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The Unseen Reason Students from Low-Income Backgrounds Drop Out

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There are a multitude of obstacles affecting college achievement of students from low-income backgrounds. A new article from POLITICO, “The Unseen Reason Why Working-Class Students Drop Out,” tackles the less recognizable. Even though most colleges are doing all they can to help these students succeed, graduation gaps still persist. A hidden reason for these gaps can be tied to cultural differences between institutions and working-class students.

Social psychologists Nicole Stephens and Sarah Townsend have spent years studying why working-class students are still not able to persist all the way through graduation. A common rationale is that the students lack hard skills or opportunities their middle and upper class peers possess.  However, research from Stephens and Townsend has revealed a much deeper obstacle in the path of these students, which they describe as, “a cultural mismatch between working-class students and the schools they attend.” Their research shows institutions tend to rely on and promote standards of merit that reflect independent values while working-class students prioritize values of interdependence.

Culture, in any setting, can be an incredibly hard thing to change. Small change, however, can beget larger change.

In studies done by Stephens and Townsend, simple actions such as including concepts of interdependence and community to a university’s welcome message helps working-class students perform better. Other changes can come in the classroom. By promoting more group learning and a community of peers navigating college together, universities can emphasize the value of working in groups as an important part of collegiate life.

Based on this research, colleges and universities who seek to attract, retain and graduate a higher proportion of students from working-class backgrounds could see a benefit in expanding campus culture to balance interdependence and independence—both of which would also serve their alumni well in life.



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