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Supporting Low-Income Students: Challenges to Retention

AUDIO | Supporting Low-Income Students: Challenges to Retention
There are a number of barriers — both structural and informational — that impact postsecondary retention and success for low-income, non-traditional students.

The following is the first installment of a two-part interview with Ben Castleman, assistant professor of education and public policy at the University of Virginia. Castleman has done extensive research on the “summer melt” phenomenon, and recently published a paper exploring a few strategies higher education institutions could put in place to retain and support the success of low-income and non-traditional students. In this first installment, Castleman discusses the most significant barriers to retention and academic success for low-income, non-traditional students.

1. What are the most significant barriers to retention and success for low-income and non-traditional students?

I see two types of barriers. The first is systemic, structural barriers that require long-term and ongoing investment to change. The ones that I see principally are barriers to college affordability and barriers to academic readiness. There’s certainly been a lot of attention about the rising rates of tuition and the challenge families face financing college without incurring substantial debt, and that’s certainly something that we, as a society, should continue to work on. Another challenge that often tends to be more systemic and cultural is that sometimes students enter college not academically ready for college-level work, and that’s reflected in what can sometimes be high rates of students being placed in remedial or developmental academic coursework. The challenge in addressing both [of] those obstacles is resource-intensive and long-term in nature. That’s not to say we shouldn’t take it on; it just makes them challenging and harder to realize improvement in college access, college success for first-generation, low-income students.

That gets to a second set of barriers that students face: informational barriers, behavioral obstacles and psychological hurdles. It’s these that affect students who are academically ready for college, who have the ability to afford college but who may nonetheless [not] enroll or not succeed. These are barriers we have the ability to address now with fairly low-cost strategies to improve students’ outcomes in the near term.

When I refer to informational, behavioral or psychological barriers, what I mean is that students face a very complex array of information [as well as] processes they need to complete. We know from the behavioral and psychological literature that when faced with complex information, people either put off making a decision or they use some kind of simplifying strategy. Students often latch on to more tangible things like, “Do they have nice dorm rooms, or what is the food like, or does the gym have a nice basketball court?”

There are these barriers of digesting information about what each college has to offer that are really challenging. This comes up a lot in the financial aid side of things. Students, just when they’re faced with their initial aid applications, may really be daunted by the complicatedness of filling out the forms. This continues once students are in college. Students may not be aware they have to re-file every year in order to maintain their eligibility and, even if they are aware, students, and particularly non-traditional students, in college are often very busy.  Another thing we know from the behavioral literature is that when students are faced with different pressing responsibilities, it can be hard to allocate attention to tasks that are more complex, like applying for financial aid.

As a result of that, students may miss deadlines or miss entirely re-filing [for] financial aid.

2. When you look at the split between students who are looking to two-year community colleges and four-year universities, are the barriers faced by these students similar or different?

There are some similarities but there are also differences. On the one hand, we know from national data that community college students tend to be more likely to be the first in their family to go to college [and] they tend to be balancing more work and family commitments. At the same time, we know that community colleges often have — because of funding limitations — fewer advising resources to extend to students. These structural barriers mean that, when faced with complex information about maintaining their financial aid or choosing what courses to take, it’s that much more challenging  [for students] because advising resources are fewer and students are on campus less. They may not come across information colleges make available.

That being said, my work initially focused on students coming out of high school who had done everything they were supposed to in order to get to college. We found that a lot of those students, [regardless of income level], still failed to enroll in the year following high school and many of them were planning on going to four-year institutions. The challenge is that in the summer after high school, students face complex financial and procedural tasks they have to complete and they’re isolated from professional assistance.

I think in some ways you see these common barriers arising, that students [are] being faced with complex information around getting to college or maintaining financial aid or choosing courses. Often times, that information is not delivered through channels that students are engaged with on a daily basis and, even when students access that information, they may not always have easy access to professional advising on the academic side or the financial side to help navigate all [of] this complexity.

The combination of complex information and lack of access to assistance may result in students who are really otherwise well positioned for success in college from failing to enroll in the first place or struggling to stay enrolled once they’re there.

This interview has been edited for length.

This is the first installment of a two-part Q&A with Ben Castleman exploring challenges and solutions to the “summer melt” phenomenon in higher education. In the conclusion, Castleman shares solutions he has found to be highly effective in retaining low-income, non-traditional students and supporting them toward academic success.

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