U of Michigan gets $40M gift to help 1st-generation students

University of Michigan-1st Generation Students

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — 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.