For first-generation, minority, and/or low-income college students, one question often persists.
“Do I belong here?”
The question begins on college tours. I am a college adviser in an urban school in Boston and recently took my freshman on a tour of a competitive school in the area. Walking around the campus with other tour groups, my student turned to me and asked, “Why are we the only tour with black students?” It was true. Other tours were solely composed of middle class, white parents and their children.
Having attended a prestigious university as a low-income student, I know from personal experience that culture shock can deeply affect a student’s academic performance and engagement on campus. I noticed the culture shock in small ways. I noticed it when I did not feel comfortable speaking up in class, whereas my peers, who had gone to prestigious prep schools, seemed so much more prepared and confident. I noticed it when I did not know the proper etiquette for approaching professors, in contrast to my peers who quickly acquired mentors in the college. I noticed it in the different patterns of spending among my peers, whether on restaurants or spring break. I noticed it in the times that I spent working to earn money for my flight home, while my peers had extra hours to complete school work. All of these instances often caused me to question whether I was really meant to be at college or whether I had taken a spot from someone more deserving.
Small instances such as these build up to larger disengagements which can detract from students’ college experience and even cause them to give up on college. Disadvantaged students often see setbacks in college as signs they don’t belong, which can increase the likelihood that they eventually drop out. Overwhelmingly, low-income students struggle to graduate compared to their richer peers with a 25% graduation rate for those in the lowest income quartile compared to 90% for the highest.*
Some colleges have already noticed and tried to remedy the problem. I would like to highlight the work of Professors David Laude and David Yeager at the University of Texas. As part of an initiative to increase graduation rates, they created a simple orientation for freshmen. Students complete a short training that emphasizes that most students feel alone and like outsiders at first, but eventually they realize that others feel the same and that they do belong on campus. This simple training increased the completion rate for the first semester for disadvantaged freshmen by 4 percentage points. (For a much more extensive description of the intervention, please see the NY Times article below.)
Imagine if the solution really was as simple as saying, “Yes, you do belong.” If high schools and colleges can create a culture of belonging, our students will have the confidence to succeed in both college and the workplace.
*”Who gets to graduate?” http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/18/magazine/who-gets-to-graduate.html