Diversity and Democracy

Honoring the Voices, Experiences, and Assets of Students from Low-Income Backgrounds

After I graduated from high school, I boarded a plane for the first time and headed out of Michigan and off to college in Idaho, carrying only an Army duffel bag. As a first-generation college student from a low-income background, I assumed sheets and towels would come with my dorm room. I arrived on campus a day early, not knowing the residence hall would be locked. There was a phone number on the door, and some kind soul arranged for me to get into the hall early.

As I began my undergraduate studies, I was not intentional about a career path or my major—not because I wasn’t competent but because I had no idea of how the college world worked. Administrators, faculty, and staff at my college knew I didn’t have money, but no one approached me to discuss opportunities like study abroad programs or internships. It never would have occurred to me to seek out such experiences. Similarly, I was left to figure out career options mostly on my own. I pored over resources in the career center, reading about government service positions, photojournalism, and foreign ambassador jobs. However, no one I knew did any work like this, and these careers didn’t exist in my mind as possibilities.

Yet despite these barriers, college provided me with choices. Eventually, I decided to pursue my PhD, yet even into my doctoral studies, there was so much I didn’t know about the norms, language, and rules of the academy.

Today as chancellor of the University of Michigan–Flint, I carry with me those experiences I had as a low-income student. I know that many low-income students bring fresh perspectives, heart, determination, and resilience to campus. I know that talent is everywhere, but opportunity is not.

Students from low-income backgrounds describe the burden of their own high expectations and low expectations from professors and campus personnel, pressures regarding resources, the challenges of navigating a culture they have little experience with, and the constant tension of living between two worlds. Higher education professionals must continue to push beyond the notions of “helping” low-income students overcome “their” cultural barriers. Instead, educators need to provide leadership so that students and the greater campus community see the value of the voices, experiences, knowledge, and perseverance these students bring to campus.

New Conversations about Class

It has been just over twenty years since I struggled to complete my dissertation, which focused on class issues in the academy. Since that time, many other scholars have also worked to raise awareness of issues of socioeconomic class and their implications for college students from working-class or impoverished environments.

In 2016, about 65 percent of recent high school completers from low-income backgrounds enrolled in college, compared with about 49 percent in 1996 (National Center for Education Statistics 2017). Nearly one-quarter of all undergraduates—about 4.5 million students—are first generation and low income (Engle and Tinto 2008).

The increase in numbers of low-income students, as well as faculty and staff who have been low income themselves, has led to more discussions about class issues on campus. Colleges and universities offer more courses and conduct more research on the impact of socioeconomic class on the lives of students. More students have the language and experience to provide context for understanding their own stories earlier in their college careers. More programs intentionally reach out to students from working-class and impoverished communities. In fact, in the last several years, many elite colleges have declared an interest in recruiting for socioeconomic diversity, bringing more low-income students to campus and working to develop programs to support those students. (For example, see the article on the American Talent Initiative in this issue.)

Low-income students have begun to influence conversations about class and social and cultural capital (Yosso 2005), which in turn have affected policy and program development and, in some cases, pedagogy. And while progress has been made, work remains to be done. There is a significant need for more scholarly study of the implications of poverty and class status. We are in the early stages of understanding and addressing what it means to be from groups with backgrounds other than middle or upper class on campus.

Gerda Lerner’s work on the evolution of women’s history provides a helpful lens for framing the conversations about socioeconomic class on campus (1997). Lerner describes how scholars of women’s history have challenged the conceptual framework and methods of traditional history. In turn, African American, Latina, and lesbian historians have issued a challenge to women’s history for “making false generalizations about women on the basis of studies which focused only on white heterosexual women” (xii). This is precisely the evolution necessary for providing more nuanced, informed conversations about and support for low-income students. As we examine issues of class, we must also be conscious of the intersection of class with other aspects of students’ identities and work to understand the different ways multiple identities affect students.

Border Crossings

At the end of my first semester in college, I went home to see my grandma. In my world, she was one of the smartest people I knew. During that visit, I noticed for the first time that there were words she said incorrectly. I was horrified at myself; in my own head, I kept asking, “Who do you think you are?!” I was beginning to realize how my life was changing in ways that would make me very different from my family. I do believe one can “go home again” but we also must understand that things have changed and be aware of the impact of those changes. Later in their lives, my grandparents decided to give me medical and legal power of attorney because, as they said, “you went to college.” I was grateful I could use my experience to assist them, but I was always conscious of my internal tension.

