This Is Why Some Students Are Struggling More Than Others
By Linnette Peralta ‘22 and Nurys Morillo ‘22
Over the past few decades, a college degree has become even more important for securing well-paid jobs with benefits in the labor market. And yet, low-income first-generation students are less likely to go to four-year colleges and are more likely to drop out of college than any other group of students. In the 2018 Strada–Gallup Alumni Survey, it was found that 15 percent of first-gen graduates reported having zero influential relationships with a faculty or staff in their school and about 90 percent of students who are low-income and first-gen students do not graduate within six years. Given these statistics, we are left with the question: why are low-income students, especially first-generation ones, struggling more than other students?
Drawing on a series of eight in-depth interviews with students of color from low-income neighborhoods in the Boston area, we learn about financial struggles and family stressors. We deliberately collected qualitative data as it is uniquely positioned to help us understand the mechanisms behind these college-going and drop-statistics. In our interviews, we asked about their experiences with graduating high school, going to college, and staying in college. While six of our respondents did go to college, two of them did not go at all for a while and one individual dropped out. All of our respondents discussed financial pressures and mental health stressors, even those who remained in college.
For example, one interviewee, a 21-year-old female from the neighborhood of Roxbury whose pseudonym is Kia, mentions that she had to drop out of a four-year public college due to not being able to afford school and because of her mental health. She struggled to balance work and school since her financial gap was too big for her family to finance. She continuously struggled in her classes due to her need to work full time and the lack of a support system to help her get through college.
Another example is Beth who is also a 21-year-old woman from Roxbury who currently is attending a four-year public college. She mentioned how she is struggling with balancing work and school. She often submits work late and has to bring her computer to work in order to catch up with school. This semester she decided to go fully online so that she can continue working full time and cover her finances as her family does not have the income to support her.
Reflecting gendered national trends, women in our study were more likely to go and stay in college. The narratives from our interviews suggest, however, that women are more likely to do so because they are focused on the long-term opportunities that come with a college degree. Meanwhile, men feel the immediate pressure to financially support their families. In other words, men may desire to go to college, but they prioritize the financial obligations with which they feel pressure from their families. One example of a male in our study who desired to go to college but prioritized financial obligations is Rakar, a 23-year-old Black man who lives in Dorchester. After graduating high school, he decided to take two years off from school because he wanted to financially provide for his family.
We argue for a few policies as we move forward in supporting low-income students who do go to college. First, it is important for teachers and institutions to realize that many low-income students of color do not fail classes or drop out because they want to, but rather because of their realities outside of school. One of the biggest barriers is work schedules–work they depend upon to pay for college. Thus, our first recommendation is that college professors better understand the reality of low-income students in college. For example, a 22-year-old Black male from the Dorchester area named DJ mentioned that he had a professor who was willing to work around his busy work schedule. The professor did not just work with him outside of class, but also gave him work ahead of time so that he could do it during a time that best worked for him. He was able to finish the class with good grades and still have that flexibility of working full time in order to financially provide for himself and his family.
If more teachers would be willing to not assume the worst from their students and to work with students and be more understanding about students’ situations outside of school, then more students would be able to succeed just like DJ.
Secondly, we believe that colleges, starting with PC, must hire more faculty of color. According to CollegeFactual.com, at PC 91 percent of faculty are white. Faculty of color are more likely to serve as empathetic ears and mentors for first-generation college students. But often, at schools, there is a large emphasis on having more first-generation students of color in the school than on hiring faculty of color in pursuit of diversity goals.
Lastly, we believe that institutions must provide more mental health resources, specific to low-income students of color so that students have other resources outside of their homes. These resources can provide students access to mentors based on students’ needs, financial resources, and mental health.