The recent report “The Truth About Student Success: Myths, Realities, and 30 Practices That Are Working” from the Chronicle of Higher Education provides excellent insights into the complexities of steering higher education toward greater equity. From navigating the nuances of the college admittance and decision-making process to the frequent sense of isolation that first-generation and low-income students face on campus, the report gives voice not only to the struggles of college attainment, but also to the many ways in which colleges are supporting student success and addressing the attainment gap with new and different tactics.
With nearly 20 years as a college access and success organization, College Possible has seen the particular trials of students from low-income backgrounds in getting to and through college. We’ve seen the myths and realities up close, and developed a rigorous, research-based near-peer coaching model that propels success. In doing so, we’ve discovered that there’s not one truth about student success; there is each student’s truth about what college means to them and about the resources and supports needed to be successful.
Myths and Realities
One myth about students from low-income backgrounds is that they simply don’t know about college. While the scope of exposure to higher education institutions may be different than continuing-generation peers, it’s important to realize that students from first-generation and low-income backgrounds certainly know about college.
Recent research from the University of Kansas discovered that first-generation college-going students were significantly more likely to learn about college experiences from media sources: including movies, social media or promotional material from colleges. Without the additional voices of family members or near peers who’ve attended college, however, first-generation students may walk away with assumptions about academic rigor, campus partying or student diversity that are not actually reflected on the campuses they choose to attend.
We’ve found it crucial to leverage the relationship of a near-peer coach to help dispel myths that may hinder student efforts to choose the best fit college and understand their own college decision-making. By having a relationship with a recent college graduate, College Possible high school students are better able to both see the potential of a degree and understand what it means and feels like to be a college student.
“The great thing about a College Possible coach is they know what college is like right now,” said Sumayya Sulthana, a College Possible high school student. “Teachers and parents tell us what college was like when they attended, which is helpful, but our College Possible coach just graduated and is able to tell us what it is like now.”
As mentioned in the “The Truth About Student Success,” two particular realities we’ve seen are the frequent sense of isolation among first-generation students and students from low-income backgrounds, and financial instability that can prevent academic progress. As at Southern Utah University, one of the institutions profiled in the report, our students have shared that the early weeks of college can be particularly isolating.
Southern Utah’s focus on reinventing the first-year experience to accommodate a wider variety of social opportunities, including smaller group settings, is not unlike our focus on the near-peer relationship. For students from first-generation or low-income backgrounds, opportunities for early, deep relationships can bolster college-going identity formation and connection to campus. This relationship is key for Yarely Tapia, a first-year college student:
“[My College Possible coach] is not just a coach to me. She’s turned into more than that. I genuinely feel her desire for me to succeed. She does all she can to support me in my college journey.” A coach relationship offers a unique opportunity for a student to feel seen and acknowledged, both in struggle and in success.
Navigating the labyrinth of campus offices can be significantly less intimidating with a near-peer coach: at partner campus Augsburg University, one student nearly transferred when she realized a course requirement was not lining up to her pre-med track. Her College Possible coach Davi was able to assist in connecting the dots and helping the student talk to an academic advisor to realign course credits. It may sound basic, but that sense of feeling like someone has your back and is ready to help is something we know to be hugely helpful for students from low-income and first-gen backgrounds.
Another governing, formative reality of college students is financial instability. Search for #RealCollege in news outlets and on Twitter and you’ll be inundated with lives lived on the edge from students unable to afford food or housing. Many of our partner campuses are taking similar approaches to Amarillo College, as mentioned in the Chronicle report, in developing food pantries and actively working to promote usage and access. As campuses continue to recognize the whole spectrum of needs and how they influence student success and progress, it’s imperative that hunger not become an obstacle.
Making a Difference
Like many of the college administrators and higher education researchers interviewed in “The Truth About Student Success,” we see real reason for hope. Higher education need not be limited to students from resourced backgrounds, and we believe that well-targeted, well-designed supports can make a substantial, quantifiable difference for students from low-income backgrounds. Organizationally, we share a commitment to data-driven insights as a core way to understand the types of barriers students face. This is in keeping with one of the top three solutions highlighted in the report: promoting “more research and evidence on how to bring student-success initiatives to scale.” At College Possible, our commitment to research and to scale has meant recruiting an experienced data analytics team and launching a new partnership model, Catalyze. Through Catalyze, we now directly collaborate with colleges in embedding near-peer AmeriCorps coaches on their campuses. In this, we’ve been able to serve significantly more students in a short amount of time, and seen impressive results: students supported via near-peer coaching had a year-over-year retention rate twelve percentage points higher than their low-income peers.
Myths about college-going are hard to dispel, and for students who are first in their family to attend college or who are facing the financial realities of a low-income background, those myths start to seem like reality. Through near-peer relationships, we’re committed to empowering meaningful relationships that break down the myths and help make college more real for more students.
By Margaret Jaques-Leslie