Education has long been considered a way out of poverty. However, many low-income students feel like outsiders both within the predominantly middle-class academy and within their families of origin, and there is a tension inherent in moving between the two environments. Laura I. Rendón (1992) describes her experience as that of a fronteriza, a woman who lives between two spaces, cultures, and languages. This description of “border crossers” provides another way for us to understand the experience of low-income students.

I now understand that I was living as a fronteriza, having to travel between two worlds and make space for myself in both. I don’t think any study abroad experience ever brought any greater culture shock than the life I was living every day—and yet I was only conscious of not fitting in, with no language to describe my experience.

I know many of our students are living with the concussion of this cultural collision every day. They are crossing frontiers invisible to so many of us but as stunning and foreign as far-flung travel. We need to discover ways to reframe their struggles and identify them properly as the grand adventures they are. We must encourage a conversation of exploration and understanding, one that opens ears and eyes to the frontiers of class and culture.

As campuses strive to create more diverse and inclusive environments, administrators, faculty, and staff must understand the ways in which low-income students are affected by middle-class campus norms. More than ever, we need to use our privilege as faculty and administrators to create what Rendón calls a “new consciousness,” building a space that heals and “connects diverse cultures, languages, realities, and ways of knowing” (1992, 20).

Focusing on Assets

When I started college, I knew nothing about the environment, norms, or structures of the academy. In spite of being an outsider, I was able to craft a successful academic career and receive an excellent liberal arts education while participating in student government, writing for the student newspaper, and playing intercollegiate sports. One strength I possessed—which I only learned to value much later—was the ability to connect to different people and help them come together. Today, my friends still tell a story about the first week of college when I went door to door through the residence hall inviting everyone to meet for pizza that evening, and about three-quarters of my peers showed up.

If students are unfamiliar with the college environment, it doesn’t mean they are “deficient”; it simply means they bring different experiences that are often undervalued or invisible in the academy. Though things are changing, much of the literature about low-income students is still deficit based, focusing on what students need to “overcome” or the ways in which they need support on campus. Historically, there has been little written from an asset-based perspective about what low-income students add to a campus environment. Often those who have been marginalized bring a critical consciousness (Freire 1970), resilience, and different perspectives and ways of knowing. As Saundra Gardner writes, “By learning to value the ways in which we [people from working-class backgrounds] are different from many of those in academe and by actualizing the creative potential of our ‘outsider within’ status, we will have fully claimed ourselves” (1993, 56).

Imagine if we started by recognizing the knowledge and resilience that low-income students demonstrate. Going to school part-time while working, supporting families, and struggling with border crossings teaches tenacity. Imagine if we honored these students’ success in joining the academic community and acknowledged that their resilience is transferrable to their performance in the academy—and that while the rules of the higher education game might be different, they can be learned and navigated. When students understand that the academy is not neutral in its values, they can approach the cultural and social norms of the university as another subject to learn instead of a personal deficit to overcome.

Creating space for low-income students to make sense of their experience, to negotiate the contradictions and tensions of their different worlds, and to see their skills of resilience and persistence as transferable to the academy will be helpful to the students and will also help build a richer campus environment. Recent resources offer useful, fresh dives into the research, programs, and outcomes for both first-generation and low-income students (e.g., Whitley, Benson, and Wesaw 2018; Jehangir, Stebleton, and Deenanath 2015).

Restructuring Policies and Practices

When I was an undergraduate, an incident during registration almost stopped me from attending college. The memory is still vivid. After standing in line for several hours, I got to the final station. The staff member reviewing my documents told me I could not complete registration because I didn’t have a home address. It was true; I was an emancipated minor and didn’t have a home. After she told me three times that I couldn’t register, I finally just made up an address, and she signed off.

Colleges and universities must examine the ways the academy and campus cultures are shaped by systemic, unacknowledged middle-class values. Many policies and practices at colleges and universities affect low-income students differently. For example, nearly every campus on which I have served has required students who want to register for a full class to show up the first week and wait for a space to open. That is much easier for students who live on campus and/or have the resources to do this. If a student is working or commuting to campus, this process is very disruptive. We could use technology to create wait-lists instead.

The literature makes clear that the experience of low-income students is quite different from that of other students (Jehangir, Stebleton, and Deenanath 2015; Borrego 2003). Yet although research regarding low-income students has been going on for years, the stories students tell about their experiences on campus have not changed much. They still describe not understanding college processes, lacking access to resources and connections, feeling like imposters, and getting lost in the hidden curriculum of unwritten norms, values, and expectations on campus.

