Campus Infrastructure and Teaching to Support Students with Low Income: Implications for Middle Leaders

A Blog Series from the CSU Network 

By Dr. Thad R. Nodine

Nearly half of CSU students are from families with low income. With the costs of living rising in a robust economy, these students face a dilemma each semester: whether to continue to pay the costs of college or stop out and pursue a full-time job. This is the fourth blog in a series focusing on actions that CSU faculty and staff can take to encourage their programs and campuses to address the needs of students with low income and support them in finishing their degree. Previous blogs focused on challenges that students face in staying in school, myths and facts about the value of a CSU degree, and holistic basic needs supports

Many students face challenges in navigating higher education’s administrative processes, program requirements, course and service availability, and learning expectations. First-generation college students and those from families with low income are particularly vulnerable to these and related challenges at the heart of the campus enterprise. Faculty members who work in first-year experience programs are on the front lines in supporting these students early in their college careers. I spoke with two such faculty at San Francisco State University (SF State) to ask them what CSU faculty and staff can do to help students learn about and master these challenges. 

Susanna Jones, Ph.D., is professor of social work and faculty director of the First-Year Student Experience program at SF State. She is also an advisory board member at the Network. Jones said that this year SF State had its highest ever retention rate for first-time first-year students: about 92% from fall to spring semesters. She also said that SF State formalized its first-year experience program in 2017 and centralized its academic advising in 2020. “All first-time freshmen come in and have the same advisor for year one and two,” she said. “Then they receive a warm hand-off to a college specialist in their major within the same centralized advising structure. This practice is student-centered and shows great results.”  

Mary Beth Love, Ph.D., is professor of public health and executive director of the Metro College Success Program at SF State, which serves about a third of the first-time, full-time students at the campus. About 91% of Metro students are from historically underserved populations. During their first two years at SF State, Metro students are supported through learning communities, called academies, that are led by a faculty coordinator. A two-year general education curriculum provides them with a scaffolded curriculum that embeds learning in real-world challenges. Faculty receive substantial training, and experienced upper-class students offer hands-on support at an academic support center. Students at Metro demonstrate higher persistence and graduation rates compared with peers. 

What Do We Know about Students with Low Income?

Jones and Love emphasized that its important for faculty and staff to remember that, compared to other students, first-gen students from low income households are more likely to:

  • be employed and work full-time; 
  • experience significant food and housing insecurity; 
  • face persistent challenges in affording transportation to and from campus; 
  • have very limited resources for books and materials; 
  • be responsible for someone who depends on them for food, income, or other care;
  • have experienced or continue to experience traumatic events, including violence in their neighborhood or household;
  • have little or no personal access to those who’ve graduated from college; and 
  • be reticent about attending office hours, academic counseling, tutoring, or other services important for academic success, unless their professors explicitly encourage or require them to do so.

For these students, every interaction with a faculty or staff member is an opportunity to learn and receive information not only about academic content but also about how to succeed in higher education. It is also a chance to feel welcome and to participate in a collaborative and safe learning environment. 

According to Love, it’s important that faculty, staff, and administrators “help students understand the business of higher education. It’s an incredibly complex bureaucracy. Students have to pick their courses, build toward a degree, understand financial aid, know what a finance hold means and how to get around it, and know where they need to go to get things accomplished. It’s a lot.” 

Jones said that universities also need to change how they operate: “The realities that our low-income students face demand that we examine our practices and remove all barriers possible. It’s an opportunity for us to reimagine what a real student-centered educational experience can be.”

Barriers Students Face 

Listed below are some of the infrastructure barriers that are particularly burdensome for students with low income. 

  • Registration holds can keep students out of class at the start of a term. When the hold is cleared, the students find that they’re weeks behind other students. 
  • High textbook costs can be prohibitive for many students. 
  • Curriculum that’s not culturally relevant can be more difficult for students to engage with. 
  • Excessively strict homework deadlines can mean that students caring for a loved one or those who are experiencing a traumatic event have no recourse but to fail the assignment. 
  • Lack of classes and support services in the evenings and on weekends means that working students have to skip work or skip education. 
  • Lack of coordination between faculty and support services can mean that students don’t know they need help until it’s too late to access preventive services. 

