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Dr. Frank Talamantes, Ph.D.


Colleges need to
support low-income
students or risk greater
economic disparity. But
can it be done?
August 28, 2015

In the last 40 years the number of jobs that require a post-secondary degree
has doubled, and the number of low-income students who want to go to
college keeps rising. But the challenges of adjusting to college life are great:
Low-income students who scored the same on the SAT as their high-income
peers are twice as likely to drop out. Often these students lack support
systems and time management skills; and they struggle with feelings of
belonging that is exacerbated by financial strain. Last year, the White House
released a report on increasing college opportunity for low-income students,
calling it an “economic imperative” and a “reflection on our values.”
Kevin Kruger is the president of NASPA, a member organization for student
affairs professionals. NASPA works with college faculty and staff in supporting
all aspects of student life, including supporting low-income students as they
adjust to college. He says helping these students succeed in college is a “moral
imperative” that college administrators need to address.

The Hechinger Report spoke with Kruger to learn what’s being done
nationally to support low-income students and the challenges of
implementing these supports.
Q: Low-income students often feel out of place among their affluent
classmates and can be ill equipped to handle the challenges and stresses of
college life. How can they be better supported?
A: We’re learning a lot more about what it takes for those students to be
successful: bringing students early to campus, coaching, mentoring, intrusive
advising, creating learning communities, some kind of financial support that
goes beyond Pell grants and what’s federally available, more attention to the
kinds of resources that are [already] available, a series of strategies that all
require more staff time and more direct intervention to help them be
Related: Employers step in to help low-income students get
through college
Q: Are these strategies being implemented across college campuses?

“In other words, if we continue this economic
disparity, eventually societies break down if
people have no hope and there’s so much despair.”
A: What you see are a lot of boutique programs emerging. They are
experimenting with different financial assistance issues. For example, the
Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP) at City University of New
York (CUNY) is focusing on the financial piece, but they’re also experimenting
with learning communities. This includes having cohorts of low-income
students together. Acknowledging that they are all going through a common
experience, having advisors and coaches and mentors working with that
group, maybe they take classes together, that kind of thing. The challenge that
everybody is facing is how do you take successful programs from the boutique
level to the larger campus level, which is what we need to do.
Q: Can that be done?
A: How do you balance a constricting fiscal environment and support degree
attainment? It’s a juggling act. I’ve been saying, at least on the support side,
that probably what this means is having to redirect resources from some areas
of the campus, to places like degree attainment for low-income students. I
don’t know what those (resources) are exactly. Last year’s data was 40 percent
of state and 35 percent of privates did not meet the revenue enrollment
goals. And they can’t raise tuition to make that work. Tuition discounting is at
an all time high. Some people are cutting programs. Some are reducing
services. Eventually we’re going to have to pivot and (make) probably
unpopular decisions. We’re at the early stage of this; I don’t think this has
happened yet.

Related: Low-income students struggle to pay for college, even in
rare states that offer help
Q: Often students struggle with making sure they have the right credits, filling
out the right forms, making payments on time and other logistical things. The
system is complicated. Is college too difficult for students to navigate?

“If access to the advantages of our society is based
solely on income, then it basically says if you’re
low-income you’re stuck.”
A: I don’t think it’s too difficult. (But) we can’t expect students who are
coming from backgrounds where they have no experience to come into a
culture as complex as a university and make it on their own without any
intervention. When we do that, we get what we have right now. If you’re in the
lower quartile of income, by the time you’re 24 your chance of having a college
degree is nine percent. I think as a country we should be really uncomfortable
with that. If access to the advantages of our society is based solely on income,
then it basically says if you’re low-income you’re stuck. The way you change
that is you can’t assume that students are just going to make their own way.
We have a moral obligation to provide the support necessary for these
students to succeed. And to use the evidence we have about what works and to
put programs in place that we know work. I don’t think it’s too complicated.
But we can’t pretend it’s just going to be okay to let these students go without
additional support.
Q: If these programs aren’t implemented on a larger scale, what will happen?
A: We’ll stay at nine percent. And then other people, who are more
experienced than I, will posit what does that mean if we have a society built on
the fact that if you’re low-income you don’t have the same access to higher
education and the privileges that come with it. And then that means that the
economic disparity that we see in our country will get worse. Nick Hanauer
(who advocated for a raise in minimum wage to $15 an hour) wrote in Politico,
“The Pitchforks Are Coming…For Us Plutocrats.” In other words, if we
continue this economic disparity, eventually societies break down if people
have no hope and there’s so much despair. That’s the risk we run if we cannot
provide pathways to economic success through education for low-income
Related: Why are low-income students not showing up to college,
even though they have been accepted?
Q: Would you put any sort of time frame on the work that needs to be done?
As in, how long do universities have to address this?
A: They are doing meaningful work now. There’s not a reticence about this.
They haven’t had to do it in broad ways yet. If you look at who’s graduating
from high school — the next decade it gets more and more diverse. What I
would say is ten years from now we will look back at this decade and judge

ourselves on our ability to have addressed a serious societal problem. And as a
higher education community, we should be judged on that progress. I think
it’s going to be gradual and ten years from now when we look back if we have
not made progress, then shame on us. That’s my take on it.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent
organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more
about Higher Education.

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