The Impact of Wyman’s Teen Leadership Program on College Achievement and Retention

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By Ryan Reed, Nicole Thomson & Grace Bramman | Low-income, first-generation college students face a host of obstacles on their journeys toward degree completion. Providing effective supports for these students as they navigate their postsecondary experiences is an important determinant of success, the implications of which can be far-reaching. The purpose of the current study discussed in this article was to examine the impact of Wyman’s Teen Leadership Program (TLP) on positive college outcomes for low-income, first-generation students pursuing higher education at Missouri State University (MSU). TLP is a community-based, postsecondary access and success program comprising three developmentally progressive phases that begin when teens are ninth graders and ends after their second year of postsecondary education. During the postsecondary phase of the program, TLP works in close partnership with higher education institutions like MSU to effectively support students through caring relationships and coordinated services. Using a mixed-methods approach, the authors analyzed the college retention rates and grade point averages (GPAs) of 39 TLP participants attending MSU and 82 comparison students with similar background characteristics. Findings revealed statistically higher retention rates and GPAs for TLP participants compared to non-participants. Focus groups were also conducted to better understand the perceptions of TLP participants (n = 15) and TLP staff members (n = 6). Using Schlossberg’s (1989) theory of marginality and mattering as a framework, the authors analyzed focus group responses, from which three overarching themes emerged: relationships, intentional experiences, and self-efficacy. The study findings suggest that postsecondary access and success programs are most effective when their curricula and program experiences are supported by strong and consistent student-adult relationships.

Author Note

Ryan Reed, Access Programs, Missouri State University; Nicole Thomson, Research and Learning Department, Wyman Center; Grace Bramman, Research and Learning Department, Wyman Center.

Correspondence regarding this article should be addressed to Ryan Reed, Coordinator for Access Programs, Missouri State University, Freudenberger House 0021, 1000 E. Madison Street, Springfield, MO 65807. Phone: (417) 836-7642. E-mail:

A young group of diverse professionals jump for joy

College is a formative endeavor for young people, one that teaches vital lessons both inside and outside the classroom and that can significantly influence the long-term trajectory of a young person’s life (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2015). Unfortunately, the opportunity to pursue a college education is not afforded to all equally; socioeconomic status can unduly dictate the access a young person has to the resources and tools necessary to successfully navigate this path. Indeed, students from disadvantaged circumstances often face a host of obstacles in their efforts to earn a degree, and the implications of their educational success are far-reaching (Engle & Tinto, 2008; National Center for Education Statistics [NCES], 2001; Spradlin, Burroughs, Rutkowski, Lang, & Hardesty, 2010).

Educational attainment is linked to a variety of factors affecting quality of life and can strongly influence the perpetuation of the cycle of poverty. Degree attainment also matters for long-term employment and earning potential. Recent data from the U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2018) showed that those with a bachelor’s degree earned, on average, 152% more than workers who had completed some college but had not attained a degree, due to the earning potential of career opportunities available only to those with educational credentials. The same data also showed that unemployment rates were 1.6 times greater among those who had not completed a degree. Moreover, educational attainment can also impact long-term individual and community-level outcomes, including reliance on public assistance, exposure to chronic stress, likelihood of being diagnosed with chronic illness, and life expectancy (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2015).

The gap in degree attainment among low-income students compared to their higher income counterparts is stark. While 87% of high school graduates whose families fell within the top quartile of household income entered a postsecondary institution in 2014, only 60% of those whose families fell within the bottom quartile of income enrolled in postsecondary education (Cahalan, Perna, Yamashirta, Ruiz, & Franklin, 2016). Among students graduating from low-income high schools (where at least 50% of the student body qualifies for free or reduced-price lunch) in 2016, only 54% pursued a postsecondary option the first fall after graduation (National Student Clearinghouse, 2017). If they do enroll, low-income, first-generation (LIFG) students often struggle to persist in their postsecondary education. First-time college enrollees from families in the bottom quartile of household income achieve a bachelor’s degree within six years of enrollment at a rate 33 percentage points lower than their peers from the top quartile of household income (26% vs. 59%, respectively; Cahalan et. al, 2016).

In his seminal theory of retention and departure, Tinto (1975) described many of the barriers faced by LIFG students. Tinto proposed that the strongest predictor of whether a student persists or drops out of higher education is the student’s level of integration, both academic and social. Factors contributing to this integration include socioeconomic status, parental education, family expectations for the student’s education, and quality of pre-college education (Tinto, 1975). Schlossberg’s (1989) theory of marginality and mattering expands on Tinto’s ideas about social integration, asserting that a support system and feeling of belonging, as opposed to feelings of marginalization, contribute heavily to success at a postsecondary institution. Because LIFG students are historically a marginalized group, their feelings of mattering within their college community are especially critical (Schlossberg, 1989).

