What Low-Income Students Bring to Campus

Jennifer Wheary
August 6, 2013

A New York Times article published yesterday generated much discussion about who applies, gets admitted, attends, and ultimately graduates from elite colleges. The answer, unsurprisingly, is the children of the rich.

There are many reasons why rich students go to elite schools more often than poor students. Some reasons are tied to student differences in educational and cultural experiences growing up. Some have to do with how schools recruit and fund students. Some have to do with the pure passing on of privilege independent of merit.

The most egregious example of the latter is likely legacy admissions, where colleges give preferential treatment to the sons and daughters of alumni. Richard Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation has criticized legacy admissions, writing:

Studies have shown that being the child of an alumnus adds the equivalent of 160 SAT points to one’s application (using the traditional 400-to-1600-point scale, and not factoring in the new writing section of the test) and increases one’s chances of admission by almost 20 percentage points. . . . At many selective schools, legacies make up 10 percent to 25 percent of the student population.

Acknowledging the great odds and elitism faced by first generation, low-income students, the reader comments in yesterday’s Times piece included a healthy dose of reminders that beyond changing financial aid and admissions policies, colleges need to get better at supporting low-income students (culturally, socially and academically) once they arrive on campus.

Schools that take such support seriously often focus on remediating the disadvantages that low-income, first generation students face. These schools usually run programs to help such students acclimate to college culture and prepare for college level classes.

Some may also develop programming to help students fight the feelings of social isolation and other challenging psychological dynamics which often accompany being the first in your family to go to school.

While such efforts are all important and much needed, they overlook and underutilize a powerful asset that distinguishes low-income, first generation students from their more privileged peers: a do-or-die determination to survive and succeed despite incredible odds. 

College efforts to support low-income students should not only recognize and celebrate this difference, they should help students capitalize on it.

This can take on several forms. First and foremost, networking first generation, low-income students while they are attending school and after they graduate as alumni can go a long way in helping this group realize how their collective challenges also provide a collective power. 

Networked first generation, low-income students can be tapped to not only mentor their peers, but also to advise college faculty and staff on the needs of their first generation, low-income classmates. This can inform college recruiting practices, student programming and retention strategies, and alumni outreach.

When first generation, low-income students are networked and tapped for their talent and insight, they can achieve great things.

Vassar president Catharine Hill was the main expert quoted in yesterday’s Times piece as a strong advocate for admitting more low-income students to elite schools. Several years ago, students at her school created an association to promote awareness of class differences on campus and provide a support network for first-generation, working-class students. As part of this effort, students created a useful handbook called “Navigating Vassar,” designed to orient and guide their peers as they enter campus life.

In 2012 Vassar also became the first elite school to announce a partnership with the Posse Foundation to enroll 10 returning veterans, provide mentoring and scholarship support, and create a strong cohort whose military training and discipline are seen as important factors on the road to successful graduation.

Cornell, another school that ranks well in low-income student enrollment according to data published along with yesterday’s Times piece, runs a range of programs through its Office of Academic Diversity. These include the standard remediation approach mentioned above. But they also include creating what A.T. Miller, who runs the office, calls creating a “family atmosphere and campus home for Gates Scholars, Posse Scholars, and State Opportunity Program Scholars as well as all first generation, Pell eligible, and under-represented students of color.”

Cornell also runs an intergroup dialogue project that brings together groups of 12-15 students from distinct social backgrounds for weekly 3-hour sessions for a full semester. In the first two semesters of the formal program in academic year 2012-13, the most popular dialogue groups were those that addressed socio-economic class differences. Students in these groups not only explored commonalities and differences and discussed the dynamics of power and privilege. They looked for ways of working together toward greater inclusion and equality. Cornell considers the program a success, and plans to continue it this fall.

Fortunately these types of efforts are not isolated to Vassar and Cornell.

Rather than being solely a source of disadvantages to be remedied, first generation, low-income status can and should also be acknowledged as an asset on campus. Faculty and staff searching for experts in resilience, defiance of odds, and the strength of both perseverance and peer networks need look no further.


Jennifer Wheary is a senior fellow at Demos, a national policy organization. She is a first generation college graduate with a B.S. from Cornell University and M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Education from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

This article was originally published on PolicyShop, the blog of Demos. It is reprinted here with permission.