By Amelia Leighton Gamel | Originally published in the Back-to-School 2019 issue of AC&E.
The past several years have seen a concerted effort to increase the number of first-generation, low-income, and marginalized students in institutes of higher education. Some studies show that 36 percent of college freshmen are first-generation students. However, getting students registered and in the door is one thing; keeping them there is another. The Postsecondary National Policy Institute reports that just 11 percent of low-income students who are the first in their family to attend college will have a college degree within six years of enrolling in school.
Colleges have responded to bleak retention and persistence rates by implementing a host of interventions, from creating streamlined program pathways to implementing student success initiatives or to reformatting or eliminating remedial classes altogether. Although these interventions are well-intended and even promising, they don’t address what often is a core factor in the students’ success—or lack of success—at the institution: their relationship to the classroom environment.
Student success or failure is frequently the product of what occurs in classrooms—not only because financial aid is the lifeblood that allows students to remain registered in classes and students’ financial aid is contingent upon grades and grades are generated in the classroom, but also because the classroom experience and interactions with faculty are often what drives students’ feelings about higher education, their beliefs about their abilities to succeed, and their motivations to persist.
FACULTY AND STUDENT SUCCESS
While the demographics of college students have shifted, college professors remain a fairly homogenous group. Nearly 80 percent of full-time college faculty and 77 percent of part-time faculty at degree-granting post-secondary institutions are white—and along with that, privileged.
Often disconnected from the experiences, beliefs, and attitudes of first-generation, marginalized students from underserved cultures, some faculty members—including faculty of color who are from more advantaged economic and cultural backgrounds than their students—struggle to effectively interact with various students and to create inclusive, equitable classroom environments where all students feel welcome and safe.
First-generation, marginalized students who find themselves on campuses of predominately white institutions are often sensitive to signals that suggest, or are interpreted as, racial bigotry or intolerance. Such perceptions can easily make students feel like unwelcome outsiders in the classroom, increase their anxiety, and impact their sense of belonging.
It’s sometimes difficult to separate the experiences, challenges, and needs of one student group from those of another. For example, the Pell Institute reports that first-generation college students are disproportionately minorities from low-income backgrounds and that nearly 30 percent are from families with an annual income less than $25,000.
Although educational attainment won’t solve all issues related to equity, economic and otherwise, post-secondary achievement is a lifeline for many. For marginalized young people with a degree, garnering employment that provides a living wage can be challenging; garnering employment that provides a living wage without a degree is nearly impossible. Students with the academic resources and supports to complete post-secondary education will likely flourish. For students who do not, a much different pattern will likely play out: failing grades, deflating self-esteem, dropping out, under- or unemployment, lifelong economic struggle, and for some, incarceration. There is so much at stake not only for them but also for their families and our communities.
FACULTY MUST ALSO ANSWER THE CALL
Colleges have called first-generation, marginalized, and under-resourced students to their campuses, and students have answered the call. Once students become a part of the college community, it is the ethical responsibility of the organization as a whole to give students what they need to be supported, safe, and successful.
It would be inequitable as well as professionally neglectful to invite students to register for classes and live on campuses that lack resources, supports, a safe campus culture that values diverse populations, and knowledgeable faculty who are skilled in strategies that help students feel welcomed, understood, and valued. Colleges simply cannot ask students to be a part of a campus community that does not provide them with the tools, resources, and supports they need; that would be setting students up for failure.
If ethical reasons aren’t enough to persuade colleges to position themselves to understand, welcome, and support students, perhaps considering the fiscal impact of student attrition will encourage them to take action. It is more beneficial and less expensive to provide supports and resources for students than it is to recruit new students. Additionally, public policy is leaning on colleges to increase completion rates.
Some faculty would argue they don’t choose the students in their classes; instead, students simply appear on their class rosters. Even the most committed professors might find themselves thinking, “College isn’t for everyone. If students aren’t able and prepared, wouldn’t it be easier if I just weed them out in the first week or two? After all, I’m being held accountable for the number of students who pass my classes.”
Students are counting on educators, not just to provide them with opportunities to succeed but to provide them with a welcoming campus climate and the resources and supports necessary for their success. Relationships with and among students are crucial to student engagement and success. An empathic, compassionate approach—which includes understanding the histories, experiences, beliefs, attitudes, and values of first-generation, marginalized students who come from under-resourced cultures—contributes to the human experience instead of taking away from it. Educators need to know their students and use that understanding as a foundation to teach, engage, motivate, and encourage their success.
When students feel welcome, comfortable, safe, respected, supported, connected, and cared about, they are much more apt to consistently attend class, participate, engage, complete assignments, try harder, study more, and feel an obligation to succeed and not disappoint those they care about, including their professors with whom they have a rapport.
Amelia Leighton Gamel is an assistant professor at Jackson College, where her focus is on equity and inclusion. She is a national speaker and consultant; the author of Compassionate Teaching: Unlocking the Potential of First-Generation Marginalized Students; Help! My College Students Can’t Read: and Teaching Vital Reading Strategies in the Content Areas. She is also the founder of EquitableEDU, LLC, which promotes equity and empowers educators to effectively engage with students.