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CIC/Walmart College Success Awards

About the Program

​The CIC/Walmart College Success Awards website was developed to help all colleges and universities who are interested in starting or strengthening programs and services for first-generation students. The site shares with the public the lessons learned by faculty and staff members at 50 different institutions as they extended, deepened, or otherwise improved already strong strategies to increase enrollments, retention, graduation, and learning of first-generation college students.

Funded by the Walmart Foundation, the CIC/Walmart College Success Awards initiative supported 50 competitively selected CIC member colleges and universities to extend, deepen, or strengthen efforts to help first-generation students succeed in college through first-generation programs on their campuses. Beyond their own campus programs, these institutions have worked together to learn from each other and serve as models for other colleges and universities. The CIC/Walmart College Success Awards program included two three-day conferences for the selected institutions on July 19–21, 2009, and July 17–19, 2011, in Washington, DC.

Symposium on First-Generation College Students

​The CIC/Walmart Foundation Symposium on First-Generation College Students was the culmination of this multi-year project.  Representatives of the 50 CIC/Walmart College Success Award institutions shared what they have learned about retaining and graduating first-generation students with faculty and staff members from other CIC colleges and universities. The Symposium was held in Baltimore, Maryland, on July 7–9, 2014.

View program information and resources.

Overview and Assessment

​In 2008 and again in 2010, the Walmart Foundation awarded CIC generous grants in support of its member institutions’ efforts to enhance the success of first-generation college students. In the first wave of the project, 20 institutions received $100,000 grants. As a result of the additional grant in 2010, 30 more CIC membership institutions received grants—20 received $100,000 grants and 10 received $50,000—to promote the success of first-generation students. Funds from the second grant also were also used to establish a Network for College Success, with an aim to bring the two cohorts of institutions together in ways that will promote their work, share their successes, and provide models for other colleges and universities in their work with first-generation students.

Goals and Objectives

The overarching goal of the CIC/Walmart College Success Awards Program is to encourage colleges and universities nationwide to place more emphasis on the education of first-generation students.  Somewhat more specific goals are:

  • To develop or enhance programs on participating campuses that improve the academic success (enrollment, retention, and graduation rates) of first-generation students. The success of these will be indicated by:
    • Improvement in  the first to second year—and subsequent—retention of first-generation students at participating institutions;
    • Improvement in the four- and six-year graduation rates of first-generation students at these institutions; and
    • An increase in the enrollment of first-generation students at these colleges and universities, mainly through improved retention.
  • To recognize colleges and universities that are making important contributions to the education and retention of first-generation students;
  • To disseminate what participating institutions have learned about enhancing the academic success of first-generation students to presidents and chief academic officers at the other CIC members institutions; and
  • To produce and disseminate, as widely as possible throughout the higher education community, a publication that details “best practices” for educating first-generation college students.

The second grant, awarded in 2010, introduced yet another goal:

  • To establish and sustain a network among participating institutions (Network for College Success) that will facilitate the sharing of information and strategies among institutions and make possible the sharing of models with other colleges and universities who enroll first-generation students.

Also, while the 2008 grant included as a goal the recruitment of first-generation students, the second wave of the grant emphasized retention and graduation—but not enrollment/recruitment—of these students.

Academic Success: Retention

The main indicator of success of programs for first-generation students is the retention rate— the percentage of first-generation students who stay enrolled, from semester-to-semester and year-to-year.

2008 Award Recipients

Entering Class of 2008

The national retention rate of first-generation students from fall to spring of their first year is 72 percent, compared to a rate of 76 percent for all first-year students. Nationally, only 51 percent of first-generation students return for their sophomore year; the comparable statistic for all first-year students also is low at only 60 percent.
Of the 16 institutions for which CIC has data, the typical range of fall-to-spring retention rates of first-generation students is 86–96 percent, as compared to a range of 88–100 percent for all first-year students. At three institutions, the fall-to-spring retention for first-generation students was in fact higher than that for all first-year students; and most first-generation retention rates were within 3 percent of the overall first-year student rate.
The fall-to-fall rates, which are more critical and typically quite a bit lower, show similarly positive results. Of the 18 institutions for which CIC has data about fall-to-fall retention, the range of rates for first-generation students is 63–92 percent, with all but three institutions reporting retention rates of at least 70 percent. The comparable range of rates for all first-year students is 69–89 percent. Eight of the institutions reported higher fall-to-fall retention rates for first-generation students than for all first-year students.