Data and applied research have supported these theories, illustrating the unique challenges LIFG students face in enrolling and persisting in higher education. Through each phase of their higher education pursuit, these students face academic, financial, and cultural barriers that are often reinforced by institutional policy and systemic inequity. Typically, these students attend struggling school districts with low academic achievement or low-rigor academic programs that do not prepare them for college. Scores on college entrance exams, such as the SAT and ACT, correlate positively with family income, an effect that is even more pronounced for test takers with family incomes at the poverty level. As Dixon-Roman, Everson, and McArdle (2013) noted, the scores needed to make LIFG students eligible for admission into a university are often unattainable.

Those LIFG students who do make it to their first semester of college continue to face barriers as they navigate the postsecondary sphere, often with insufficient institutional supports and financial resources to ensure their success (Engle & Tinto, 2008). Even after accounting for student loan assistance, LIFG students typically have a larger unmet financial need than their non-LIFG peers, requiring them to work more while enrolled and therefore divert time and attention away from academics and integration into campus life (Engle & Tinto, 2008). LIFG students often work more hours off campus, take fewer credit hours, and receive lower grades than peers whose parents attended college (Pascarella, Pierson, Wolniak, & Terenzini, 2004). Further, a low-quality high school education leads many LIFG’s to remedial coursework: Between 2010 and 2014, 40% of first-generation college students enrolled in remedial coursework, compared to 27% of students with a parent who had obtained a degree (U.S. Department of Education, 2017). Required remedial coursework can set students back both financially and along their degree path, as these classes require regular tuition but do not count toward a student’s degree credits earned. According to recent statistics, two- and four-year college students pay approximately $1.3 billion dollars in tuition for remediation in the United States annually, though less than 10% of these students graduate on time (Jimenez, Sargrad, Morales, & Thompson, 2016).

In addition, LIFG students tend to have substantially less knowledge about university processes and procedures and less realistic expectations for their course of study and career paths than their non-LIFG peers (Pascarella et. al, 2004). LIFG students’ lack of exposure to and knowledge of the experiences and “norms” associated with higher education due to their family backgrounds—commonly referred to as cultural capital—often shapes their postsecondary experiences and leads to greater struggles persisting in college than their non-LIFG peers experience (NCES, 2001; Ward, Siegel, & Davenport, 2012). LIFG students, many of whom are students of color, may also face greater challenges assimilating to college life, often experiencing marginalization on campus, particularly at institutions lacking in student, faculty, and staff diversity. These institutions often offer limited curriculum reflective of multicultural or diverse perspectives, and typically do not present a campus climate inclusive of diverse populations (McClain & Perry, 2017). They may also struggle with returning home and receiving messages from family and peers about being disconnected from their community of origin (Engle, 2007). These systemic disadvantages and this lack of social support can leave LIFG students feeling out of place and unsure of themselves, resulting in low self-esteem (Hottinger & Rose, 2006; Stephens, Hamedani, & Destin, 2014).

Though the barriers to pursuing and completing a degree for LIFG students are many, they are not insurmountable. Because these challenges are broad and interwoven, so too are the methods for addressing them. At the broadest level, it is important for K-12 and higher education institutions and communities to implement policies and practices designed to ensure success for all students. At the individual level, peer support is particularly important; Dennis, Phinney, and Chuateco (2005) found that maintaining fulfilling peer support predicted grade point average (GPA) among LIFG students. Consistent with Schlossberg’s (1989) theory, research has indicated that high feelings of marginalization and low feelings of mattering contribute to low self-efficacy, but this relationship can be mitigated by feelings of belonging to a peer group. Self-efficacy, which impacts GPA and enrollment persistence (Vuong, Brown-Welty, & Tracz, 2010), informs an internal locus-of-control mindset, whereby students believe they have the ability to mitigate adversity, and as such encourages students to access and engage with institutional student support services. Utilization of campus resources reinforces academic integration, thus making inclusion in a social support network to which LIFG students feel they belong especially important (Tinto, 2004; Yeager et. al, 2016).

Positive relationships with adults can also be beneficial to youth pursuing higher education, both directly and indirectly. Young people who experience a strong mentoring relationship with an adult are more likely to exhibit prosocial behaviors and demonstrate positive social-emotional skills, such as emotion management, self-awareness, and responsibility, all of which serve to strengthen resolve and improve academic outcomes (Roehlkepartain et al, 2017). Mentorship and coaching around making smart institutional, academic, and, in particular, financial choices are vital to setting up LIFG students for success, especially considering that inability to afford enrollment accounts for 54% of these students’ rationale for dropping out (Lohfink & Paulsen, 2005; Tinto, 2004). Effective advising both before and after enrollment helps LIFG students select colleges that will provide appropriate supports and offer sustainable financial aid, and to ensure they know how to most efficiently earn credits, access supports, and manage financial demands so that they may persist beyond their first semester (Engle & Tinto, 2008).

