Dec 7, 2023

First-Generation College Student 2023 Impact Report

Phi Delta Theta Foundation The Scroll News
First-Generation College Student 2023 Impact Report

Phi Delta Theta outpaces both averages irrespective of whether a student is a first- or continuing-generation student*. In the last two years, Phi Delta Theta freshmen have returned to campus for a sophomore year 99 percent of the time, whether first-generation or not. Compare this to the national average. According to the Center for First-Generation Student Success, 81 percent of first-generation students return to school for a sophomore year, compared to 87 percent of continuing-generation students.

* A first-generation college student is defined as a student who has not had a parent or guardian complete a four-year degree. A continuing-generation student is a student who has a parent or guardian who has completed a four-year degree.

Letter from the Executive Vice President/CEO

Dear Brothers, Parents, and Friends,

I am pleased to present a summary of activities for our first-generation support programs. In 2021, the General Fraternity launched several efforts to expand opportunities for first-generation college students to join Phi Delta Theta. Our Fraternity needed to make bold moves to support the changing demographics of college campuses. We know that one in every three students on college campuses are first-generation students. We also know that by 2025, the population of eighteen-year-olds is expected to decrease by 15 percent; this decline in college-aged youths will create what higher education defines as an enrollment cliff. These two facts inspired our leadership to spring into action to develop programs that would make it more attractive for first-generation college students to not only join but thrive as members of Phi Delta Theta.

Several highlights stood out when our team compiled the data after two years of supporting this program. The first is that Phi Delta Theta is retaining first year college students at a higher rate than any college or university, regardless of their first-generation or continuing-generation status. college students; under Demographics below, you can see that first-generation students are taking on leadership positions and engaging in leadership conferences at a higher rate than their peers. And finally, more than 50 percent of Phi Delta Theta chapters are trending positively towards becoming representative of being more diverse than their campuses. We challenge our chapters to be a representative mirror of their student body; with increased support of first-generation programs, fifty Phi Delta Theta chapters are as emblematic or more diverse than the campus, an increase from twenty-five the year prior.

In the following pages, you will see where we have moved the dial since launching Our Obligation programs and read the first-hand student testimonials. We’d also like to hear from you! Share your first-generation story here.


Sean S. Wagner


Phi Delta Theta’s work includes understanding the makeup of the Fraternity’s undergraduate membership. Being transparent about our undergraduate member demographics has facilitated valuable conversations and impactful decision-making. It also led to a focus on attracting first-generation students to our organization.

Through our partnership with Dyad Strategies, we know that first-generation college students are less likely to prioritize the social aspects of the Fraternity and have different life experiences and perspectives. On average, they work twenty or more hours per week, pay their own dues, and need financial assistance. We also learned that their views are more inclusive, promote further diversification, and help our chapters focus on leadership and philanthropy, ensuring a better and healthier experience for all.

First-Generation Statistics

Primarily due to financial challenges, navigating unfamiliar environments, and a lack of on-campus mentorship, retention and graduation rates for first-generation college students are significantly lower than for students with parents who attended college.

A first-generation student’s median household income is less than 50 percent of students from continuing-generation families ($41,000–$90,000).

Continuing-generation students have earned a bachelor’s two and a half times more often than a first-generation student after six years (20 to 49 percent six-year national average graduation rate).

Impacting Campuses

In order to ensure that our programming remains current and relevant to undergraduate Phis, Phi Delta Theta participates in an annual survey completed by Dyad Strategies that provides us with invaluable data about member experience and desired learning opportunities. Nearly 7,000, or 66 percent, of our undergraduates completed this year’s survey. Over the past three years, members of Phi Delta Theta have consistently ranked higher than our fraternal peers in the category of Openness to Diversity. We at Phi Delta Theta attribute this to our dedication to educating our entire membership base on the importance of diverse conversations. We believe that leaders who can effectively communicate with others from various backgrounds will ultimately be the most successful in leadership.

To prepare our young leaders for success, we offer a variety of avenues for them to learn about diversity. The first option is an online course titled Our Obligation, which educates our members on differing types of diversity and what it means to be an inclusive chapter. This program has our highest participation for courses not required. In addition to our online curriculum, we have expanded the role of our chapter chaplain position. While this officer still provides spiritual council and plays an essential part in ritual, the members who hold this position also take part in exclusive in-person education that focuses on facilitating difficult conversations, guiding their chapter in becoming a place of high inclusivity, and educating all members on how to lead diverse groups.

The chaplain position also seeks opportunities on campus for chapters to interact with programs or events focusing on diversity and inclusion. Since expanding the responsibilities of the chaplain position, Phi Delta Theta has seen incremental progress in Dyad survey responses to the following statements: My chapter seeks out opportunities to get involved in campus programs or events that focus on diversity and inclusion, and my chapter socializes and sponsors events with campus organizations that contain members from diverse backgrounds. This is one of the reasons we’ve seen great progress toward becoming as or more representative of each campus’s diversity.

