Part 3: Accommodating and Adapting to Low-Income Students

This blog is the third in a four-part series about the current demographics of students in postsecondary settings and how to address their specific needs with a multi-tiered system.

The reasons for pursuing a postsecondary degree are unique to each student, and the amalgam of experience, goals, and characteristics they possess influences their motivation for completing their degree. At the same time, postsecondary institutions have the power to cultivate student success through their academic and support services. Particular groups of students, such as nontraditional, students with disabilities, low-income, and language learner students, have specific needs both on and off their physical campus that require attention. Colleges and universities need to adjust to meet the changing needs of their student population. This four-part blog series explores the current demographics of each of these student groups and the ways in which postsecondary institutions can better ensure–rather than diminish–successful results for some of their most vulnerable students.

“What stands out most for me when thinking about the demographics of low-income students is that, in addition to a gap between low- and high-income students enrolling in postsecondary education, low-income students made up only 10% of the recipients of Bachelor’s degrees in 2014.”

The ‘To and Through’ Gap

What stands out most for me when thinking about the demographics of low-income students is that, in addition to a gap between low- and high-income students enrolling in postsecondary education (58% versus 82% respectively; U.S. Department of Commerce), low-income students made up only 10% of the recipients of Bachelor’s degrees in 2014 (Pell Institute, Indicators of Higher Education Equity Report, 2016). Similarly, about half as many low-income students receive a Bachelor’s degree or higher within eight years of enrolling compared to 29% of middle-income students (NCES, 2015). These gaps have decreased since 1970, but they are still markedly wide. Approximately 3% of students at elite colleges are low-income (Jack Kent Cooke Foundation).

As I researched statistics for this post, I realized that we do not have a uniform definition of “low income.” Some sources divide socio-economic status into three groups, some into four, and some into five. Some sources define low income as income below $35,000 while another defines it as less than $37,000, and one source defined it as less than $20,000. Why is this? No doubt that “low-income” means different things geographically and generationally, and discussions about socio-economic status are (rightfully) emotionally charged, but it seems we are starting from a place of inequity and miscommunication if we do not have a common definition. For the sake of my discussion in this post, I have to use a floating definition; with any statistics I cite, “low-income” refers to however that specific source defines it. In order to better understand trends and the needs of this student population, I hope that stakeholders can find a common definition of “low-income.”

Supporting Low-Income Students with Higher Education Costs

My most recent work was with a nonprofit organization that supported historically underserved schools in Los Angeles Unified School District (Partnership for Los Angeles Schools). I worked with our high schools around literacy and worked toward increasing student achievement and, as a result, hopefully increase college application, acceptance, and enrollment rates. I was a step removed from that process in particular but greatly enjoyed celebrating college news as it came in. One thing I noticed, though, was that the majority of schools students looked toward were part of the UC or Cal State systems–very few students sought out private schools where scholarships and financial aid might have been higher and offset more of the cost, especially since the average cost of college as a percentage of income is 84% for students in the lowest quartile…84% (Pell Institute, 2016)! That is too great a burden to expect of a young scholar or their families. I often wondered why more students didn’t know of more diverse options for college. Some schools even offer free tuition, grants, or otherwise reduce the parent contribution for low-income students (FinAid, 2019) so that they don’t have to take our loans, but they are far outnumbered. Initially, institutions need to make greater strides to support low-income students with grants, scholarships, and other loan-free aid to make attending and graduating financially sustainable.

The Pell Institute found that Pell Grants used to cover 67% of college costs in 1975-76 but now only cover 27%, a huge decline that greatly impacts low-income students. And, when it comes to financial aid and students’ unmet need, the top quartile of students based on income walked away with a $13,950 surplus while the lowest quartile of students walked away with a $8221 deficit (Pell Institute, 2016), which is why the distinction between need-based and merit-based aid is so important. A higher proportion of financial aid is based on merit, but the factors used to determine merit, such as grades, class rank, and test scores, are in and of themselves correlated with family income. Additionally, the Postsecondary National Policy Institute point out that first-generation students had lower median incomes and more unmet financial need than students whose parents attended college, and their rates of borrowing to pay for school have been increasing (PNPI). Therefore, low-income students are not only fighting an uphill battle for merit-based need, but they are then not getting adequate need-based aid either. Low-income students also suffer academically when they have to work in college (Hechinger Report, 2018) and literally can’t afford to make mistakes. Merit-based aid that doesn’t rely on straight numbers is more qualitative and time consuming, but they are another option for closing the gap. Institutions could shift merit-based qualifications away from factors correlated with income and focus instead on factors like academic improvement, academic potential, leadership potential, and community service and engagement.

How It Starts: Preparation and Admissions

This post would be remiss without acknowledging the recent college admissions scandal and the role of socio-economic status. I would agree with what has been widely articulated: college admission has always been for sale for the wealthy, whether through legacy status, donations, elite connections and networking, or by providing their children with all of the resources and preparation tools available. What makes this scandal feel so egregious is that the children of the perpetrators had every advantage and resource available to them and, rather than relying on their own initiative and recognizing their privilege, didn’t bother to utilize them. If their children had worked hard and earned the opportunity to apply competitively to these universities, their parents wouldn’t have bribed them in. How disheartening it must feel to low-income students who have poured themselves into their school career and have sought out admission to these schools. As school communities, we tell students that they can make it happen no matter what their background, but, as noted above, with only 3% of students at elite schools coming from low-income families, we have to acknowledge that it isn’t just merit or lack of merit. Low-income students do not have the same access to AP classes, after school activities, test preparation services, or other academic resources. When reviewing applications, colleges must find more equitable ways to measure student achievement and potential success, finding ways to recognize students’ resources and environment and use that information to get a more holistic view of their strengths.

Closing the SES gap within higher education starts with the application process and continues to graduation. Since many fewer students are graduating in this population than their peers, schools need to communicate with them and intervene when they struggle. For a model, check out University Innovation Alliance, a coalition of public research universities committed to increasing the number and diversity of college graduates. One example is a system they use that flags students when something goes amiss, such as dropping a course in their major, and notifies the student’s advisor, who can then intervene (VOA). The schools also communicate with each other about initiatives and what’s working. Colleges and universities must directly seek out ways to catch students who are showing signs of struggling to prevent attrition. Our greatest hope should be for college access and success to be truly equitable, and equity is not the same as equality. At every stage, we should be giving students what they need rather than pretending that it’s up to them to make sure they receive the same.