The Current Study

The purpose of the current study was to examine the effectiveness of a postsecondary access and success program designed to address many of the barriers and challenges faced by LIFG students in their pursuit of higher education. Wyman’s Teen Leadership Program (TLP) was established in 2002 and is based within a nonprofit organization in the midwestern United States. Wyman’s mission is to empower teens from economically disadvantaged circumstances to lead successful lives and build strong communities; the organization envisions a day when all young people in the United States will thrive in learning, work, and life. Wyman delivers high-impact programs to youth directly, trains and builds capacity in others to effectively support youth, and partners with youth-serving systems to improve youth outcomes. Through positive youth development strategies and innovative approaches, Wyman supports youth in achieving educational success, developing healthy behaviors and relationships, and exhibiting life and leadership skills. Uniquely, TLP comprises three developmentally progressive phases that begin when teens are ninth graders and ends after their second year of postsecondary education. Its multi-year approach differentiates the program from other, similarly oriented college access programs. TLP participants are recruited as eighth graders from local low-income public and charter middle schools with which Wyman maintains partnerships, though for many of the participants in this study, the program formerly began one year earlier, when students were recruited as seventh graders. TLP recruits from a total of 12 school districts in a metropolitan region. Middle school teachers, administrators, and school counselors encourage interested students to submit an application, which includes a personal essay. Based on their essays and family income level, selected applicants are then invited to an in-person interview, during which they are asked to participate in teambuilding exercises with peers and to engage on-on-one with an adult interviewer. From this pool, approximately 80 youth are invited to join the new program cohort.

Each year of programming features an intensive summer experience followed by consistent personal and academic coaching throughout the school year. Years 1 and 2 of the program (ninth and 10th grades) focus on “Leadership and Exploration,” with the goals of facilitating relationship building with adults and peers, building youth social and emotional learning skills, and providing opportunities for participants to explore their personal strengths and interests. Teens attend a 21-day summer camp experience and a four-day wilderness travel experience focusing on outdoor adventure, civil rights, and community service. They participate in teambuilding exercises as well as workshops centering on communication, problem solving, and leadership, and complete strengths inventories to assess where their talents lie. All of these activities take place within a “camp” atmosphere, where teens are encouraged to step out of their comfort zones and bond with the peers in their cohort. Years 3 and 4 (11th and 12th grades) focus on “Postsecondary and Career Readiness” by providing opportunities for youth to explore postsecondary options in an effort to help them determine the settings and institutions that would be a good fit, enhance their understanding of the connections among coursework, college majors, and career paths, and develop the knowledge needed to successfully apply to and enroll in a postsecondary institution. Teens entering their junior year of high school participate in an eight-day, multi-state college tour, which allows them to see first-hand the different types of higher education paths available and encourages them to begin developing their preferences. High school seniors participate in a seven-day college community immersion experience, designed to acclimate them to the resources available on a university campus. During their stay, teens participate in workshops focused on applying for college admission, applying for financial aid, college entrance essay writing, and résumé building. Years 5 and 6 (first- and second-year postsecondary) support youth as they embark and persist on their educational path. The goals during this “Persistence” phase are to support participants in understanding and securing financial aid, navigating college life and requirements, and ensuring a match between their academic studies and career paths. These youth participate in a three-day Summer Bridge program, which offers a variety of small-group sessions on topics ranging from roommate conflict and personal safety to building a professional network and navigating career goals. Workshops and individual coaching sessions are designed with the overall purpose of building life skills and supporting students who may not start college on a level playing field to overcome barriers and advocate for themselves.

In addition to these summer offerings, TLP staff are in contact at least quarterly with youth throughout the school year via in-person and phone conversations. Staff track and advise high school students around college application benchmarks, financial aid completion, current grades, and college entrance exam preparation and completion, and provide coaching on personal social and emotional barriers, including connecting teens with necessary resources. College students receive financial guidance on FAFSA completion, scholarships, and debt load management; institutional guidance around connecting to campus and faculty, and effective integration into college life; and general guidance around supportive contacts, time and stress management strategies, and help-seeking behaviors. Parents of high school-aged participants are also offered workshops providing general information about postsecondary access and readiness, as well as a specific session focused on FAFSA completion.