Beyond the recognition or celebration of difference—and beyond additive approaches that introduce discussions about socioeconomic differences to the classroom without changing basic structures on campus—we must consider issues of class culture in policies and practices at the university.

Building Capacity to Support Students

Despite the increasing number of programs for first-generation and low-income students, as well as the presence of passionate advocates on many campuses, challenges remain for low-income students. Administrators, faculty, and staff must move beyond deficit-based attitudes and recognize and support students’ strengths.

We must develop professionals who will invite students into leadership and who understand “working with” and not “doing for” students—professionals with knowledge of intersecting identities, who can recognize the talent, artistry, and wisdom of first-generation students or students from impoverished backgrounds. I have attended “first-generation” student events organized by administrators with little input by the very students they are attempting to serve. We need to utilize student advisory groups as partners; low-income or first-generation students will be much more successful spreading the word and supporting their peers than professional staff on their own. We should offer these student advisors some form of remuneration—such as book or tuition scholarships or even opportunities like study abroad that low-income students may otherwise be unable to take advantage of.

In general, it is important to realize that low-income students need resources and invitations. For example, many low-income students may not have traveled out of their town or state and would never consider studying abroad. Making scholarships available is one thing, but planting and nurturing the possibility for the students is another.

Finally, administrators, faculty, and staff must understand how social and cultural capital shape students’ lives. Low-income students frequently do not have access to professional networks or family friends in the corporate world who can help them find internship opportunities. They probably have not sat around a dinner table listening to how people acquired skills or experiences to build their resumes. They may not be able to afford unpaid internships or study abroad experiences. That is not going to change overnight. So beyond providing first-generation or low-income programs that focus heavily on navigating the university environment, administrators, faculty, and staff must think more broadly about the kinds of experiences that will follow students into their first jobs, such as navigating cocktail parties or networking at after-work gatherings. In a recent article, Laura Pappanodescribes thedilemma low-income students face as they leave college: “Think money for apartment security deposits and work wardrobes. There’s no access to professional networks and little advice to weigh career options” (2018, 3).

The low-income students who fill the seats of our classrooms offer depth, insights, and knowledge to the academic community. It is up to all of us in higher education to make certain our colleges and universities are ready and able to support students as they achieve success.


Borrego, Susan E. 2003. Class Matters: Beyond Access to Inclusion. Washington, DC: NASPA–Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education.

Engle, Jennifer, and Vincent Tinto. 2008. Moving Beyond Access: College Success for Low-Income, First-Generation Students. Washington, DC: The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education.

Freire, Paulo. 1970. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group.

Gardner, Saundra. 1993. “‘What’s a Nice Working-Class Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This?’” In Working-Class Women in the Academy: Laborers in the Knowledge Factory, edited by Michelle M. Tokarczyk and Elizabeth A. Fay, 49–56. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.

Jehangir, Rashne R., Michael J. Stebleton, and Veronica Deenanath. 2015. An Exploration of Intersecting Identities of First-Generation, Low-Income Students. Research Reports on College Transitions 5. Columbia, SC: National Resource Center for the First Year Experience and Students in Transition.

Lerner, Gerda. 1997. Why History Matters: Life and Thought. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

National Center for Education Statistics. 2017. Digest of Education Statistics, Table 302.30. https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d17/tables/dt17_302.30.asp.

Pappano, Laura. 2018. “Ivy League Degree: Now What?” The Hechinger Report, March 30. https://hechingerreport.org/ivy-league-degree-now-what/.

Rendón, Laura I. 1992. “From the Barrio to the Academy: Revelations of a Mexican American ‘Scholarship Girl.’” In First-Generation Students: Confronting the Cultural Issues, edited by L. Steven Zwerling and Howard B. London, 55–64. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Whitley, Sarah E., Grace Benson, and Alexis Wesaw. 2018. First-Generation Student Success: A Landscape Analysis of Programs and Services at Four-Year Institutions. Washington, DC: Center for First-Generation Student Success, NASPA–Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, and Entangled Solutions. https://firstgen.naspa.org/2018-landscape-analysis.

Yosso, Tara J. 2005. “Whose Culture Has Capital? A Critical Race Theory Discussion of Community Cultural Wealth.” Race Ethnicity and Education 8 (1): 69–91.

Susan E. Borrego is Chancellor at the University of Michigan–Flint.

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