Cristian Reyes, a student at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, participated as a panelist recently for a statewide CSU Network Convening on the 70th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. He said that he works full time, a 40-hour week, while also being a full-time student. “I work two jobs and still I can’t support myself for what it takes to be in college. I come to class and I’m told that I’m supposed to buy a $150 book by next week? That’s tough.” 

Leslie Vernon-Dunnigan, a graduate student at Sacramento State University, also participated on the panel. She said that she appreciates the support services and centers that are available on campus, but “if they’re only open from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., who can access that, if there’s no weekend hours, no evening hours? The academic model needs to acknowledge how many nontraditional students are here. I had to take a day off work to do math tutoring. I had to choose between making money and my education.” 

Love said that faculty need to be aware of these barriers and take steps to address them: “We need to help change the headset for many faculty, making sure that we all understand that retention is our business. This is the moment we’re in.” She added that faculty need training, support systems, and collaborative environments for this kind of work. 

Jones agreed that faculty need training and collaborative spaces to succeed in these new ways. “It’s a new day where faculty have to excel in teaching while also thinking about the student from a holistic perspective. It’s very hard. I didn’t do this work well early on. Faculty do not have to become social workers, but they do need to look beyond their content areas.” 

What Faculty and Staff Can Do

In working directly with students, faculty and student services staff serve crucial roles in adapting their own teaching and services to address the needs of students, in providing students with information about how to navigate higher education, and in referring students to other resources and support services. 

Ask your program and institutional research office: What do we know about students with low income and what are we doing for them? You might also ask your students themselves. For example, what percentage of your students work, and how many hours per week do they work? This can affect when you or your program might hold office hours. Ask what services are the most important for these students, so that these services can be safeguarded during this budget crisis.

Find out from your program or campus what advising, tutoring, and other support services are provided on evenings and weekends. Students need safe spaces to work and to meet with each other on campus. Advocate for the availability of support services and safe spaces during evenings and weekends. 

Consider zero-cost and low-cost options for textbooks. A worldwide movement to make educational resources broadly available to learners at no or low cost is beginning to reach California’s higher education institutions, including the CSU. There is a wide range of open-access books available. According to Jones, “We work closely with our librarians on that.” 

Review your grading policies to ensure flexible options for students. According to Love, the best grading policies empower students to make choices. For example, Love gives students the agency to relax an assignment deadline up to three times during the semester. “If they have to move it more than three times,” she said, “the student needs to talk with me. This provides a framework for success while also saying that I understand that your life isn’t like my life. You have challenges I don’t know about.” 

Examine your own DFW rates and work collaboratively with colleagues to improve DFW rates in your program. Find out from your program or dean what supports are available for faculty working collaboratively to address DFW rates. This may involve considering ways to make your curriculum more culturally relevant or make your grading policies more flexible (see above). According to Jones, “We have to support faculty and provide spaces, venues, and ideas so that faculty are not on their own in figuring out what DFW rates might mean and how to address them.” 

Consider ways to keep students engaged even during registration holds. SF State has relaxed its registration hold policy, so that now any student owing less than $1,000 will not receive a registration hold. Those students owing $1,000 or more, however, cannot register for classes until they pay their fees. If faculty can allow students with registration holds to sit in on classes and work on assignments for the first two or three weeks, then these students are not behind when their hold clears. According to Love, about 40% of Metro Program students have a registration hold at the start of the semester. 

Work proactively with and deliver warm handoffs to tutoring, advising, and other support services. Reach out to and attend meetings with support services that students with low income will likely need, including referrals to basic needs. Understand how your early alert systems work to let tutoring and advising staff know about students who are missing assignments, missing classes, or at risk of failing.