Socioeconomic diversity affects academic confidence in low-income students, Northwestern study says

Stavros Agorakis, Reporter

Amanda Walsh said she is continually surprised to hear from seniors who, in their four years at Northwestern, were unaware of the challenges students with a low socioeconomic status face in college.

Walsh, president of the NU Quest Scholars Network, said low-income students face daily challenges to fit in.

“It is much less likely for a student who has low income to be able to participate in activities and to explore the curriculum that will allow them to develop as a student leader as quickly as some other students might be able to do,” the Communication senior said.

A recent study by SESP Prof. Mesmin Destin and graduate student Alexander Browman found messages and attitudes toward socioeconomic diversity affect academic confidence.

Students in the experiment were presented with either “warm” statements, emphasizing the school’s ability to support students with financial need, or “chilly” statements, framing the school as serving wealthier students. Participants were then asked about how they saw themselves in their respective college communities.

Browman said different conditions did not have any significant effect on higher-income students. However, low-income students showed greater levels of academic expectations and identified more strongly as being high achievers when they were presented with views of a school committed toward encouraging socioeconomic diversity.

The idea for the study was sparked by the recent increase in the acknowledgement of barriers low-income students and their families face when it comes to financing a university education, Browman said. However, despite universities’ efforts to admit students from all backgrounds, these students still had difficulty feeling at home, he said.

“The admitted students continue to express that the universities are still more focused on serving students from higher-income families and that they’re not truly committed in helping to support students like them,” he said.

Weinberg freshman Madisen Hursey, a Quest Scholars executive board member, said there is an assumption among faculty, staff and other students that students don’t have an issue with paying for things and achieving certain goals are easy for everyone.

“You have to be a self-advocate if you are a low-income student,” Hursey said.

Despite the administration’s efforts to promote inclusion and diversity awareness, part of the student population still fails to recognize problems related to low-income students, Walsh said.

“Certain segments of the student body are not buying into this message as much as they should,” Walsh said. “The majority of the more privileged population tends to forget that there are marginalized communities that do need support and assistance.”  

Hursey said this is a problem that needs to be dealt with because students need to be aware of the opportunities that can help them with their economic difficulties. She added that outside of Quest Scholars, she was not aware of other campus resources for low-income students prior to coming to NU.

Motivated by an effort to increase inclusion for low-income students, Walsh said she has successfully implemented 12 to 15 university-wide programs in collaboration with other departments during her two years as Quest Scholars’ president.

Walsh said University President Morton Schapiro has decided to take on the 20 by 2020 campaign, a commitment to make 20 percent of the student body low-income by 2020. If it succeeds, the proportion of students with low socioeconomic status will increase significantly from its current 14 percent.

“Northwestern is definitely making an effort to make low-income students feel more comfortable and at home,” Walsh said. “Change is not going to happen overnight.”

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