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  • Subject area(s): Engineering
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  • Published on: 7th September 2019
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When discussing a disadvantaged population, success can be very subjective. A simple definition of success for a low income student could be to make their way out of poverty, but other steps must be achieved in order to make this kind of progress. A more immediate, but still long-term goal might be to achieve something that historically has proven to be a stepping stone out of poverty, such as earning a post-secondary degree.

From a higher education perspective, we can assist our lower-income students by providing a means of earning the best post-secondary degree for them. In taking this task on, student affairs professionals find that these students are facing a significant uphill battle. Issues like academic preparedness, lack of resources, and lowered expectations conspire to hamper the potential achievements of these students.

Assisting these students toward their baccalaureate degree improves more than just their earning potential, it can also affect state-wide graduation rates for bachelor’s degrees. The increasing institutional stratification of higher education has negative effects for both the students and the states. In the last 30 years, our public higher education system has almost exclusively grown in the community college sector (Bastedo & Jaquette, 2011). While a two-year degree is an achievement, students are thirteen percent less likely to earn a bachelor’s degree if they first attend a community college rather than a four-year institution (Bastedo & Jaquette, 2011). The current trend toward stratification in higher education means that disadvantaged students are increasingly concentrated in these community colleges, and the rate at which they are attaining bachelor’s degrees suffers (Bastedo & Jaquette, 2011).

The disadvantages of poverty are not new, and some of the challenges facing low-income students have existed since higher education began. Two hundred years ago, supporters in the field of eugenics argued that people were impoverished because they were not intelligent enough to be rich, and that the offspring of impoverished parents would only continue the trend (Berg, 2010). This type of thinking became very popular in some academic circles and persisted well into the twentieth century. Even as recently as 1996, literature can be found advocating for the idea that intelligence is largely determined by genetics, and that specialized programs for the less fortunate are destined for failure (Herrnstein & Murray, 1996).

Differences in academic achievement can be explained another way. Disadvantaged students perform differently than advantaged students precisely because they are disadvantaged. Students from impoverished families tend toward schools and living arrangements that increase their disadvantage (Fischer, 1996). This tendency affects more than just scholastic achievement. There is clearly a link between acceptance rates to selective colleges and socioeconomic status (Berg, 2010). Affluent households typically have more highly educated parents and possess greater human, social and cultural resources to pull from in order to promote education at the earliest ages. This is a clear and concrete advantage in competing for college placement (Bastedo & Jaquette, 2011).

Increasingly, there are low-income students who manage to attain a high level of academic preparation in spite of these disadvantages but the gap in socioeconomic status of students who are attending less selective institutions compared to more selective institutions is increasing. Policy makers have concerns about this widening gap, and are searching for an explanation. The “undermatching” hypothesis proposes that these prepared, low-income students are attending colleges that are much less rigorous, and competitive than they were prepared to attend largely due to their socioeconomic status (Bastedo & Jaquette, 2011). This doesn’t capture the whole picture though.

While low-income students have improved in indicators that suggest academic preparedness, higher-income students have made larger gains. The academic advantages of the higher-income students appear to be growing faster than lower-income students can make up ground. Academic preparedness is not the only place where lower-income students are disadvantaged. Lower-income, high-achieving students commonly fail to even apply to more selective colleges (Hoxby, 2015). As a result, even those poorer students who are well-prepared for college have poorer educational outcomes on average than higher-income students.

The gap in advantage is even more pronounced when considering students who are in the lowest socioeconomic statuses. Families account for almost 40% of the nation’s homeless population (Low, Hallett, & Mo, 2016). Over 1.2 million homeless students attend U.S. public schools (Low, Hallett, & Mo, 2016). This way of life has a dramatic and lasting negative effect on math and reading proficiency so educational outcomes can look grim. This number is also unlikely to shrink as the fastest growing subpopulation of individuals without residential stability, are those living in a family. Both the U.S. Department of Housing and Development(HUD) and the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act provide protections for homeless students and their families but more is needed.

While these protections are a relief for many, 75% of homeless students do not fit the definition of homelessness used by HUD. Most homeless students are involuntarily living in a situation referred to as “doubled-up.” They are seeking refuge in the home of a family member or friend due to dire circumstances. This type of living arrangement falls under the federal definition of homelessness. These students deal with the same stresses, including lack of space, limited resources, and high mobility and yet there are afforded no basic protections by HUD (Low, Hallett, & Mo, 2016). These are students in some of the worst socioeconomic situations, who are denied protections given to others in the same situation because federal agencies disagree on the definition of homelessness.

Steps are being taken to assist low-income students but this is a very diverse group with a diverse set of goals, so different solutions are needed for different subpopulations. Even seemingly straightforward solutions can be difficult to enforce effectively. The McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act mentioned earlier is a step in the right direction for homeless high-school students. The act allows homeless students to immediately enroll in a school without transcripts, medical records, or a parent. Homeless students are also allowed to remain enrolled at their school when they move away from their school zone, and the school district must provide them with transportation (Low, Hallett, & Mo, 2016).