Entering Class of 2009

Data for the second entering class of students, after the institutions have had their academic success programs in place for a year, are even more impressive. The range of fall-to-spring retention rates for the entering class of first-generation students in 2009 range from 74–100 percent, compared to a range for all first-year students that year of 70–100 percent. Only one institution reported a fall-to-spring retention rate for first-generation students lower than 80 percent; 12 institutions reported that over 90 percent of first-generation students enrolled again in the spring of 2010. Here, again, seven institutions reported that first-generation students were retained at a rate higher than first-year students overall.
The important fall to fall retention rates for the students who entered in 2009 are, overall, similar to those for the previous entering class. First-generation retention rates range from 66–94 percent, and for first-years from 61–90 percent, with retention for first-generation students higher than for first-year students at nine institutions.

2010 Award Recipients

Entering Class of 2010

Of the 24 institutions that reported complete retention rates for the first year, the range for first-generation students was 54–84 percent, and for all first-year students it was 47–84 percent. At 10 institutions the first-generation students had an equal or higher retention rate than did all first-year students. Overall, at 19 of 22 of the institutions that reported complete data, the first-year retention rate of first-generation students was very close to (and frequently higher than) that of all first-year students.

Entering class of 2011

The fall-to-fall data for this class, submitted by 21 institutions, show a range for first-generation students of 48–86 percent, and of all first-year students from 56–87 percent. First-generation retention is equal or higher in nine instances, and at eight other institutions, the difference is 3 percent or lower.

Lessons Learned

​A major purpose of the CIC/Walmart College Success Awards was to garner the creative capability of independent colleges in designing effective strategies to serve first-generation students.

The final reports of the participating institutions identified the following lessons learned:

  • First-generation students tend not to self-identify as first-generation students. This almost always creates a challenge for institutions seeking to engage these students in special programming.
  • First-generation students, like other at-risk populations, tend to reject the idea that they are at-risk and in need of special services. When given the opportunity for special services they often will decline. This means great care must be given to the design of the program and the methods of involving first-generation students in special programming.
  • First-generation students often don’t connect academic success with academic support services. Because of this, institutions should find means to identify and address problems before they become serious. This is especially important for improving retention of at-risk students. In some cases, it may become necessary to be intrusive and intensive to keep students engaged and on track.
  • Peer mentors and peer tutors can be highly effective when well trained. It appears that paying salaries to peers is effective in securing the level of commitment that is required.
  • Having professors, mentors, and tutors who are or were themselves first-generation students is often identified by awardees as a positive strategy.
  • Financial constraints are challenging for most first-generation students, and financial incentives are effective in drawing these students into programming.
  • Programming that increases group cohesion can reduce risky behaviors that adversely affect student performance and improve confidence and resiliency.
  • It should not be assumed that first-generation students know how to access and use college resources.
  • Doing anything in support of first-generation students is likely to have a positive impact on success, retention, and graduation. All of the approaches described on this website seem to have been to a greater or lesser degree successful.
  • Adopting a name for a program that avoids any hint of being remedial, such as “Franklin First Scholars,” “University Success Scholars,” “Pioneer Scholars,” or “Fellowship Program,” seems to be effective.
  • First-generation students are busy, and so getting students engaged in programs aimed at improving their chances of success may be seen by the student as representing just another demand on their time. One must expect different levels of participation.
  • Families must be seen as important partners to insure their support, and equipping them to be a positive influence is especially important for first-generation students. These families have no experience with what their student is going through, and so they can benefit from attention, too.
  • Internships are positive experiences for most, but first-generation students often lack access because of the financial trade-off they have to make in order to undertake them.
  • Increased levels of student engagement yield improvement in retention and graduation rates.
  • First-generation students who are adult learners have different challenges from traditional-aged undergraduates and respond to different incentives.
  • As is true with many special efforts to support students, additional dedicated staffing almost always seems to make a significant difference in the level of success that is achieved.
  • Campus planners must not overlook the significant potential revenue enhancement that should come with raising retention rates.

Program Profiles

​The CIC/Walmart College Success Awards program includes two cohorts of institutions strengthening first-generation programs on their own campuses and working together to share lessons and insights. Institutions participating in the program were selected in two rounds of competitive applications during 2008 and 2010.

View Award Recipients


​College Success, General Resources

Carnevale, Anthony P., Nicole Smith, and Jeff Strohl. 2013. Recovery: Job Growth and Education Requirements through 2020. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

Carnevale, Anthony P., Tamara Jayasundera, and Ban Cheah. 2012. The College Advantage: Weathering the Economic Storm. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

First-Generation College Students, Background and Statistics

Aud, Susan, William Hussar, Frank Johnson, Grace Kena, Erin Roth, Eileen Manning, Xiaolei Wang, and Jijun Zhang. 2012. The Condition of Education 2012 (NCES 2012-045). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.