Chaplain Track Update

The Chaplain Track launched at the Kleberg Emerging Leaders Institute in 2022 to provide our undergraduate members with essential support around mental health diversity and inclusion. Based on feedback from attendees, the Fraternity’s Diversity and Inclusion Commissioner Austin A. Deray, Mercer ’10, and Chaplain Rev. Michael J. Schulte, Westminster ’14, rewrote the entire curriculum, ensuring that the 2023 conference would be better than ever.

This year’s curriculum focused on Facilitating Difficult Conversations, Creating a Climate of Self-Compassion, and Inclusive Chapter Practices and Recruitment Strategies for Chapters. Education sessions included crisis management, conflict transformation, masculinities, and preparation for diversity and inclusion conversations. Deray and Schulte were the lead facilitators and presenters for the Chaplain Track, presenting all the general and most educational sessions.

Schulte and Deray also supported the Kleberg General Track by leading educational sessions. Deray presented on Recruitment Practices for Diverse Identity Students and First-Generation Students, and Schulte led a conversation around integrating spiritual wellness through Bible studies and other meditative practices.

Deray, alongside Senior Vice President of Member Development and Support Jesse Moyer and Executive Vice President and CEO Sean Wagner, also led a focus group conversation with first-generation scholarship awardees and other first-generation attendees of all three tracks to hear how the students were able to put their scholarships to use and better gauge how the Fraternity can work with and support first-generation students.

“Overall, this year’s chaplain’s track was a huge success. We provided our members with strategies and techniques around mental health and prepared our members to be champions for diversity and inclusion in their chapter spaces.” Diversity and Inclusion Commissioner Austin Deray said.

Transformational experiences

As we approach the enrollment cliff, it’s more important than ever that colleges retain the students who come to campus. Currently, 13 percent of first-year college students do not return for their sophomore year. In first-generation students, the number of dropouts jumps to 19 percent. Of those students, males are 20 percent more likely to drop out after their first year than their female counterparts. Research has shown that this number is more significant in first-generation students because they do not have the resources and support to navigate the higher education system. Members of Phi Delta Theta are far outpacing national retention rates. Ninety-nine percent of freshmen who joined Phi Delta Theta in 2021 or 2022 returned for their first year. The Fraternity offers a valuable opportunity for these young men by providing them with a support system, social activities, and essential life skills to help them succeed in school and beyond.


How has Phi Delta Theta helped you navigate life as a first-generation college student?

Being a first-generation college student can be both exciting and challenging. Joining Phi Delta Theta and having Phi Delt brothers as a support network has been instrumental in helping me navigate this unique journey.

Phi Delta Theta has provided me with a group of brothers who understand the academic challenges of being a first-generation college student. They have shared their experiences, study techniques, and resources to help me excel in my classes. We often form study groups, which not only enhances my learning but also creates a sense of camaraderie.

Having older Phi Delt brothers who have successfully navigated college and are willing to mentor me has been invaluable. They offer guidance on choosing majors, selecting classes, and setting academic goals. They’ve been through the same uncertainties I face and provide insight on how to overcome them.

College life can be overwhelming, especially when you’re the first in your family to attend. My Phi Delt brothers have become my second family. They provide emotional support during stressful times, celebrate my successes, and offer a social network that makes campus feel like home.

Phi Delta Theta places a strong emphasis on leadership development. Through the Fraternity, I’ve had the opportunity to hold leadership positions and develop essential skills like public speaking, event planning, and teamwork. These skills not only benefit me in college but will also be valuable throughout my life.

Being part of a fraternity has allowed me to connect with Phi Delt alumni who have succeeded in various fields. These connections open doors for internships, career advice, and job opportunities I might not have had access to otherwise.

Phi Delta Theta encourages community service and philanthropy. Participating in these activities has helped me give back to the community while fostering a sense of responsibility and empathy. It’s also a great way to connect with other students who share similar values.

In summary, Phi Delta Theta and my Phi Delt brothers have played a pivotal role in my college experience as a first-generation student. They’ve provided academic and emotional support and helped me grow as a leader and a well-rounded individual. Their guidance and friendship have made the journey more manageable and enjoyable, and I’m grateful for the opportunities and support they’ve offered me.

—Ubaldo Serrano Jr., UT Arlington ’24

All my Phi Delta Theta New Jersey Gamma brothers have given me many opportunities to open up about my experience growing up with immigrant parents. They have helped me bridge the gap between my family and the brotherhood I have gained since joining the Fraternity. On top of this, they make sure that I stay on top of my academics to both steer me toward my future career and to make sure that my parents know that I am getting good grades in my classes. They have endless support systems to ensure I am in the right place, both physically and emotionally. Thanks to my Fraternity brothers, I have gained so many memories that I will never forget.

—Alex Chavez, Seton Hall ’25

Being a first-generation college student can be challenging because your family can’t really help you understand the difficulties you’ll go through. My Phi Delt Brothers helped me know what to prepare for in school and college life in general and how.