These protections have led to a steady rise in enrollment among homeless students but there have been issues. For example: the act is not properly funded so schools have a hard time effectively and efficiently providing transportation to students outside of their school zones. School offices even seem to suspect many families of abusing the provision (Low, Hallett, & Mo, 2016).

Another population that has gained attention are low-income students interested in STEM fields. Low-income high schools rarely offer a full set of STEM classes.  According to the Department of Education, 50 percent of high schools offer calculus courses, and only 63 percent offer a physics course. Without experience of STEM subjects, or any educational background in the field, low-income students are less likely to enter the field and are therefore underrepresented. Furthermore, those who do enroll in college are much more likely to enroll in a two year college than their high-income counterparts (Riley, 2015).

Poverty statistics on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota are dire. The population suffers from 70 percent unemployment, high school graduation rates below 10 percent, and they have only 1 hour a week of high school science taught through a NASA outreach program. In spite of these statistics, Oglala Lakota College undertook a five-year project to foster a two-to-four-year pathway for their students leading to engineering degrees. Funded by the Tribal Colleges and Universities program and the National Science Foundation, OSSPEEC eased the transfer of students from tribal two-year institutions to four-year institutions by adapting mainstream institutions to address the needs of tribal college graduates (Riley, 2015).

This kind of network of support is a wonderful idea, and clearly worth considering in any dire economic environment. However, while much of this framework may be difficult and time-consuming to transplant elsewhere, a seemingly small but crucial aspect of this program was the adoption of a policy of non-abandonment. This policy meant acknowledging that there is no background a student can come from that precludes the possibility of their success. This meant removing the rigid structure of their old engineering degree plans in favor of more flexible degree plans. Once the curriculum was made flexible enough to allow students room to live their lives, academic success followed.

In addition to flexible programming that doesn’t alienate students, the faculty must buy into the idea of non-abandonment. Low-income students, especially those who are also first-generation, benefit greatly from faculty who are willing to help them navigate campus culture (Schademan & Thompson, 2016). This navigation can take the form of instruction that makes the classroom engaging, and fosters interaction with peer groups. In other cases, Instructors may have individual conversations with students, or lectures that cover academic preparedness and expectation.

What must be avoided are faculty members who regard low-income students as less-than, and who assume that a student’s failure to learn is theirs alone. Some of these students may need additional support, and may even appear unwilling to open up due in the new setting. Persistence and patience are keys to development in these situations, not assuming fault in the student and chalking up that failure to a lack of preparedness (Schademan & Thompson, 2016).

This move toward inclusion extends beyond programming and staff. There may also be a need to revise some financial aid policies to be more inclusive. Many of the newer policies designed to assist low-income students in earning their degrees specifically deal with two and four year programs. While these are worthwhile endeavors, there are some students who do not need or want this type of degree but are forced into pursuing it because that is what they can receive funding for. Some more technical career fields are looking to hire students who have gone through certification programs rather than general studies based education. Pell grants do not cover these certificate programs, so students will opt to pursue a general studies degree because they can get funding even if it may not be the best use of their time (Kolodner, 2016).

 There are concerns that allowing Pell grants to pay for these shorter certificate programs would draw low-income students away from four year programs and lead to further stratification of higher education, but if higher education is not serving the needs of the students then perhaps a change is in order.

The federal government seems to agree in part, and has already begun to address the issue. The EQUIP program was launched in 2015 and allows community colleges to use Pell money to pay for training programs administered by a third-party such as a computer coding “boot camp.” Unfortunately, the program still requires 450 hours of class-time which means a there are still a large number of programs ineligible for funding (Kolodner, 2016).

The simplest helpful policy may just be to arm low-income students with more information. The Expanding College Opportunities (ECO) project was designed to give academically prepared, low-income students important information about the college application process. This information was customized to their needs and included actual cost of attendance, graduation rates, instructional resources, and no-paperwork fee waivers. Crucially, this information did not include a recommendation about choosing a school, only important information and context (Hoxby, 2015). ECO was a success, with students submitting 48 percent more applications and a 56 percent increase in likelihood to apply to a peer college or better. This bump in application numbers lead to an increase in acceptance numbers too, with students admitted to 31 percent more colleges, and 78 percent more likely to be admitted to a peer college.

Success looks different for every low-income student. With such diverse goals, the field of higher education needs diverse solutions. Any one of these helpful policies can be a step in the right direction for some students, but a change of culture would be the most effective first step. Keeping the less fortunate in mind from the beginning when building higher education policy, and classroom curricula goes a long way to preventing the need to make up ground later on. Unfortunately we have centuries of established attitudes to overcome, but some of the policies mentioned above show that a shift is occurring.

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