Launches Website Revealing Best Practices for Ensuring Academic Success of First-Generation College Students

10/24/2013 — Washington, DC

​​The Council of Independent Colleges (CIC) today released a new report, Making Sure They Make It! Best Practices for Ensuring the Academic Success of First-Generation College Students. To accompany the report, CIC also launched the CIC/Walmart College Success Awards website at The report summarizes and analyzes the experiences of 50 colleges and universities that received substantial grants from CIC/Walmart Foundation to help strengthen exemplary programs that support the education of first-generation students. The website’s main purpose is to help institutions of higher education that are interested in starting or improving programs and services for first-generation college students. The College Success Awards program, report, and website were made possible through two grants to CIC from the Walmart Foundation totaling more than $5 million.

The 50 institutions that participated in the program were selected through a competitive application process in 2008 and 2010; 40 institutions received $100,000 grants and 10 received $50,000 grants to help build on programs that showed the greatest promise of increasing retention of the largest number of first-generation students. These College Success Award recipients worked together as a network to assist first-generation college students, learn from one another, and serve as models for other colleges and universities. All award winners had an undergraduate enrollment that includes at least 30 percent first-generation students among the most recent classes of first-year students.
Commenting on the results of the report, CIC President Richard Ekman said, “The many and multifaceted successes of the CIC/Walmart Award recipients speak to the value of the institutions’ ongoing efforts. We are delighted by so many positive outcomes, and it is our hope that the work of these 50 institutions will inspire other colleges and universities in all sectors of higher education to step up their own efforts to attract, retain, educate, and graduate first-generation college students.” He added, “The report and the website provide information and best practices that will be applicable to any institution.”
Facts about First-Generation Students. Walmart’s objective in funding the four-year program and CIC’s goal in administering it were to help colleges and universities tackle the many challenges faced by first-generation students and to help these students succeed in and graduate from college. The facts are these: First-generation college students are more likely than their peers to come from low-income families, come from a home where English is a second language, and come from rural communities. About two-fifths are students of color. Compared to students whose parents attended college, first-generation students often are not as well prepared academically, lack support from family members, and are less prepared to find and use financial aid information. Once they are enrolled, first-generation students are more likely to attend part-time, to take one or more remedial courses, to work at paid jobs more hours per week, to live off-campus, to major in business or management, and to earn slightly lower first-year GPAs. They also typically spend less time studying, interact less with faculty and their peers, and participate less in co-curricular activities, athletics, and volunteer work. And they are far more likely to drop out after the first year.
Report Findings. Many of the programs for first-generation students achieved extraordinarily positive results. For example, most programs noticeably improved the academic performance of these students. Heritage University (WA) (located on the Yakima Indian Reservation) reported that “students that participated in the Heritage Stars Mentoring Program held a mean cumulative GPA of 3.25—impressive as compared to 2.94 for nonparticipating students.” And Guilford College’s (NC) Gateways to Success program, with a disproportionate number of African American women, produced “GPAs that were consistently higher than for all new adult students: 3.23 compared to 2.78 for all adult students.”
Most programs also reported significant results in retention of first-generation students. Franklin College (IN) reported that “the fall-to-spring retention of the first cohort of Franklin First Scholars was 96 percent, better than the 90.3 percent retention rate for all first-year students.” Thomas College (ME) reported that its program led to “a first-year retention rate for first-generation students of 72 percent, compared with 64 percent for all students.”
In addition, many institutions surpassed goals for identifying and enrolling these students, and assessment efforts indicated that first-generation students credited the College Success programs with helping them with the transition to college, creating greater self-confidence, improving their GPAs, connecting them to faculty members as well as the larger campus community, and helping them graduate.
Best Practices. Although the report cautions that there may be no “silver bullet” when it comes to enhancing the academic success of first-generation students, the colleges and universities that participated in the CIC/Walmart College Success Awards developed several best practices that led to success:
  1. Identify, actively recruit, and continually track first-generation students;
  2. Bring them to campus early;
  3. Focus on the distinctive features of first-generation students;
  4. Develop a variety of programs that meet students’ ongoing needs;
  5. Use mentors;
  6. Institutionalize a commitment to first-generation students;
  7. Build community, promote engagement, and make it fun;
  8. Involve family (but keep expectations realistic);
  9. Acknowledge, and ease when possible, financial pressures; and
  10. Keep track of your successes and failures.
The report illuminates these ten best practices with examples, quotations, data, and stories from the 50 institutions that will help any institution interested in stepping up efforts to attract, retain, educate, and graduate first-generation college students.
The Website. The College Success Awards website is organized so that visitors can get an overview of the project and significant results, read about the lessons learned during the course of all four years of the project, peruse individual program profiles for all 50 participating institutions, search for specific ideas and tips categorized by the strategies used by the various institutions, and see a list of complementary resources that might be of further use to them. The site also gives visitors an opportunity to contribute to the website by adding other programs that might benefit other colleges. Visitors have easy access to additional program information, including videos, photographs, and materials used in the participants’ first-generation programs.
The Making Sure They Make It! report, found at, is authored by Kerry J. Strand, Andrew G. Truxal Professor of Sociology and chair of the Department of Sociology and Social Work at Hood College i​n Frederick, Maryland.
The CIC/Walmart College Success Awards Program will conclude with a Symposium on First-Generation College Students. The Symposium will take place July 7–9, 2014, in Baltimore, Maryland. More information will be posted on the CIC website in early 2014.

​The Council of Independent Colleges is an association of 645 nonprofit independent colleges and universities and more than 90 higher education 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 to improve the quality of education, administrative and financial performance, and institutional visibility. 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.

About Philanthropy at Walmart
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