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Supporting our Lower-Income Students

Insights from the OUE Research Team

Like many higher education institutions in the US, Duke is engaging in concerted efforts to recruit, enroll, and support more lower-income undergraduate students, including by making Duke more affordable for students and families by investing in the expansion of need-based financial aid. Colleagues in OUE, and particularly in the Duke LIFE office, are at the vanguard of these efforts. Research shows that, in addition to providing funding for equitable college access and participation, efforts focused on institutional culture change are needed to make campus welcoming and supportive of lower-income students in full pursuit of their educational and personal goals. Dominant cultures of US colleges and universities, which tend to prioritize and value individual ambition and achievement, have been shown to be less welcoming and supportive of lower-income students and students with other minoritized identities (e.g., Stephens et al., 2012). Consistent with this research, we find that first-generation and lower-income (FGLI) students at Duke report lower levels of identification with the values of the institution and of other students and report lower levels of belonging overall, despite endorsing enthusiasm for their academic work. Furthermore, FGLI students report experiencing a significant sense of identity threat in their day-to-day lives on campus, which is often experienced in the form of microaggressions in day-to-day interactions with peers and in the classroom (Destin et al., 2021). 

Fortunately, a significant body of research led by Mesmin Destin and colleagues at the intersection of social psychology, education, and policy points to concrete steps institutions can take to shift policies and practices to better support students from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, and from marginalized backgrounds more generally. According to Destin et al. (2021), a key first step is to recognize and evaluate how assumptions about the meaning and value of students’ backgrounds and social identities are embedded in the culture, policies, and practices of the institution. For example, are students’ lower socioeconomic backgrounds viewed as a source of “deficits” to be repaired, or as a source of skills, knowledge, and strength that will support their pursuit of their goals and enrich the campus community? Is the institutional climate “chilly” or “warm” toward socioeconomic diversity (Browman & Destin, 2016)? Based on this initial evaluation, the institution can then build policies and practices that acknowledge, affirm, and celebrate students’ diverse backgrounds as a source of strengths (see Destin et al., 2022). For example, one way to communicate a climate of warmth toward socioeconomic diversity is to have consistent and widely available institutional messaging committing to financial policies and resources to support lower-income students. Policies and practices focused on classroom and community-level resources to support student learning and well-being across can also be enacted. These classroom and community-level resources can include, for example, faculty training and learning communities; having a community space where students from similar backgrounds can gather and that can serve as a hub for connecting students with supportive campus resources; and providing opportunities for maintaining and strengthening connections to family and home communities. 

To learn more and explore how we can further shape policies and practices to better support students, see Destin, M., Rosario, R. J., & Vossoughi, S. (2021).