Wyman’s TLP also works in close partnership with higher education institutions, such as Missouri State University (MSU), to provide ongoing academic, institutional, and financial support to students who participate in Wyman’s TLP and attend that institution. Through the MSU-Wyman partnership, TLP students get to know MSU through pre-college tours and stays on campus, helping them experience campus life and identify the setting best suited to them. TLP students who attend MSU are connected with a “Wyman Club” on campus, giving them access to a network of supportive peers and upperclassmen. In addition to receiving ongoing coaching from their TLP staff member, students receive the additional support of a full-time MSU staff member dedicated to coordinating services and maintaining communication with the TLP staff regarding their progress and challenges. The MSU staff member provides a single point of contact for all areas of the university and streamlines multiple processes. The MSU staff member also serves as an academic advisor for all TLP students and is familiar with the particular types of challenges TLP students will most commonly encounter. Lastly, scholarships supported by both Wyman and MSU are provided to qualifying TLP students to help cover tuition and residence costs. Through this partnership and deep coordination between MSU and TLP staff, students are supported by consistent, caring relationships and coordinated services. To date, 55 youth have benefitted from this partnership over the past 10 years.

Using a mixed-methods research design, the current study sought to better understand the impact of Wyman’s TLP for participating students and was guided by the following research questions:

  1. Do Wyman’s TLP participants enrolled at MSU achieve a greater overall GPA compared to the overall GPA of a matched group of students who did not participate in Wyman’s TLP?
  2. Do Wyman’s TLP participants enrolled at MSU have a higher retention rate compared to the retention rate of a matched group of students who did not participate in Wyman’s TLP?
  3. What elements of Wyman’s TLP program do Wyman’s TLP participants and staff indicate are critical to students’ college success?



GPA and retention rate data were obtained in the fall of 2016 from records of 39 participants who were low-income, first-generation, students enrolled in Wyman’s TLP and who had attended MSU since the fall of 2014. This sample represented all students who had participated in TLP and entered MSU between fall 2014 and fall 2016. GPA data obtained for this study were from students’ first semester of their freshman year. Of the 39 students, 61.5% were African-American, 30.8% were Caucasian, and 7.7% were multi-racial. Further, 66.7% of the sample were female, 30.8% were male, and 2.6% were gender non-conforming.

Data from a group of 82 students were used for comparison. Comparison students were low-income, first-generation students who had attended the same high schools as Wyman’s TLP participants and attended MSU but had never enrolled in or been served by Wyman’s TLP program. Data collected from comparison students’ records included GPAs from the first semester of their freshman year (fall 2016) and their enrollment status in the spring of 2017. Because comparison data were de-identified, gender and race data were not available for the comparison group students.

All 39 of Wyman’s TLP participants were also invited to participate in a focus group to explore their experiences in the program. Of the 39 invited, 15 of Wyman’s TLP participants consented to participate in the study and then completed an anonymous demographic survey. Over half (54%) of the focus group participants were female, 40% were male, and 6% were gender non-conforming. A majority of the focus group participants identified as African-American (60%) followed by Bi-racial (20%) and Caucasian (20%). In terms of class standing, 26% were current freshmen, 40% were sophomores, 20% were juniors, and 13% were seniors. A variety of majors were represented among the sample, including health and human services (20%), criminology (20%), business (13%), humanities (13%), fine arts (7%), education (7%), and undeclared (7%). In addition, six current and past TLP staff who worked directly with students participated in individual interviews with the first author.

Measures and Procedure

A de-identified, quantitative dataset was obtained from the higher education institution’s Office of Institutional Research. The dataset included each student’s GPA for the first semester of their freshman year as well as their enrollment status for the following spring semester. Data were obtained and stored in Microsoft Excel spreadsheets.

The focus groups were designed to be interactive and to provide the 15 students who had volunteered to participate an opportunity to discuss their experiences in Wyman’s TLP, including their opinions and perceptions of how their skills and competencies may have changed as a result of their participation and the program elements critical to their success. A total of three focus groups with five students in each were conducted with assignment to groups based solely on student availability. Each focus group was facilitated by one individual trained by the first author, lasted approximately one hour, and took place in an on-campus conference room. In each focus group session, the facilitator asked the same set of questions (see Appendix A), encouraging self-disclosure while assuring students that there were no right or wrong answers. TLP staff interviews were conducted individually by the first author and included a series of questions (see Appendix B) focused on the adult’s role in students’ experiences in the program and their observations of students’ experiences matriculating into and persisting through college. Focus groups and interviews were audio and video recorded and were transcribed by an independent third party who was paid for this service and was not involved in the data collection process. Focus group and interview participants were assigned pseudonyms by the third party to ensure their anonymity in the transcriptions.


