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Grants Help First-Generation College Students Earn Their Degrees

Over the last two years, the Walmart Foundation has given out over $10 million in grants to a wide range of educational institutions, funding programs that help first-generation college students achieve academic success.

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Walmart Joins the Institute for Higher Education Policy to Support Minority Students

Graduation and retention rates for first-generation college students are notoriously poor. Studies have shown that first-gen students at 4-year colleges and universities are twice as likely as their peers to leave before their second year, and many never return. Looking back at first-generation students who were enrolled in a college degree program between 1989 and 1990, researchers found that by 1994, 45% of them had dropped out without ever earning a degree.

In order to break this cycle, many institutions have created programs that offer extra support to these students - and the Walmart Foundation is rewarding them. Over the past two years, Walmart has awarded over $10 million to institutions with the specific goal of raising retention rates for first-generation students. The Foundation began giving out these grants after their current president, Margaret A. McKenna, joined them in 2007. For the two decades before she joined Walmart, McKenna was president of Lesley University, where first-generation students make up about one third of all undergraduates.

Minority Student Success Initiative

In 2008, the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) launched the Walmart Minority Student Success Initiative (MSSI) with a $4.2 million grant from the Foundation. The Initiative is a three year program awarding thirty $100,000 capacity-building grants to colleges that historically serve black, Hispanic and Native American populations. The grants will go to the development of strategies to help first-generation students of color attain academic success. The first 15 recipients were identified in the summer of 2009, and IHEP will announce the second set later this year.

Among the first round of MSSI recipients is Florida International University (FIU), a predominantly Hispanic-serving school in Miami where about 50% of undergraduates are first-generation. Jeffrey Knapp, director of FIU's Academy for the Art of Teaching, applied for the funds with the goal of focusing on one very important subject: math. Knapp noted that many students drop out if they don't pass their first math class, so he's dedicated the grant funds to improving the pass rates in FIU's low-level math classes. Under his guidance, the math department developed 'Walmart classes' that meet three times a week for an hour and 40 minutes, twice as long as standard class periods. The program includes courses in introductory math, algebra and trigonometry. The department assigned their best adjunct faculty to the classes and hired a team of student learning assistants in order to offer a combination of lectures and small-group peer instruction.

Nobody signed up for the first semester of the program, but Knapp persisted with an active recruitment campaign, and found himself having to turn away non-first-generation students in the second semester. The term isn't over yet, so they can't measure the success of the program, but instructors are optimistic. Professors have noted that students performed unusually well on the first round of exams, and are becoming more and more interactive in class. Some even linger after classes to work with learning assistants on their assignments. Knapp intends to track these students' performance in later math classes and graduation rates, but says that right now he's focused on the first step, noting that 'the university would be thrilled with a five percent increase in the rate of students passing the course.'

Council for Independent Colleges

Supporting First-Gens at Private Colleges

The Walmart Foundation has also awarded $5.3 million to the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC) to distribute to its members. The CIC gave out 20 'Walmart College Success Awards' in 2008 and plans to announce 30 more in March, 2010. CIC members are small, private institutions such as Ripon College in Wisconsin, which used its grant to improve career services. Ripon created a program that pays first-generation students to shadow professionals in positions related to their major - psychology students in the student counselor's office, anthropology students in museums, etc.

Minnesota's College of Saint Scholastica is using its grant to improve outreach to families of first-generation students. These groups tend to provide less support to their school-going children because they have less experience with the college system. Saint Scholastica is offering on-campus family receptions and sending out newsletters that explain processes like course registration and choosing a major. Other CIC schools have developed summer preparation programs and academic survival workshops covering things like study skills and stress management.

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In the next few years, both IHEP and the CIC plan to publish the results of their programs in the hope that other institutions can replicate successful strategies. Success, they note, is not only measured by graduation and retention. They're also looking at GPA, voluntary participation in first-generation programs, pass rates in introductory or remedial courses and placement test scores after summer programs.

Smaller organizations have also benefitted from Walmart's interest in education. Excelencia in Education recently received a $1.49 million grant from the Walmart Foundation to support 'Growing What Works,' a new initiative to help replicate programs that have effectively improved success rates for Latino students at 2- and 4-year institutions. Other groups that have received funding from the Walmart Foundation include the Foundation for Independent Higher Education, Scholarship America, American Association of Community Colleges and American Council on Education.

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