Warm Embrace or Chilly Exclusion: How Low-Income Students Perceive College Messages

Posted By Eliana Osborn on January 7, 2016 at 11:32 am
Warm Embrace or Chilly Exclusion: How Low-Income Students Perceive College Messages

Tremendous financial support is available for high-achieving students to attend college, no matter their income level.  But these students often struggle once enrolled.  New research from Northwestern University may help explain the problem and help schools create a more welcoming campus environment for learners from every background.

The study produced two kinds of promotional statements to be viewed by students.  One group saw messages, classified as warm, about a campus supporting economic diversity.  These had “explicit statements showing a university’s commitment to financial aid and the federal work-study program.”  The other group saw chilly statements, showing a campus caring a lot about wealthy students.  “For example, the statements focused on the lack of students on campus that needed financial aid or about how much the institution benefited from wealthier families’ financial contributions.”

Poor students did better when they felt their campus encouraged and embraced a variety of socioeconomic levels.  Those warm statements led to greater academic confidence and students perceiving themselves as high achievers.

Economic diversity just as important as racial diversity

A July article from The Century Foundation focused on the need for diversity on college campuses.  Often the emphasis is on racial diversity, but economic diversity is important as well.  Kristin Tsuo describes college as one of the “main conduits for social mobility.”  Public secondary schools are based on where students live, limiting contact with those too different from them economically.

Colleges with low numbers of Pell grant recipients are trying to recruit more of these poor students to increase diversity.  A 2012 study found socio-economic diversity of the student body to be associated with cross-class conversations.  The authors report, “Findings indicate that both socioeconomic and racial diversity are essential to promoting a positive campus racial climate and that racial and socioeconomic diversity, while interrelated, are not interchangeable.”

Overcoming low economic diversity in universities

Schools like Washington University in Saint Louis have responded to low economic diversity rankings with a variety of programs.  One called College Prep targets high school students.  They come on campus each summer to have experiences with faculty and learning, in advance of actually enrolling.  Provost Holden Thorp announced last summer that the school would try to double their number of Pell Grant-receiving students before 2020.  “Improving the socioeconomic diversity of our student body is not just important; it’s critical to our success as a university.”

Considering diversity of all kinds is important for administrators as they strive to create inclusive communities.  The problem Northwestern University discovered is in how low-income students perceive the messages colleges are sending out.  Those messages may not be intended to discriminate, but can still make students feel that they are not the ideal candidate for the school.

Eliana Osborn
Eliana Osborn is an associate English professor at Arizona Western College, with degrees from Brigham Young University and Northern Arizona University. She’s published widely in forums such as The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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