Analytic Approach

Quantitative data for this study included GPAs and retention rates of participants in Wyman’s TLP and comparison students with similar demographic characteristics. Using Microsoft Excel, a z-test was performed to test the difference between the proportion of students returning for a second semester in each group at α = 0.05. A t-test was used to compare both groups’ mean GPA in an effort to examine the statistical difference between the means at α = 0.05. Data were examined for normality and found to be approximately symmetric (PI = -.27 for TLP; PI = -.39 for comparison group). Table 1 provides descriptive data for GPA and retention rates by group.

Table 1

Average Grade Point Averages and Retention Rates Per Group

Variable n M t z p
TLP Group 39 2.88 2.764 n/a .007
Comparison Group 82 2.40      
Retention Rate          
TLP Group 39 .95 n/a 2.205 .02
Comparison Group 82 .79      

Notes. TLP = Teen Leadership Program; GPA = Grade Point Average. GPA measured on a 4.0 scale.

For both focus group and interview data, the first author reviewed the typed transcripts and manually analyzed the raw data to identify consistent and recurring themes, following the analytic approach outlined by Creswell (2014). This approach aligned well with the objective of the qualitative portion of study—that is, to learn from the viewpoints, experiences, and feelings of the program participants and staff about the critical elements of program success. Using the guidelines set forth by Creswell, the raw transcript data were read multiple times to validate the patterns and themes that arose within and across the interview and focus group data. During each reading, reflections and interpretations were summarized using extensive notes and tallies for each question to help highlight the consistencies across responses. Through this iterative process, the raw transcript data were organized and coded into categories representative of the themes that emerged from the data. Finally, once clear themes emerged from this analytic process, the transcripts were read a final time to identify specific quotations that best exemplified the findings.

Grade Point Average

GPA data for students in Wyman’s TLP and in the comparison group were collected for the first semester of their freshman year. The mean GPA for the 39 TLP students was 2.88 (on a 4.0 scale). The GPA of the 82 comparison group students was 2.40. A t-test revealed that the difference between the two GPAs was statistically significant, t(119) = 2.764, p = .007.

Retention Rate

Retention data for students in Wyman’s TLP and the for comparison group were collected, representing their enrollment from the first to second semester. Of the 39 students served by Wyman’s TLP, 37 returned for their second semester of college, at a 95% retention rate. For students in the comparison group, 65 out of 82 returned for their second semester, at a retention rate of 79%. The z-test revealed that the retention rate among Wyman’s TLP students was significantly higher than the retention rate of the comparison group, z = 2.205, p =.02.

Converging Focus Group and Interview Themes

In response to those focus group and interview questions that centered on understanding student and staff perspectives on the critical elements of programming, the following overarching themes emerged:

Theme 1: Adult-student relationships. In response to the focus group question about how the program had helped overcome challenges, multiple students mentioned the support they had received from adult staff. As one student commented, “Even though [Wyman’s TLP staff] can’t do everything … they have been a big support any time there has been an issue or a problem, something that you need, they are always there.” Another student expressed that “the counselors were there in the time in life when we needed them and motivate[d] us and guide[d] us through middle and high school … just a guiding light for college.” Several students mentioned staff support as one of the top two services provided by the program, with one student commenting, “Support comes from staff just being there, being able to answer questions, being available.” Many students mentioned “family” and “relationships” when asked to give three words to describe the program, pointing to the close bonds that had been formed within the context of the program. Staff member interview responses aligned with those of the students regarding the importance of the support staff and the relationships that are developed. All staff pointed to their success with students as being driven by the desire to seek out and create positive, caring relationships with youth in the program. As one staff member commented, staff success was due to “really understanding and believing in the power of caring, consistent relationships between students and with a well-trained adult.” Another staff member observed that “the relationship-based and individualized approach [of Wyman’s TLP] is not the norm that I see in a lot of programs.” Another summed it up simply: “The reason why our program works is because of relationships.” As reported by both students and staff, the factors contributing to the strength of the relationships included their “consistency” and “longevity.” One student stated that the strength of their relationship with Wyman’s TLP staff was because they had “known them since 7th grade and they’ve been with us now in … college.” Likewise, a staff member shared, “Persistence is key in these relationships…. Wyman will always be there and they are reliable.” Finally, another staff member noted the impact of a supportive connection because it allows students to “see possibilities, think about possibilities [students] would never have [or] never considered elsewhere.” Taken together, responses to both student focus group and staff interview questions illustrate the strong relational bond created between students and staff in Wyman’s TLP. From students’ perspectives, this was largely expressed through highly valuing and relying on the support they received from staff; staff expressed this by discussing the unique and purposeful approach they took to creating positive relationships, which, in turn, paved the way for making a difference in the students’ lives.

