ACE2019: What Low-Income Students Want College and University Leaders to Know

March 14, 2019

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Four college students who are members of the Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America (LEDA) Scholar community spoke to a room of college and university leaders Sunday at ACE2019 about what low-income students want these leaders to know.

Charlie, Hanna Ruth, Albin, and Casey spoke openly and honestly about their backgrounds, pressing challenges, and recommendations for supporting students who may be means-restricted.

The big concerns voiced by the students included:

The hidden costs associated with education. Most students on the panel had their full need met with scholarships, but there are other costs that these scholarships don’t cover. For example, Casey said that while his scholarship has some travel support built in, it doesn’t fully cover the costs associated with flying from Georgetown University (DC) to his home in rural Hamilton, Montana. Oftentimes, costs were several hundred dollars more than the stipend covers.

The “emotional labor” of attending college. Before Albin enrolled in Yale University (CT), he was offered the opportunity to participate in a summer bridge program. After some back-and-forth about the program with the institution, he was unable to enroll in the program and very much regrets it. He felt the opportunity to network with other students from similar circumstances would have been beneficial to his transition.

The importance of establishing community. Hanna Ruth said her enrollment at Washington University in Saint Louis (MO) was a “culture shock” as she tried to understand the “very, very wealthy” environment. It would be been helpful for her to have support from people who could identify with her background. She would have liked to have known someone on the faculty or staff who was designated to help her identify and access resources.

The panelists had several recommendations for college and universities to effectively serve low-income students.

  • Implement programs that target the needs of low-income students. Panelists emphasized the importance of framing: It is vital that these programs are not seen as the “poor kids’” programs.
    • Georgetown University has the Georgetown Scholars Program that offers mentorship, an alumni network, grants to buy suits, winter housing grants, and other opportunities.
    • The Deneb STARS (Sustaining Talented Academically Recognized Students) program is a cohort based program at Washington University. The program has a mentoring component focused on scholarship, leadership, service, and integration.
  • Have a physical space on campus where students can get information or gather with other students. This space could be affiliated with a program, organization, or office.
  • Show genuine interest in low-income student success. Have questions you want students to answer. Take time to listen to them. Address what they may need.
  • Bridge/transition programs are helpful. Programs over the summer can be a challenge because low-income students use this time to work to fund expenses in college or their families. Programs offered closer to the beginning of the quarter or semester are best.
  • Mentorship is important. Relationships are crucial to the sense of belonging and success of students. These relationships provide key insights into how to navigate the college experience.
  • Evaluate the hidden costs of college and communicate these to students. Travel home, unpaid internships, clothing, and other items were mentioned as things that could be barriers to a low-income students’ success. Establish programs that can help fund some of these needs.

—Hollie Chessman

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