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Keys for Success in Serving Low-income Students

Keys for Success in Serving Low-income Students

Dr. Lyle Roelofs headshot

Did you know that four out of five low-income students who are the first in their family to go to college never actually finish their degree?

The obvious question: Why? The answer is clear: It’s harder for low-income students to thrive in college because they face pressures, challenges, and obligations that students from families with greater means often do not.  In this column I’ll discuss some of the financial aspects of this question and in a future column, I will return to the subject to discuss ‘fit.’

Let me give you two hypothetical examples. Max is a good student with a good work ethic. His parents make good money and have given Max a stable home. That means Max has been able to focus completely on his own interests. In college, he studies hard without interruption, and when he’s finished studying, he is heavily involved in campus life, which gives Max a sense of belonging.

Makayla is just as studious and driven as Max, but she lost her father in her teens. She had to work to help support the family. She wants to go to college, but feels guilty about leaving home because her mother needs help. Having made the difficult decision to attend, Makayla finds it tough going.  She has to work nearly full time to support herself and so doesn’t have enough time to study and do her best. Extracurriculars are a luxury, and it seems like everyone has more of everything than she does. Some semesters, when it gets to be too much, Makayla decides to drop to part time.

And then there is the issue of family finances—for low income students the annual cost of college is more than 150 percent of their family’s income, compared to just 14 percent for families like Max’s.  In that circumstance Makayla and her mother will likely be cautious about borrowing to cover part of the costs, should that be necessary, even though it is likely a good investment to do so.

Taking all of that into account, simply admitting students like Makayla is not enough. Low-income students need more support to be successful.

Berea College welcome bags for first-year students on move-in day

At Berea College, we only admit low-income students of high promise, the majority of whom are the first in their families to attend. Our graduation rate, though, is around 67 percent, similar to other private, nonprofit schools.

How are we different? First, we do not charge tuition of any students, meaning that the concerns around financing their education are much reduced.  Many of our students do not need to borrow at all to attend four years of college, and those who do borrow much less than the national average.  We also hire each student to work 10-12 hours on campus and pay them roughly $2,500 for that work each year, which helps them buy personal items and even help with housing and meals.

Second, we go to great lengths to support our students in ways similar to the support received by more affluent students. We don’t offer just a doorway to enter, but bridges—a bridge into college, a bridge through college, and a bridge out into the world beyond.

Let me give you some examples.  Berea offers students a summer “bridge” program of four weeks of learning and living on campus before they start college in August as a way of empowering them for student success. This program is proven to be highly successful for our students.

Parents hug their son at Berea College Ceremony of Dedication

To ensure that students feel supported to successfully bridge through college, one important example is a free dental clinic that tackles some of the disparities our students experience. Another is subsidized study abroad, often a universal option for high-wealth students but much less common for low-wealth students.

And we’ve discovered that our most important work is to help students design and build their bridge out to the world beyond at graduation. We do this by empowering students to dream their internship dream and then providing funding to make that internship possible. We provide monies for professional clothing so their confidence is strengthened. And thanks to the generosity of a funder, we provide every graduate with $500 to relocate to a job or graduate school or to afford a security deposit on a new apartment. There’s more, but this gives the idea.

Berea College can be a model for other schools when it comes to supporting low-income students and helping to enhance their chances of success. Knowing what works is the first step to leveling the playing field for these students, wherever they attend.

Beyond the dimension of finances, the question of ‘fit’ is also very important.  All students, in fact, are much more successful in college when they feel that they belong.  How this works for low-income students will be the subject of a future column.