Theme 2: Intentional experiences. When asked to describe the role that Wyman’s TLP had played in helping them overcome challenges to postsecondary education, focus group participants commented on how the program had taught them to become independent and supported them through transitions via program experiences. In response to a question about the top two services they had received from the program, all students mentioned either college preparation activities, camp experiences, or supportive staff. For example, one student commented,

I think [Wyman’s TLP] helped ease that transition from adolescence to adulthood, especially having the yearly getaway going to camp [emphasis added], being away from your family for like a month and learning how to interact with people without your parents being there.

Another student also commented on the importance of camp experiences, which “took a bunch of inner-city kids and exposed them to the wilderness. I feel like they showed us that there’s more out there than just the street we grew up on or the poverty that we see every day.” Another student reflected further on the camp experience: “It throws you into a new environment, and [shows you] how to get out of your comfort zone, and teaches you leadership skills, and prepares you for the future.”

Student focus group responses also highlighted the significance of college preparation activities in Wyman’s TLP. Many pointed to the college tours, which are part of the program, as their only experiences on a college campus prior to starting school, and as one of the most important services provided to them by TLP. For example, one student asserted that they learned more about college in “one week” [of college tours] than they did in four years of high school. The same student also reflected, “Because over the college tours, we went to many different kinds of colleges, and we learned more about colleges that you won’t learn in school. I felt the college tour prepared me more for college.” Another student asserted, “Everything I’ve learned and even know [sic] about college was through Wyman.” Another student commented, “[TLP] helped me overcome my fears about a lot of different things … get through a mud cave, climb a mountain … if I could survive those things, then I can survive college.”

The interview responses of staff members illustrated the intentionality of activities and experiences designed to enhance a supportive atmosphere and increase students’ cultural capital around higher education and leadership. The experiences and activities were created to expose students to a variety of postsecondary options. For example, one staff member emphasized that Wyman’s TLP “roots [are] in summer camping” and the “experiential learning” involved with “outdoor challenges. I think that by using those methods we are able to expose and really challenge our young people in ways they are not going to be challenged at home or in their communities.” Staff also commented on the importance of helping students set a postsecondary goal for themselves, commenting that “each step along the way we are doing developmentally appropriate activities [so students understand] there is a path [for them to college].” Through their interview responses, staff also illustrated the impact of the intentional program experience on the students they served: “Being able to help them make those connections in those challenges and experiences that we are exposing them to here at [Wyman’s TLP] … helping them see how they work through those … and helping them apply it back to a college frame [is important].” Overall, the responses of student focus group participants and adult staff members were congruent in highlighting key program experiences—particularly the camp and college tour experiences—that helped drive students’ success.

Theme 3: Self-efficacy. Across multiple focus group questions, students reflected on the ways Wyman’s TLP supported them on their journey to independence. As one student voiced,

I owe Wyman everything as to who I am today [sic]…. They really gave you [sic] the foundation I needed to become independent…. [Wyman’s TLP] teaches you to be independent…. You really need to be independent, especially if you’re from a low-income family down here [at college] on your own.

Another student asserted that TLP “helped a lot with self-worth … they instill in all their students, ‘You can do this, you can do that,’ which if you didn’t know any better, you wouldn’t have just thought of on your own.” One other student affirmed that TLP “made all of us not [just] be listeners of this information but make us want to put it into action and [be] doers [sic]. Doers make their dreams come alive.” Similarly, staff member interview responses highlighted the role of Wyman’s TLP in helping students find their voices, foster their independence, and develop their confidence to lead. One staff member illustrated the way the program instills a sense of “belief” in the students:

One of the first things I think about first-gen students is belief. Do they believe they can be successful beyond high school? Do they believe they can achieve? Do they believe they can get a college degree? Do they believe that they can have a career that’s going to help sustain and pour back into the family? So, the first thing is the belief piece.

In discussing aspects of Wyman’s TLP that are key to impacting success in college, several staff members highlighted the role of self-efficacy. One staff member explained that the program’s approach to helping students achieve success is “not so much [by] teaching them what to think but how to think…. We have to allow students to make the decisions.” Another staff member further reflected, “[We instill] this idea of both knowing who you are, then representing who you are authentically and with some responsibility to your peers and to society.” Staff responses also illustrated that they could see growth in students’ self-efficacy skills over time as students improved their “capacity to use their voice to influence what’s going on around them” as well as “confidence in themselves as leaders … the capacity to make change … [and the understanding,] ‘I have an important voice that can and should be used.’”

Taken together, both student and staff responses to focus group and interview questions pointed consistently to the importance of developing self-efficacy skills (sometimes referred to as “finding their voice” or “belief”). By these accounts, the program’s approach and experiences indeed strengthened students’ self-efficacy skills, thereby successfully supporting them in moving from a dependent state toward greater independence.


