How to Help Low-Income Students Succeed in College


Significant issues regarding colleges and universities today revolve around wealthy students performing better than low-income and other underserved students. In a country that prizes equality for everyone, this is a huge problem – after all, if anyone is supposed to be able to be successful with an education, why would poorer students regularly do worse than rich ones?

This achievement gap between traditional and nontraditional students, especially the gap between the rich and the poor, is worrying – and it’s growing wider. Some have attributed this to the fact that low-income students often have tight schedules due to having to work, or don’t have the academic preparation to help them achieve success. Because of this persisting income-based achievement gap, higher education is failing in its mission to be an engine of opportunity that aids low-income students in upward social mobility.

Luckily, experts are working on ways to overcome this achievement gap, including the ones behind Progress for Maine – and the most promising ones involve using technology.

One Proposed Solution: For-Profit Colleges

First, it’s important to understand what other potential solutions are being tossed around and why they don’t necessarily work. One commonly proposed solution is using for-profit colleges to close the achievement gap between richer and poorer students.

Today’s for-profit institutions like the University of Phoenix and DeVry University have claimed success in catering to low-income and other underrepresented students by adapting the curriculum to their schedules, levels of preparation, and desired knowledge. They do this by offering online courses to promote scheduling and location flexibility, as well as more vocational degree programs like nursing technician licenses. By promoting an image of accessibility to higher education, for-profit schools attract low-income, minority, and adult working students to their ranks.

In other words, the for-profit market caters to students who may not feel like they fit in traditional not-for-profit institutions like their local state college. As a result, these institutions enroll a large number of students from underserved communities and supposedly provide them access to bachelor’s degrees.

Despite this focus on underserved populations, however, these institutions often fail to provide enough academic support to address students’ needs. Often due to low-quality academic support in for-profit degree programs, many students are not given access to the tools necessary to truly participate in their degree programs. Instead, most of them do not finish. In fact, among first-time, full time, bachelor’s degree-seeking students who enroll at for-profit institutions, only 22% earn degrees from those institutions within six years.

The lack of academic support and preparation given to students keeps for-profit institutions from being a truly effective method of closing the achievement gap. This means that instructors are turning to other ways to close the gap.

A Better Solution: Technology

So far, it seems that modern technology is one of the best tools out there to help low-income students perform to the best of their abilities and be successful in college. For instance, just as in for-profit institutions, online formats for classes in nonprofit colleges help address nontraditional students’ scheduling and flexibility needs. This is largely why 28% of college students now take at least one online course.

Online coursework makes it easier for busy students with jobs to schedule their courses, which can help them finish up their degrees more quickly – after all, they won’t have to wait for their college to host night classes to complete their degree requirements, since they can do it all online on their own schedule. A current issue with the online format, however, is that many faculty members try to adapt the current curriculum and teaching methods to the new format. Oftentimes, this does not translate well to online courses, lowering the quality of the coursework, and does not aid in helping students succeed.

Luckily, there are ways to counteract this problem to make sure lower-income students have a more equal chance at being successful. In order to properly use technology to address nontraditional student needs, instructors just need to change their mindsets towards online teaching styles. For instance, if they seek out guidance from educators with proven success in online education – like the founders of Khan Academy or Carnegie Mellon – to create their online courses, they can make sure to include the teaching styles that will better help students on the other side of the screen. They should also take a look at popular videos online and influencer marketing and take note of the strategies there, like shorter video length and engaging visuals.

Although there isn’t one quick solution to helping low-income students succeed in college, the rising popularity of online courses can certainly help.

What are some other ways instructors can help their nontraditional students achieve their potential?