How Colleges Can Promote Equity to Support Low-Income Students

Posted December 14, 2020
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Case studies explore how two community colleges helped advance student outcomes

Earn­ing an advanced degree opens doors for low-income work­ing stu­dents, con­nect­ing them to fam­i­ly-sup­port­ing wages and greater finan­cial sta­bil­i­ty. A new report, fund­ed by the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion, explores the role of col­leges in sup­port­ing these stu­dents and their success.

The report, Build­ing Equi­ty by Sup­port­ing the Whole Stu­dent, shares find­ing from inter­views with more than 80 stu­dents, admin­is­tra­tors, fac­ul­ty and staff across two com­mu­ni­ty col­leges in Wash­ing­ton state. The researchers — a team from Math­e­mat­i­ca and the Insight Cen­ter for Com­mu­ni­ty and Eco­nom­ic Devel­op­ment — exam­ined how the insti­tu­tions pro­mot­ed equi­ty, inclu­sion, cul­tur­al change to bet­ter sup­port under­served stu­dents of color.

This work exposed incon­sis­tent under­stand­ings of equi­ty among school lead­ers as well as insuf­fi­cient insti­tu­tion­al approach­es for meet­ing stu­dent needs.

A shared vision

The report defines equi­ty on col­lege cam­pus­es as an envi­ron­ment where all stu­dents have the sup­port they need to be successful.

Col­lege lead­ers should for­go a one-sized-fits-all approach to build­ing equi­ty and con­sid­er the full spec­trum of stu­dent needs, back­grounds and iden­ti­ties, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the con­text of race and eth­nic­i­ty. When lead­ers lis­ten to and con­sid­er stu­dent per­spec­tives and expe­ri­ences — and they are aligned in their vision for equi­ty and their plan to pur­sue it — they can more effec­tive­ly and effi­cient­ly help stu­dents of col­or succeed.

Sup­port beyond the classroom

The study also calls atten­tion to root issues that can pre­vent stu­dents of col­or from real­iz­ing their full aca­d­e­m­ic poten­tial. It pro­pos­es solu­tions such as:

  • Cul­tur­al­ly respon­sive pro­gram­ming, which can fos­ter sense of belong­ing on cam­pus — a key fac­tor in stu­dent suc­cess — by unit­ing class­mates of sim­i­lar back­grounds and identities.
  • Sup­port­ing basic needs, such as access for reli­able trans­porta­tion or healthy food.

Indi­vid­ual staff mem­bers, the researchers note, can play a crit­i­cal role in help­ing stu­dents iden­ti­fy and over­come root issues. Yet, this con­nec­tion is cut when­ev­er a staff mem­ber changes roles or leaves the institution.

Advice for the field

The report shares rec­om­men­da­tions root­ed in the equi­ty-build­ing efforts of both com­mu­ni­ty col­leges and applic­a­ble to the broad­er high­er edu­ca­tion land­scape. It encour­ages col­leges and lead­ers to:

  1. Define equi­ty. Ensure that key stakeholders—faculty, stu­dents and staff—have shared goals for and def­i­n­i­tions of equity.
  2. Lis­ten to stu­dents. Rec­og­nize their per­spec­tive and respect their full range of strengths and needs.
  3. Sup­port the whole stu­dent. Help stu­dents ful­fill their basic needs, con­nect with fac­ul­ty and staff and access cul­tur­al­ly rel­e­vant pro­gram­ming that fos­ters their sense of belong­ing on campus.

This research shows that achiev­ing equi­ty requires tar­get­ed approach­es geared to root caus­es and a thor­ough under­stand­ing of the diverse groups of stu­dents most in need of ser­vices,” said T’Pring West­brook, a senior research asso­ciate at the Casey Foun­da­tion who com­mis­sioned the case stud­ies. The best way to get that under­stand­ing is by lis­ten­ing to stu­dents, engag­ing them through trust­ed rela­tion­ships and pay­ing atten­tion to their experiences.”

An added hur­dle: pro­mot­ing equi­ty dur­ing a pandemic

As the eco­nom­ic fall­out of the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic con­tin­ues, col­leges must stay attuned to stu­dents’ basic needs, the report notes. Low-income stu­dents may strug­gle to pay for hous­ing, food and books. Less obvi­ous, though, are how a student’s race, sex­u­al or gen­der iden­ti­ty, and doc­u­men­ta­tion sta­tus can affect their sense of safe­ty and suc­cess on cam­pus. As a result, col­lege lead­ers must under­stand the impact of sys­temic racism and con­sid­er how poli­cies and pub­lic health restric­tions may mod­i­fy stu­dent services.

About the Work­ing Stu­dents Suc­cess Network

Now under the aus­pices of the Holis­tic Stu­dents Sup­port approach, the Work­ing Stu­dents Suc­cess Net­work (WSSN) was cre­at­ed in 2014 by Achiev­ing the Dream (ATD), with fund­ing from the Casey Foun­da­tion and oth­ers. The ini­tial WSSN spanned 19 com­mu­ni­ty col­leges across Cal­i­for­nia, Wash­ing­ton, Vir­ginia and Arkansas that each strove to lev­el the play­ing field for eco­nom­i­cal­ly dis­ad­van­taged stu­dents on col­lege cam­pus­es, includ­ing stu­dents of col­or and stu­dent par­ents. WSSN incor­po­rat­ed sup­port across three main areas: employ­ment and career advance­ment, income and work sup­port and finan­cial ser­vices and asset building.

Learn more about the Casey Foun­da­tion’s efforts to help work­ing stu­dents succeed

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