Northern Arizona University knows how to equip first-generation college students with the skills and knowledge to overcome academic, social and financial challenges. More than 40 percent of NAU’s students are the first in their families to attend college, and a new investment from the Suder Foundation will allow the university to build on its mission to help these students succeed.

NAU was one of two universities recently selected to serve as a site for the Suder Foundation’s First Scholars program, an innovative initiative aimed at bolstering support for first-generation students.

“As a first-generation college graduate, I know how important it is that Northern Arizona University offers programs and services that address the challenges such students face,” said NAU President John Haeger. “NAU’s commitment to inclusiveness and a supportive academic community has made it a preferred educational institution for non-traditional and underrepresented students. The First Scholars program will lead to even more success as we reach out and welcome those who will improve their lives and our world with a college degree.”

The Suder Foundation will invest $850,000 at NAU over the next five years, with $500,000 designated for student scholarships. The remainder will be used to develop programming and support focused on helping first-generation college students earn a degree.

NAU will launch the program with 20 students in the fall of 2014, growing the cohort each year as students return.

“We’re pleased to expand our affiliate network to include Northern Arizona University,” said Eric Suder, founder of the Suder Foundation. “We are going to do great things together to make a difference in the lives of more students. NAU will join a prestigious group of universities making a real impact in first-generation college students’ success.”

The First Scholars program has an average 92 percent retention rate and estimated 85 percent six-year graduation rate, significantly higher than the nationwide average 72 percent retention rate and 34 percent graduation rate for all first-generation students.

“Arizona faces the challenge of a low college participation rate, and our approach has been to increase access and affordability for students,” Haeger said. “This partnership with the Suder Foundation will give us the opportunity to reach and support more students, leading to improved retention and graduation rates and overall student success.”

The First Scholars program will partner NAU with existing affiliate institutions that include the University of Alabama, the University of Kentucky, the University of Memphis, Southern Illinois University Carbondale and Washington State University. The long-term vision of the program is to grow the national network to more than 100 universities that each serves 200 students.

NAU and Kansas State University were selected as the 2013 affiliates resulting from a national competitive process involving multiple public undergraduate institutions. To qualify for consideration, colleges and universities must have a population consisting of a significant percentage of first-generation college students and a demonstrated commitment to student success.

Diane Schorr, executive director of the Suder Foundation, noted the university’s dedication to student achievement as a key to its selection.

“The campus-wide commitment to student success is readily evident and presents an ideal environment for the First Scholars program,” Schorr said.