—Ethan Christmas, Arkansas State ’25

Stepping into university is a very overwhelming experience, especially when you are the first person in your family to attend a post-secondary institution. Without the advice and support the Fraternity offered me throughout my first year of university, I would have been entirely lost. My Phi Delt brothers provided me with guidance whenever I struggled in school, which my parents likely would not have understood. Having a support system that I could rely on whenever I needed it proved invaluable in my first year of university.

—Ryan Meira, British Columbia ’26

Bridging the Gap to Membership

In 2020, the Phi Delta Theta Foundation Board of Trustees approved an initiative to fund $1,000,000 in first-generation new member scholarships over four years. Since then, 328 individuals from 136 chapters have received a first-generation new member scholarship. These scholarships are available to new members in their first year of membership and are first-generation college students.

First-generation college students have a median household income that is less than 50 percent of their continuing-generation peers. This scholarship serves as a bridge to membership for those needing extra support during their first year. Students have shared that this scholarship allowed them to work fewer hours to spend more time studying, buy books needed for their classes, and take research trips, to name a few. While scholarships cannot pay directly for fraternity membership, they are offsetting the investment students are making in their commitment and exposure to an organization that can directly improve their social mobility through a values-based experience.


The scholarship really helped me as a first-generation student. We can sometimes struggle to be able to pay my entire tuition, and this scholarship allows me to be able to focus on my schoolwork rather than having to work overtime to make ends meets.

—Neal Gandhi, UT Dallas ’24

The scholarship has helped me immensely from both the monetary and emotional aspects. I used the scholarship to purchase textbooks and help pay for my tuition. Regarding the emotional aspect, I feel supported by all of Phi Delt, knowing that everyone wants me to succeed.

—John Canelopoulos, Michigan State ’25

Being able to go to college has been possible because of my family’s significant effort. Paying for college can be hard, so any help is appreciated—especially when this scholarship comes from the Fraternity I love.

—Bachka Batjargal, Ball State ’24

Connectedness and Social Mobility

We at Phi Delta Theta are fully aware of the power of relationships. Our first-generation scholarship program is built to ensure several fundamental promises:

Those who deserve to be a member of Phi Delta Theta have the financial resources available to join and contribute to our great Fraternity.

Those who are in Phi Delta Theta have the opportunity to learn and gain advantages from brothers with different life perspectives.

Phi Delta Theta produces young men who are more capable of interacting and leading in today’s workforce.

Experts studying the factors of how lives can be changed for the better draw similar conclusions in their work. We recently took a deep dive into research published by Raj Chetty, William A. Ackman Professor of Public Economics at Harvard and colleagues, as well as an analysis of the data done by Richard V. Reeves and Coura Fall of the Brookings Institute’s American Institute for Boys and Men and Center on Children and Families, Economic Studies. Their research used the social networking site Facebook to assess how far social networks influence economic mobility. Their most significant finding is that at the community level, cross-class connections boost social mobility more than anything else1, including racial segregation, economic inequality, educational outcomes, and family structure. To phrase it simply, it really is about who you know, not what you know.

“Creating more connections across class lines—either through greater economic integration of our institutions and neighborhoods or more opportunities for cross-class social engagement—looks to be the most promising route to improving rates of upward economic mobility in the US.”

This research supports our belief that exposing our members to different perspectives provides upward economic mobility for all our members. The Fraternity experience matters, and through our intentional efforts, this is especially significant as we enter an era where the value proposition of the fraternal experience is being challenged in society.

Workplaces are also taking note of the impacts of having a diverse team. Forbes cited McKinsey and Company and Harvard Business Review studies that showed, “companies with a diverse workforce are 35 percent more likely to experience greater financial returns than their respective non-diverse counterparts2 . . . [and] companies with greater diversity are 70 percent more likely to capture more markets.3

We are confident that by bringing a more diverse population into our Fraternity, we will accomplish two things: we will ensure that our students are better prepared for their future, and we will create chapters that are more successful at recruiting and retaining members that will help enrich the chapter experience. Forbes also provided evidence that diverse teams boost creativity and innovation and make better decisions.4

As a part of Phi Delta Theta’s long-term effort to maintain its place as the premier fraternal leadership society, we recognize the importance of broadening our experience to everyone representing our values. As we enter what is deemed in higher education as an enrollment cliff, capturing young men who might have been less likely to join a Fraternity previously isn’t just the right thing to do; it’s smart business sense.


Richard V. Reeves and Coura Fall, “Seven key takeaways from Chetty’s new research on friendship and economic mobility,” Brookings Institute; August 2, 2022, accessed October 18, 2023,

Ashley Stahl, “3 Benefits Of Diversity In The Workplace,” Forbes; December 17, 2021, accessed October 13, 2023,

Dame Vivian Hunt, Dennis Layton, and Sara Prince, “Why diversity matters,” McKinsey and Company; January 1, 2015, accessed October 13, 2023,

Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Melinda Marshall, and Laura Sherbin, “How Diversity Can Drive Innovation,” Harvard Business Review; December 2013, accessed October 13, 2023,

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