Higher Education

Colleges need to support low-income students or risk greater economic disparity. But can it be done?

In the last 40 years the number of jobs that require a post-secondary degree has doubled, and the number of low-income students who want to go to college keeps rising. But the challenges of adjusting to college life are great: Low-income students who scored the same on the SAT as their high-income peers are twice as likely to drop out. Often these students lack support systems and time management skills; they struggle with feelings of belonging that are exacerbated by financial strain. Last year, the White House released a report on increasing college opportunity for low-income students, calling it an “economic imperative” and a “reflection on our values.”

Kevin Kruger is the president of NASPA, a member organization for student affairs professionals. NASPA works with college faculty and staff in supporting all aspects of student life, including supporting low-income students as they adjust to college. He says helping these students succeed in college is a “moral imperative” that college administrators need to address.

Kevin Kruger

The Hechinger Report spoke with Kruger to learn what’s being done nationally to support low-income students and the challenges of implementing these supports.

Q: Low-income students often feel out of place among their affluent classmates and can be ill equipped to handle the challenges and stresses of college life. How can they be better supported?

A: We’re learning a lot more about what it takes for those students to be successful: bringing students early to campus, coaching, mentoring, intrusive advising, creating learning communities, some kind of financial support that goes beyond Pell grants and what’s federally available, more attention to the kinds of resources that are [already] available, a series of strategies that all require more staff time and more direct intervention to help them be successful.

Related: Employers step in to help low-income students get through college

Q: Are these strategies being implemented across college campuses?

A: What you see are a lot of boutique programs emerging. They are experimenting with different financial assistance issues. For example, the Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) at City University of New York (CUNY) is focusing on the financial piece, but they’re also experimenting with learning communities. This includes having cohorts of low-income students together. Acknowledging that they are all going through a common experience, having advisors and coaches and mentors working with that group, maybe they take classes together, that kind of thing. The challenge that everybody is facing is how do you take successful programs from the boutique level to the larger campus level, which is what we need to do.

Q: Can that be done?

A: How do you balance a constricting fiscal environment and support degree attainment? It’s a juggling act. I’ve been saying, at least on the support side, that probably what this means is having to redirect resources from some areas of the campus, to places like degree attainment for low-income students. I don’t know what those (resources) are exactly. Last year’s data was 40 percent of state and 35 percent of privates did not meet the revenue enrollment goals. And they can’t raise tuition to make that work. Tuition discounting is at an all time high. Some people are cutting programs. Some are reducing services. Eventually we’re going to have to pivot and (make) probably unpopular decisions. We’re at the early stage of this; I don’t think this has happened yet.

Related: Low-income students struggle to pay for college, even in rare states that offer help

Q: Often students struggle with making sure they have the right credits, filling out the right forms, making payments on time and other logistical things. The system is complicated. Is college too difficult for students to navigate?

A: I don’t think it’s too difficult. (But) we can’t expect students who are coming from backgrounds where they have no experience to come into a culture as complex as a university and make it on their own without any intervention. When we do that, we get what we have right now. If you’re in the lower quartile of income, by the time you’re 24 your chance of having a college degree is nine percent. I think as a country we should be really uncomfortable with that. If access to the advantages of our society is based solely on income, then it basically says if you’re low-income you’re stuck. The way you change that is you can’t assume that students are just going to make their own way. We have a moral obligation to provide the support necessary for these students to succeed. And to use the evidence we have about what works and to put programs in place that we know work. I don’t think it’s too complicated. But we can’t pretend it’s just going to be okay to let these students go without additional support.

Q: If these programs aren’t implemented on a larger scale, what will happen?

A: We’ll stay at nine percent. And then other people, who are more experienced than I, will posit what does that mean if we have a society built on the fact that if you’re low-income you don’t have the same access to higher education and the privileges that come with it. And then that means that the economic disparity that we see in our country will get worse. Nick Hanauer (who advocated for a raise in minimum wage to $15 an hour) wrote in Politico, “The Pitchforks Are Coming…For Us Plutocrats.” In other words, if we continue this economic disparity, eventually societies break down if people have no hope and there’s so much despair. That’s the risk we run if we cannot provide pathways to economic success through education for low-income communities.

Related: Why are low-income students not showing up to college, even though they have been accepted?

Q: Would you put any sort of time frame on the work that needs to be done? As in, how long do universities have to address this?

A: They are doing meaningful work now. There’s not a reticence about this. They haven’t had to do it in broad ways yet. If you look at who’s graduating from high school — the next decade it gets more and more diverse. What I would say is ten years from now we will look back at this decade and judge ourselves on our ability to have addressed a serious societal problem. And as a higher education community, we should be judged on that progress. I think it’s going to be gradual and ten years from now when we look back if we have not made progress, then shame on us. That’s my take on it.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about Higher Education.

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Arianna Skibell writes for The Hechinger Report. Before joining Hechinger, she covered health, education, race and criminal/social justice while earning her masters degree at Columbia… See Archive

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