Diversity and Democracy

From the Editor: Valuing and Empowering Students from Low-Income Backgrounds

Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), has said that institutions of higher education should serve as “a visible force in the lives of the most disenfranchised members of society” (2017). Recalling the transformative power of the liberal education she experienced as a first-generation student from a working-class background, President Pasquerella remarked, “We are all entitled to live in our strength. We all deserve opportunities to find our best and most authentic selves” (2017).

Students from low-income backgrounds come to college with an array of strengths, including talent, insights, tenacity, and dedication to their studies, families, and communities. Yet they also face challenges on their way to finding their “best and most authentic selves”—from rising college costs, to family and work responsibilities, to the difficulty of navigating predominantly middle-class norms on campus, to basic needs insecurity. A recent national study found that 36 percent of the forty-three thousand college students surveyed had experienced food insecurity in the previous thirty days, while the same proportion had been housing insecure in the past year (Goldrick-Rab et al. 2018). In addition, data show stark inequities between the highest- and lowest-income quar­tiles, including a gap of 26 percentage points in high school graduates’ college enroll­ment rates and a gap of 47 percentage points in attainment of a bachelor’s degree by age twenty-four (Cahalan et al. 2018).

What can educators do to empower students from low-income backgrounds to defy these odds and develop their considerable strengths? Perhaps the first step is to acknowledge that systemic barriers exist in the academy. AAC&U’s Tia Brown McNair and Susan Albertine and their fellow higher education leaders Michelle Asha Cooper, Nicole McDonald, and Thomas Major Jr. offer an eye-opening framework: rather than focusing just on what students need to do to become college-ready, educators need to ask how their colleges can become student-ready. McNair and her coauthors write that becoming a student-ready college “reframes the conversations about student success from a mindset focused on student deficits and limitations to approaches that focus on students’ assets, institutional responsibility, and personal accountability that can lead to sustainable change” (McNair et al. 2016, 75).

The contributors to this issue of Diversity & Democracy illustrate this powerful approach to systemic change. They honor and support students from low-income backgrounds as they learn to value and hone their own strengths. These educators also share strategies for changing structures and policies on campus that were developed with middle- and upper-class students in mind and that may put low-income students at a disadvantage. This issue’s authors explore ways to bring more students from low-income backgrounds to campus, facilitate open discussions about social class issues, make high-impact practices like study abroad and undergraduate research more accessible, connect students to mentors and professional networks, and reimagine financial aid and meet students’ basic needs.

By valuing students’ strengths and identifying and breaking down barriers that may stand in the way of their success, educators can begin to create more welcoming campuses and a more equitable society. As President Pasquerella points out, “Only by drawing attention to the persistent economic and cultural barriers that continue to thwart the equity imperative upon which the American Dream is built, will we be able to fulfill the true promise of American higher education” (2017).

—Emily Schuster
Editor, Diversity & Democracy


Cahalan, Margaret, Laura W. Perna, Mika Yamashita, Jeremy Wright, and Sureima Santillan. 2018. 2018 Indicators of Higher Education Equity in the United States: Historical Trend Report. Washington, DC: The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, Council for Opportunity in Education, and Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy of the University of Pennsylvania (PennAHEAD). http://pellinstitute.org/downloads/publications-Indicators_of_Higher_Education_Equity_in_the_US_2018_Historical_Trend_Report.pdf.

Goldrick-Rab, Sara, Jed Richardson, Joel Schneider, Anthony Hernandez, and Clare Cady. 2018. Still Hungry and Homeless in College. Madison, WI: Wisconsin HOPE Lab. https://hope4college.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/Wisconsin-HOPE-Lab-Still-Hungry-and-Homeless.pdf.

McNair, Tia Brown, Susan Albertine, Michelle Asha Cooper, Nicole McDonald, and Thomas Major Jr. 2016. Becoming a Student-Ready College: A New Culture of Leadership for Student Success. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities and Jossey-Bass.

Pasquerella, Lynn. 2017. “Educating for Democracy in a Post-Truth Era.” Speech at Pepperdine University, November 7.

Emily Schuster is the editor of Diversity & Democracy.

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