The current study examined college retention rates and GPAs of low-income, first-generation students who participated in Wyman’s Teen Leadership Program and were enrolled at Missouri State University. The qualitative portion of the mixed-methods study included focus groups and interviews to inform understanding of the critical elements of programming from TLP student and adult staff perspectives.

Overall, the quantitative analysis of retention and GPA data provided support for the effectiveness of Wyman’s TLP in promoting successful postsecondary outcomes for the LIFG students whom the program serves. When compared to a group of MSU students with similar demographic characteristics, Wyman’s TLP participants’ retention rates and GPAs were significantly higher, suggesting that the experiences gained through the program and the maintenance of close ties with Wyman staff members into college provides an advantage to LIFG students pursuing higher education.

Through the student focus groups and adult staff interviews, three overarching themes of program impact emerged: relationships, intentional experiences, and self-efficacy. Students and staff members highlighted the strength and longevity of relationships—the most common theme from the focus groups and interviews—as the backbone of college success. This emphasis on relationships coincides with Schlossberg’s (1989) notion that postsecondary success relates related to the extent to which a student feels connected and the extent to which those connections allow students to believe in their own self-worth and ability to be active agents in their environment. The transition from high school into college, as Tinto (1975, 1987. 1993) and Schlossberg (1989) noted, is a time of great concern and uncertainty, particularly for LIFG students, and students in transition are vulnerable to feeling marginalized. The relationship between students and TLP staff members develops into a support system, the strength of which is related to first-generation college students’ academic success and matriculation (Ishitani, 2006).

Another theme, intentional experiences, emerged as a critical program element, with respondents perceiving that Wyman’s TLP program activities are intentionally designed to support students in helping them feel like they belong in a college environment. This too is an important element for LIFG students, as they are more likely to enter the new experience of college with great uncertainty and have vastly different experiences in college than traditional students (Blackwell & Pinder, 2014; Ward et al., 2012).

Strong relationships with Wyman’s TLP staff and intentional programmatic experiences support students’ growing capacity to use their voices, develop confidence as leaders, and foster their belief that they can achieve their goals—encapsulated in the term self-efficacy—emerged as the third theme. As a student increases their self-efficacy, they transition from a state of dependency into independence (Bandura, 1997); in this state of independence, a student finds their own voice and takes control of their own situation (Katz, Eliot, & Nevo, 2014). One goal of Wyman’s TLP is to help students who may not start college on a level playing field overcome barriers and advocate for themselves—an important factor of success in higher education (Engle, Bermeo, & O’Brien, 2009; Tinto, 2012). When students fully grasp the ideas of representing themselves, being their own self-advocate, and moving into independence—the foundation of which is rooted in the support and belonging experienced through positive relationships with adults—the barriers they face in higher education due to their backgrounds are more likely to be overcome (Ward et al., 2012). Figure 1 depicts the hypothesized relationships among the themes that emerged from the qualitative portion of the study. As the figure illustrates, intentional programmatic experiences and strong, positive adult-student relationships are expected to be both mutually reinforcing and predictive of improved self-efficacy among LIFG youth served. In turn, improved self-efficacy is the mechanism through which postsecondary success is achieved.

Strong, Positive

Adult-Student Relationships

Improved Self-Efficacy

Postsecondary Success

Intentional Programmatic Experiences

Figure 1. Path model depicting hypothesized relationships among focus group themes and postsecondary success

The emerging themes of this study have important implications for practice. The findings underscore the need for strong, supportive youth-adult relationships to be at the core of college access programming. As Schlossberg (1989) pointed out, students need to feel as if they matter, and staff members need to be competent in fostering students’ sense of self-worth and belonging. The current study’s findings highlight that the longevity and constancy of relationships are paramount for students in building trust with adult program staff. College success programming will be more successful if programs maintain constancy of staff members who work with students (Smith, Benitez, Carter, & Melnick, 2012).

The study findings also suggest that college access program designers should create curricula and experiences around the relationship between students and staff members. Likewise, the design of any curriculum should be based on trust, be holistic in approach, make direct correlations between experiences and necessary skills, and move students from a state of dependence to independence. The goal of all college access programs and institutions of higher education should be to help bridge the gap in access and academic achievement for all low-income, first-generation students. Strong relationships between community organizations and institutions of higher education help ensure that these gaps are being bridged.

Although the current study yielded important information about the effectiveness of Wyman’s TLP and perceptions of its critical components, there are several limitations that should be noted. Because the focus of this study centered solely on one community-based college access program at one higher education institution, the results may not generalize beyond the study sample. Further, since the study did not include random assignment to treatment groups, we cannot conclude a causal relationship between participation in the program and increased retention or GPA. The small sample size of students who participated in the study also creates limitations in assessing the reliability of the results. Lastly, students’ financial data were not collected for this study, and finances could have influenced students’ ability to remain in college (Spradlin et al., 2010).