Bui, Khanh Van T. 2002. “First-Generation College Students at a Four-Year University: Background Characteristics, Reasons for Pursuing Higher Education, and First-Year Experiences.” College Student Journal 36: 3–11.

Chen, Xianglei. 2005. First Generation Students in Postsecondary Education: A Look at Their College Transcripts (NCES 2005-171). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.

DeAngelo, Linda, Ray Franke, Sylvia Hurtado, John H. Pryer, and Serge Tran. 2011. Completing College: Assessing Graduation Rates at Four-Year Institutions. Los Angeles, CA: Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA.

Ishitani, Terry T. 2006. “Studying Attrition and Degree Completion Behavior among First-Generation College Students in the United States.” Journal of Higher Education 77: 861–885.

Pike, Gary R., and George D. Kuh. 2005. “First- and Second-Generation College Students: A Comparison of Their Engagement and Intellectual Development.” Journal of Higher Education 76: 276–300.

Saenz, Victor B., Sylvia Hurtado, Doug Barrera, De’Sha Wolf, Fanny Yeung. 2007. First in My Family: A Profile of First-Generation College Students at Four-Year Institutions since 1971. Los Angeles, CA: Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA.

Terenzini, Patrick T., Leonard Springer, Patricia M. Yaeger, Ernest T. Pascarella, and Amaury Nora. 1996. “First-Generation College Students: Characteristics, Experiences, and Cognitive Development.” Research in Higher Education 37: 1–22.

University of Kentucky Libraries. 2013. “First Generation Students: A Research Bibliography.”

Promoting the Success of First-Generation College Students

Davis, Jeff. 2010. The First Generation Student Experience: Implications for Campus Practice, and Strategies for Improving Persistence and Success. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Ecklund, Kathryn. 2013. “First-Generation Social and Ethnic Minority Students in Christian Universities: Student Recommendations for Successful Support of Diverse Students.” Christian Higher Education 12: 159–180. doi: 10.1080/15363759.2011.598377

Engle, Jennifer, Adolfo Bermeo, and Colleen O’Brien. 2006. Straight from the Source: What Works for First-Generation College Students. Washington, DC: Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education.

Harper, Sean R., and associates. 2014. Succeeding in the City: A Report from the New York City Black and Latino Male High School Achievement Study. Philadelphia, PA: Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education, University of Pennsylvania.

Hirudayaraj, Malar. 2012. “First-Generation Students in Higher Education: Issues of Employability in a Knowledge Based Economy.” Online Journal for Workforce Education and Development 5:2.

Hunter, Mary Stuart, Betsy McCalla-Wriggins, and Eric R. White, eds. 2007. Retention of Students from First Generation and Low Income Backgrounds. Columbia, SC: National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition.

Mehta, Sanjay S., John J. Newbold, and Matthew A. O’Rourke. 2011. “Why Do First-Generation Students Fail?” College Student Journal 45: 20–35.

Morales, Erik E. 2012. “Learning as Liberation: How Liberal Arts Education Transforms First-Generation/Low Socio-Economic College Students.” Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice 13: 499–518.

Padgett, Ryan D., Megan P. Johnson, and Ernest T. Pascarella. 2012. “First-Generation Undergraduate Students and the Impacts of the First Year of College: Additional Evidence.” Journal of College Student Development 53: 243–266.

Pascarella, Ernest T., Christopher T. Pierson, Gregory C. Wolniak, and Patrick T. Terenzini. 2004. “First-generation college students: Additional evidence on college experiences and outcomes.” Journal of Higher Education 75: 249-284.

Soria, Krista M., and Michael J. Stebleton. 2012. “First-Generation Students’ Academic Engagement and Retention.” Teaching in Higher Education 17: 673–685.

Stephens, Nicole M., Stephanie A. Fryberg, Hazel Rose Markus, Camille S. Johnson, and Rebecca Covarrubias. 2012. “Unseen Disadvantage: How American Universities’ Focus on Independence Undermines the Academic Performance of First-Generation College Students.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 102: 1178–1197.

Warburton, Edward C., Rosio Bugarin, and Anne-Marie Nuñez. 2001. Bridging the Gap: Academic Preparation and Postsecondary Success of First-Generation Students. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.‎

Also see “I’m First” (, a website from the Center for Student Opportunity aimed at first-generation college students.