LANSING, Mich. – Before New York real estate developer Fred Wilpon would become part-owner and then sole owner of the New York Mets for over 30 years, he was a 17-year-old first-generation college student who had gotten off an airplane for the first time in his life to attend the University of Michigan.
Looking at the campus in Ann Arbor, Wilpon said he was so overwhelmed and frightened he called his parents to tell them he didn't think the school was for him. Wilpon, who sold the Mets in 2020, credits the community he found as a part of the university's baseball team and coach Ray Fisher for mentoring him through school.
“It was one of the most meaningful things that ever happened to me in my life,” Wilpon said.
In order to combat the struggles low-income and first-generation college students can face — not feeling connected, unsure how to navigate financial aid or class systems and difficulty networking — Wilpon and his wife, Judy, created the Kessler Scholars Program in 2008. The program has awarded scholarships to more than 400 undergraduate students at the university, and Thursday the Judy and Fred Wilpon Family Foundation announced it is donating $40 million to fund the program in perpetuity.
The number of students nationwide who identify as first generation is on the rise — one third of students at colleges and universities are first generation, according to a 2018 study from U.S. Department of Education, and less than 30% of first-generation students complete an undergraduate degree in four years.
Deana Waintraub Stafford, a director from the Center for First-Generation Student Success, said schools nationally have acted accordingly to the growing number of first-generation students and there have been several improvements in helping them succeed, but there's still work to be done.
“Institutions are really reflecting on why and how they can influence the experiences of first-gen students to yield greater completion,” Stafford said.
Michigan sophomore Briarre Johnson said she's received other scholarships as a first-generation student, but none have impacted her academic career quite like Kessler.
“I feel like their main thing is retention and they focus on retention and just being there for us and making sure we’re OK as people. Money isn’t everything,” Johnson said. “Kessler truly cares about what happens to students after they receive the money, after they graduate and I definitely feel like that makes a difference.”
The program, which rather than awarding a scholarship and leaving students to navigate the waters of postsecondary education without guidance, includes access to peer mentoring, alumni networking and support staff. Student academic success, post-graduation employment and additional data is tracked by the program in order to ensure those who participate get the support they need to best participate in their communities.
In the past several years U-M has expanded the program to five other institutions: Syracuse University, Johns Hopkins University, Cornell University, Queens College and St. Francis College. With the donation, the Wilpon Family Foundation and Bloomberg Philanthropies are partnering and hope to expand the Kessler Scholars Program to as many as 10 new institutions.
U-M says the effort is paying off. In 2021, Michigan says 83% of its Kessler Scholars attained a four-year degree, as opposed to their other first-generation peers who had a 75% graduation rate. The rate at which Kessler Scholars graduate in six years is 94%, slightly higher than the university's overall six-year graduation rate, which is 93%.
Additionally, 2021 Kessler Scholars recipients got plugged into campus, with 55% taking on leadership roles in student organizations, according to the university.
University President Mark S. Schlissel expressed gratitude to the Wilpons’ donation in a news release Thursday.
“First-generation students bring enormous talent and unique perspectives to the University of Michigan — and they face challenges other students don’t,” Schlissel said. “U-M is fully committed to ensuring that students do more than arrive at Michigan; we want them to thrive here.”
With the most recent gift, the Wilpons will have donated more than $75 million to the university, $61 million of which will have gone to the Kessler program, according to the news release.
“It’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. I can tell you that it’s palpable to me,” Wilpon said, adding that he is proud that this program will now always be at the school and he hopes one day schools across the country will implement similar programs.
Anna Liz Nichols is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.