The State University of New York (SUNY) Brockport’s data from its annual student retention studies was mirroring national trends involving the financial struggles of students from underserved communities, resulting in many of them delaying their academic journeys or discontinuing their efforts to earn their degrees altogether. SUNY Brockport is an affordable and accessible higher education institution, but increasing expenses are creating gaps where students need additional financial support. In addition, social and racial challenges can be barriers for students seeking to access postsecondary educational opportunities.
SUNY Brockport wanted to provide more access for students from underserved communities so they could see their future at the university in a way that not only helps them get in the door but also helps them graduate. After numerous discussions with university faculty and administration about how to tackle this mounting crisis, the Fannie Barrier Williams Scholarship (FBWS) Program came to fruition with an intentional focus on racial equity. The university observed in its data that students with high GPAs upon graduating from high school would be awarded merit scholarships, and other students had more support and access through opportunity programs. Through the FBWS Program, the university could target the “students in the middle” who do not have the GPA to qualify for substantial merit scholarships and do not meet the criteria for opportunity programs. To help these students, the university established a partnership with ESL Federal Credit Union. Over the course of five years, the grant from the credit union is expected to fund scholarships to recruit and retain students who are first-generation, from historically underserved and underrepresented populations, and reside in low-income households. These four-year scholarships serve to supplement state and federal programs and cover out-of-pocket expenses, including books, that can present barriers for students in pursuing their degrees.
The program also provides academic, personal, and career support programming for the students in the middle. A four-day summer bridge program onboards the scholars to their postsecondary experience. The students continue with a first-year seminar class taught by a dedicated academic success coordinator, who helps the students with advisement, academic progress, and any potential speed bumps, as well as creates a familial environment among the students through graduation. The summer bridge program, seminar, mentoring, and additional program offerings are the support strategies for the students in the FBWS Program.
Student voice and experience are at the forefront of the program. The students are dedicated, motivated, and inspired by the overall investment in their education. They often share stories about how their families cried when they learned about being selected for this program because they did not know how they were going to afford their child’s postsecondary education. As a university, SUNY Brockport aspires to expand access to the FBWS Program for more students each year. The FBWS Program was named in honor of Fannie Barrier Williams, the first woman of color to attend the university and graduate in the class of 1870. She was recognized throughout the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a major national leader and played a part in founding the NAACP.
In developing the FBWS Program, SUNY Brockport understood that student engagement and individualized academic and financial support are integral to a student’s overall success. When discussions began about starting the program, the university considered a flat scholarship for all students; however, it realized that student needs are more nuanced and financial needs change year to year. As a result, the FBWS Program moved from a standard approach toward an individualized one that considers every student’s needs separately to ensure specific student needs are being met.
SUNY Brockport pursued a public-private partnership with ESL Federal Credit Union to fund the FBWS Program. Through its Community Impact funds, the credit union awarded a $1.107 million grant to the Brockport Foundation to be distributed through the FBWS Program. Scholarships are currently available to 30 students who meet the following criteria:
- The student must be a first-time freshman enrolled in a degree program at SUNY Brockport.
- They must reside in the ESL region comprising Monroe, Orleans, Genesee, Livingston, Ontario, and Wayne counties.
- They must have a have a high school GPA between 87 and 92.
- Their families must have an adjusted gross income of less than $75,000 and demonstrate an unmet financial need.
- They cannot be receiving a traditional merit and/or academic scholarship from SUNY Brockport.
The credit union’s funding through its Community Impact program focuses on areas of need throughout the Greater Rochester community. Among them is expanding individual opportunity through education and employment. In addition to the scholarships, the FBWS Program recognizes the scholars’ potential and builds a familial environment for them. During their enrollment at the university, an academic success coordinator shepherds them through each stage. The coordinator meets regularly with all scholars and holds events and activities throughout the year to create a sense of community among the members of the cohort. Another layer of support is the involvement of the director of financial aid who knows the students well and works directly with them. The director helps the students with the many steps in the financial aid process as they apply for state and federal aid. To strengthen the connection with the university, the students are part of one of the many living-learning communities on campus and are encouraged to be involved with the campus community.
SUNY Brockport assesses student satisfaction with the various aspects of the FBWS Program. Assessments are completed after students’ first semester and after their first year. In addition, retention rates and on-campus employment are tracked.