Future research regarding college access programming should continue to explore the development and maintenance of relationships as a means to minimize marginalization among low-income, first-generation college students. These studies may focus on measuring sense of belonging and the construct of self-efficacy more directly, as well as investigating the relationship between particular elements of college access programming, including both student-adult relationships and peer relationships, and the development of these attributes.

A postsecondary degree is invaluable in helping those in disadvantaged circumstances improve their socioeconomic futures (Payne, 2013). The total enrollment of institutions of higher education is growing and diversifying, and includes a large proportion of first-generation, low-income, urban students (Casazza & Silverman, 2013; Ward et al., 2012). It is imperative to gain a deeper understanding of “what works and how” and to use that learning to build effective programs and supports that address challenges disproportionately affecting college attendance, enrollment, and completion among low-income, first-generation students.


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Appendix A: Student Focus Group Question Guide

  1. Up until this point, what challenges, both personal and educational, have you encountered as a first-generation/low-income student?
  2. What role has participating in Wyman’s TLP played in helping you overcome those challenges?
  3. Tell me about the relationships and support systems you have developed while participating in Wyman’s TLP and in what way have they helped you:
    1. Student
    2. Wyman’s TLP Staff
    3. College faculty/staff
  4. What matters and motivates you in your college?
  5. Has this educational experience in college been what you expected? Why or why not?
  6. How strongly do you feel your participation in Wyman’s TLP contributed to your success?
  7. When you think about Wyman’s TLP, what three words come to mind?
  8. In your opinion, what were the top two services provided to you by Wyman’s TLP?
  9. What can Wyman’s TLP do to improve, and if given the opportunity, what would you change about the program to help you or future participants be more successful in college?
  10. Is there something you wish to tell me about your experiences that I did not ask you?

Appendix B: Staff Interview Questions

  1. What personal characteristics do you possess which have helped you succeed with the students you serve?
  2. Do you use any non-conventional methods when educating and mentoring first-generation/low-income students? If so, what are the methods?
  3. How do you motivate first-generation/low-income college students to complete college?
  4. What barriers, personal and educationally, do you see first-generation/low-income college students have or experience while participating in the program and attending college?
  5. How important do you feel the student/TLP relationship is in your students’ educational pursuits?
  6. How do you emphasize to students the importance of success in college? What indicators do they give you that they understand?
  7. What traits does the program try to instill in students that you believe makes them successful in college? And how do you go about teaching them?
  8. Over the time period when students are involved in the program, how do you see them change or grow?
  9. What are the advantages and disadvantages of not being a federally funded program, like other college access programs/
    1. Do you feel that makes a difference to students’ success in getting into and persisting in college? Why or why not?


Dr. Ryan Reed is the Coordinator of Access Programs at Missouri State University where he oversees the partnership between MSU and community-based college access programs. It is Dr. Reed’s responsibility to advise first-generation/low-income students on scholarships. Dr. Reed has a BA in Communications -Colorado Christian University, a MS in College Student Affairs -Eastern Illinois University and a EdD in Instructional Leadership -Lindenwood University. Dr. Reed has over 15 years of experience at multiple institutions in the areas of residence life, academic advising, admissions, and student affairs.


Dr. Thomson is a Research Analyst in the Research & Learning Department at Wyman Center in St. Louis, MO. Since receiving her PhD in Developmental Psychology from Saint Louis University in 2004, Nicki has worked in the field of applied research and program evaluation. Through her work, Nicki has helped secure federal, state, and local funding to implement programs that focus on improving the lives of youth and their families; designed and supervised quantitative and qualitative evaluations of these programs; and, analyzed, presented and published data from this work. At Wyman since 2015, Nicki has helped to develop and improve upon internal evaluation processes, including logic model development, outcome and implementation measurement, data analysis and dissemination of results. She also reviews current research and best practices in the field to inform Wyman’s program design and improvement efforts. 


Grace Bramman is an Associate Director with the Wyman Center in St. Louis, MO. Grace earned her Masters in Social Work from Washington University in 2013 and her clinical social work license in 2016. She specializes in positive youth development and program evaluation. At Wyman, Grace designs and conducts evaluation and continuous quality improvement processes across agency programming, as well as writing, managing, and reporting on grants supporting agency work. Previously, she worked in direct service roles facilitating Wyman’s Teen Outreach Program and providing social work services in school settings. Grace also holds Bachelors degrees in Psychology and Statistics from the University of Missouri-Columbia, where she worked in the Social Cognitive Neuroscience Lab studying alcohol’s effects on cognitive processes.