Low-income Students in Higher Education
Students from lower-income backgrounds are less likely to go to college than their wealthier peers. Those who do go are less likely to graduate. Is higher education living up to our aspirations that it will be a great equalizer? Or does this institution—originally founded by wealthy white men to educate younger wealthy white men—continue to preserve the status of those who founded it?
As long as lower-income students are made to feel like they are trespassing in cultures, social circles, and spaces not meant for them, higher education has little hope of reducing socioeconomic disparities. Even if we can solve the economic challenges—providing equal access to resources and opportunities that will support higher-education success—we must face up to three psychosocial barriers.
First, university culture can make low-income students feel like cultural outsiders. Universities’ independent values—of individual self-expression and independent thinking—can feel inconsistent with lower-income students’ more interdependent values—of collective voice and collaborative problem-solving. Research shows that this mismatch between values hurts sense of belonging. It makes lower-income students feel out of place. In this way, low-income students come to feel like cultural foreigners on their own campuses.
Second, university social life can make low-income students feeling like social outsiders. For many low-income students, social connections with wealthier peers and faculty and staff are difficult. Low-income students feel less comfortable approaching faculty and staff. They feel less entitled to their time and attention. This also affects low-income students’ sense of belonging. In this way, low-income students come to feel like strangers on their own campuses.
Third, the physical setting of university life can make low-income students feel like spatial outsiders. In new research, we examined the relationship between family income, use of public space on campus, and sense of belonging at the university. In one study, we gave college students maps of their campus and asked them to draw where they had been that day. In another study, we asked students to list spaces on campus they use most, and then had research assistants classify those spaces as private (e.g., someone’s house, dorm room) or public (e.g., library, a green on campus). In yet another study, we asked students how often they use various public spaces on campus.
Across these studies, we found that, compared with higher-income students, lower-income students use public spaces on campus less. This is especially true of iconic public spaces on campuses—spaces like the Rotunda at the University of Virginia, Polk Place at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, Old Main at The Pennsylvania State University—spaces deeply connected to the identity of the university. In turn, lower-income students feel less at home at the university. In this way, low-income students are not only cultural and social outsiders—foreigners and strangers—but also trespassers, absent from public spaces on their own campuses.
We also found that empowering students to use public spaces on campus can close the gap between lower- and higher-income students’ sense of belonging. In one experiment, we assigned lower- and higher-income students to use at least one iconic public space on campus (or to use space as they normally would). Later that day, we asked them to complete a short survey about their sense of belonging at the university. Within the group who went about their daily business, lower-income students reported less belonging than did higher-income students. They felt out of place. But, this gap was closed among those who were assigned to use an iconic campus space. In that group, the lower-income students felt just as much belonging as the higher-income students. At least for that day, they felt at home at the university.
If universities are serious about diversifying their student body, and if they are serious about promoting equity, then they must rethink the cultural and social context of the university. They must also tend to its physical spaces. They must acknowledge, integrate, and celebrate interdependent identities and values. They must foster collaborations and dialogue to create social connection and social change. They must also reimagine public spaces. They must ask themselves: Who is present in public spaces? Who is represented? Which public spaces are iconic? Are they tied to histories of exclusion? Do they represent our identities and values? Can we reimagine iconic public spaces to invite more of us?
If we want higher education to be a great equalizer, then it must no longer be a place where so many are made to feel like cultural, social, and spatial outsiders.
For Further Reading
Stephens, N. M., Fryberg, S. A., Markus, H. R., Johnson, C. S., & Covarrubias, R. (2012). Unseen disadvantage: How American universities' focus on independence undermines the academic performance of first-generation college students. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102(6), 1178. 10.1037/a0027143
Ostrove, J. M., & Long, S. M. (2007). Social class and belonging: Implications for college adjustment. The Review of Higher Education, 30(4), 363-389. 10.1353/rhe.2007.0028
Trawalter, S., Hoffman, K., & Palmer, L. (2020). Out of place: Socioeconomic status, use of public space, and belonging in higher education. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 10.1037/pspi0000248
Sophie Trawalter is an Associate Professor of Public Policy and Psychology at the University of Virginia. She studies social psychological processes that give rise to and promote social disparities.
Kelly Hoffman is a social psychologist whose work focuses on understanding and addressing social disparities. She currently serves as Vice President of Research at Coqual, a nonprofit global think tank.
Lindsay Palmer is a graduate student dual-titling in Psychology and Women's, Gender, and Sexuality studies at Penn State interested in examining social disparities, particularly within higher education.