$40M gift to UM aims to help first-generation college students

Noelle Gray
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — A $40 million gift aims to continue to help students who are first in their families to attend college succeed at the University of Michigan and beyond.

The donation from the Judy and Fred Wilpon Family Foundation will assist first-generation college students through the Kessler Scholars Program at UM.

The program currently supports 157 students for their four years of education with a variety of services that help them achieve success in more than their academic pursuits.

Each year, the program selects 40 incoming first-year students to join the four-year support program. Students attend workshops on personal, academic and professional topics aimed to increase their sense of belonging. The program currently has 252 alumni across the country.

“As a first-generation college student myself and a graduate of UM, I know the importance of having a close-knit community and a sense of belonging on campus," said Fred Wilpon, a New York-based business executive, real estate developer, former owner of the New York Mets and founder of the Wilpon Family Foundation. "Through this gift and the resources offered in the program, we want students to feel secure, empowered, and engaged, so they can excel and become the next generation of global leaders."

Now in its 13th year at UM, the Kessler Scholars Program underwent a major redesign in 2017 to focus on research-based support for first-generation college students.

According to a U.S. Department of Education 2018 report, first-generation college students make up a third of all students enrolled in postsecondary education, but are twice as likely to leave school without a college degree than their peers whose parents have a bachelor’s degree.  

In 2021, according to a UM news release, the Kessler Scholars Program attained a four-year graduation rate of 83%, higher than first-generation UM peers starting at the same point (75%) and virtually the same rate as continuing-generation peers (84%). The six-year graduation rate for the Kessler Scholars Program historically is 94%, slightly higher than UM’s overall six-year graduation rate (93%).

In honor of the Wilpons’ support of the program, the new addition of the Literature, Science and Arts Building, which opened in January 2020, will be named the Kessler Student Center.