Listening to Our Low-Income Students

While there is a growing effort to better understand how to best support low-income students in higher education, too often listening to the students themselves has not been part of the inquiry. When we do listen to students, it tends to be during exit interviews with those who are withdrawing from our institutions. The Yes We Must Coalition Student Feedback Project was an initiative to explore the experiences of low-income students who have been successful in their college journeys and are on the verge of graduation. We sought to understand how these students viewed their paths to success, particularly what they saw as the biggest challenges along the way and what institutional practices and policies they found to be most helpful in meeting these challenges. We also wanted to solicit their advice on ways in which our institutions could improve in providing support.

A pilot effort in 2017 involved focus groups conducted at eight Yes We Must Coalition (YWMC) institutions with 55 graduating Pell-eligible students. The results made it clear that students had important insights to offer. Based on these results, the 2018 project was undertaken to develop a larger sample of students drawn from more institutions in order to increase our understanding of commonly experienced challenges and what might be done to make the journeys of low-income students quicker, less costly, and/or less at-risk for interruption and non-completion. We hope the individual and cumulative data from the focus groups will be useful in informing institutional assumptions and policies, including the nature, accessibility and timing of interventions and resources.

Project Overview

The YWMC Student Feedback Project 2018 was launched in the spring of 2017 with a call for volunteer institutions and the identification of focus group facilitators from each of the participating schools. Virtual workshops to review best practices for focus group facilitators were conducted by YWMC staff and enriched by the participation of three experienced facilitators from the pilot program. Recruitment of Pell-eligible seniors began in early 2018 with a goal of developing samples that were representative of the student body at each institution. Focus groups were conducted between February and April, with sessions lasting 60–90 minutes. Participating students received a $25 stipend, generally in the form of credit at the campus bookstore or a gift card for use at a local retail store. Consent forms and student demographic pro les were collected at each session, with each student assigned an identifying number. Sessions were audio-taped, but students identified themselves only by number when speaking so as to retain anonymity. Institutions used commercial services (either Trint.com or Rev.com) to transcribe the tapes, copies of which were sent to Nia Chester, YWMC Program Manager, whose content analysis provides the basis for the results described in this report.

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