By Kristen Obst, PhD, Program Director, Public Administration and Security Management Programs at American Public University
The Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) recently released a study on College Affordability for Low-Income Adults. While most consumers are aware that the economic landscape is changing and the job market is constricting, most are not aware that this also impacts college enrollment.
The impact may not be what you think. National attention to student loan debt and federal student loan forgiveness makes us reevaluate the value of higher education, how we deliver and consume knowledge, and how we pay for it. While this focus has been on traditional students who are financially dependent, increasing numbers of low-income students are attempting college. IWPR finds:
“Low-income students are more likely to be financially independent, to be first generation students, to be students of color, and to be parents. They have greater time constraints, less access to information about enrollment, careers, and financial aid, more unmet need, more health challenges, a higher likelihood of serious material scarcity such as food insecurity and difficulty paying bills, and poorer labor market outcomes following degree attainment.”
The short version is that students with some of the biggest barriers to success are entering college for the first time. Simultaneously, their need for success is also the highest because they have no safety net.
What can educators do to support low-income adult students?
The goal of the IWPR study was to look critically at barriers to success among some of most at-risk students and how to improve the return on investment (ROI) for them and for society. The facts are that college is an expensive, long-term investment and college enrollment continues to increase among non-traditional students. According to the National Center for Education Statistics college enrollment increased more among students 25 and over between 2001 and 2011 than it did for those ages 18-24 for the first time in history. Women and minority students also showed increased rates of enrollment compared to their white male counterparts.
Affordability is traditionally viewed in dollar amounts, which is very one- dimensional. If you are paying your own tuition, perhaps it is measured in cost per credit or in lost wages if you have to take time away from your job. A recent Pew Social Trends Analysis found that student loans may actually keep students from accumulating wealth, so certain paths to education may ultimately hurt students in the long run in terms of financial outcomes.
The IWPR study found that there are several other costs to higher education for low-income students. These students tend to have children and be young, single parents. They have to factor in childcare costs if the school doesn’t provide it and find job options that accommodate education.
Sisyphus in Higher Education
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there is a strong positive correlation between education and earnings and a negative correlation between education and unemployment. There are many grey areas within this otherwise very clear picture.
Many of these students have an epic climb ahead of them; many highly-motivated college students face multiple barriers to success. Not only are they generally young, single parents who are first- generation college students, they are financially- independent and have low income. They are choosing majors with low earning potential.
How can educators support these students?
Make instruction meaningful. Their time is precious and their money is scarce; make it worth every drop. Ensure your curriculum is relevant to the field and provides them with the most current and timely material so when they graduate they are ahead of the competition.
Hire faculty who are compassionate. I get more appreciation from my students for understanding their lives outside of the classroom than I do for mentoring them to publish. I am a mom, too, and my kids also run fevers, so I understand. In order to support students, you have to realize that life goes on outside of the classroom and, increasingly, students are juggling a lot of other responsibilities.
Actively recruit women and minorities for your STEM programs. Recruit both faculty and students because there is a clear disparity in representation, opportunity, and pay. Affirmative action in higher education has been banned in admissions, but affirmative recruitment among women and minority in STEM fields is almost a moral obligation. These fields are in-demand, high-paying opportunities.
Consider hiring your graduates. Who understands your students more than someone who has walked a mile in their shoes? I work for a large online university and we employ qualified graduates and many employees take classes with us. It is a great way for us to validate that our programs meet the needs of students.
Invest in career services. We should be helping new students, especially first- generation degree- seekers, to pick a major because essentially this leads to picking a career. We cannot wait until students are preparing to graduate to help them find a job. Helping them early on to find an appropriate major based on ROI and demand for work, earning potential, and other life considerations (childcare, caring for aging parents, military spouse, etc.) will help set them up for the greatest success.
For most of us educators, these students on the cusp of success are the hardest to serve, and the very reason we teach. They find every success so rewarding, they give every assignment 110%, and they throw everything at their studies because they know what is at stake. We now know what is at stake for them too, so let’s do what we can to get them to the finish line, even if that means restructuring how we provide career counseling and how we recruit and train our faculty. Our society will be better for it when our most tenuous students are raising the next generation of college graduates.
About the Author
Dr. Kristen Obst is the Program Director for the Public Administration and Security Management Programs and Associate Professor of Public Administration at American Public University. She is the proud mother of two little boys and her husband is active duty Army. She is still learning how to juggle parenting, work, and military life.