In 2022, the fall-to-spring retention rate was 96.5% compared with the retention rate of 84.7% for all first-year students and 80.3% for Black/African American and Latinx students at SUNY Brockport. The average retention rate indicates initial signs of long-term success toward the university’s retention goals, particularly because persisting through the first six weeks and then the first semester is a predictor of long-term student retention and graduation. First-year retention to fall 2023 remained at 96.5%.
The average fall GPA for the cohort was 3.08 compared with 2.72 for all first-year students at SUNY Brockport. At midterm, the average GPA for the cohort was 2.79. The FBWS Program provided additional academic support and advising to help students improve their GPAs by the end of the semester. All students with a 2.5 and below met with the academic success coordinator to sign up for tutoring, review courses to determine if any can be dropped, and develop an academic success plan. At the end of the fall semester, 17 of the 29 students had a 3.0 and above; seven had a 3.5 or above; and two had a 4.0. No students in the FBWS Program had below a 2.0 GPA.
Many scholars have joined clubs and/or organizations and work on campus. Seventy-five percent are involved in a campus club/organization, many in leadership roles, including:
- Vice president of the Association for Latin American Students
- Treasurer for the Earth Science Club
- Secretary for the Muslim Student Association
- Treasurer for the Rotaract Club
Fifty percent of the scholars are employed on campus in the following areas: Student Union, Dining Services, Residential Life, the Drake Memorial Library, Special Sessions and Programs, Registration & Records, Brockport Childhood Development Center (day care on campus), Costume Shop in the Dance Department, and Communication Department.
Scholars are also involved in the university’s McNair Program and the Collegiate Science & Technology Entry Program (CSTEP), both of which work with low-income, first-generation students from underrepresented groups. The McNair Program helps these students pursue and earn their master’s and doctoral degrees through tutoring, mentorships, paid research experiences, conference presentation opportunities, and a dedicated study and computer lab. CSTEP supports students interested in the fields of math, science, health professions, or technology programs that lead to licensure.
All 29 students completed assessments of the summer bridge program, with results indicating a strong sense of community, awareness of available resources, and a strong foundation for starting their first year.
The fall 2022 cohort of FBWS Program has so far demonstrated a potential to serve as a university, state, and nationwide program to promote access and persistence goals, specifically those aimed at closing opportunity gaps.
SUNY Brockport needed to be flexible when implementing the FBWS Program. Providing its funding and dealing with financial aid concerns had to be addressed from the start. The university also discovered that students wanted to enroll in winter and summer sessions. Because those courses were not built into the grant budget, SUNY Brockport had to find a way to support this expense. Also, it’s critical that the students have an academic success coordinator who can relate to them, bring them together, and provide the individualized support they need.
“Every student has unique needs. Specific to this group of students, many of them are first-generation; they came in with no clue how to do a lot of the things they are expected to do. … With my help and the Fannie Barrier Williams Scholarship Program, they got to pause, take a breath, were provided with extra opportunities [and] help to navigate higher education—and they have someone to turn to. I was one of these students 10 years ago. I was a first-gen, low-income kid of color from Monroe County who started college at a private institution in a different city, and I had a terrible experience because I never felt a sense of belonging. I was very competent—I graduated high school at the top of my class—but I struggled with almost everything outside of academics when I started college. I never built a sense of belonging. I didn’t know how to join clubs, get a job. I struggled with making friends. I ultimately decided to transfer to [SUNY] Brockport, and when my freshman advisor at the prior institution had to sign some paperwork for me to complete the transfer process, she said, ‘I knew you were going to leave.’ Now, in my role as a coordinator/advisor, I cannot even fathom knowing a student was struggling and not doing anything to assist them. College is a confusing, stressful, but also beautiful new experience with lots of room for growth and opportunity, and I want them to all take advantage of everything at their fingertips. It sounds cliché, but I try to be what I needed back then. I know all of these students well, their needs, their dreams and goals, and I do my best to make sure they are on the right path, hard conversations and all.”
Jianna C. Howard, academic success coordinator, FBWS Program, SUNY Brockport
“I didn’t know what to do, and I didn’t know any English. My biggest challenge was feeling alone and trying to find help and friends and make my future better. … I didn’t have a good relationship with my mom and dad. We had conflicts, and they never supported me. When I asked for help, they just left me. Everybody has a family, but I do not. … [The people in the Fannie Barrier Williams Scholarship program] are always around, they always help, and I just love them. The program has completely changed how I look at the world, how I act, and it’s helped me to figure out what I want to do in my future life. I know I lost my family, but I got a family here.”
Scholar who immigrated to the United States from Russia at the age of 16, FBWS Program, SUNY Brockport