Photo: Tony Rinaldo
Ph.D. candidate Becca Bassett, was working to support low-income, first-generation college students with weekly check-in calls, individualized academic assistance, and mental health resources through a program she’d founded with the Sunflower County Freedom Project in Mississippi when she realized there were larger, systemic issues standing in the way of her students’ success.
“I was frustrated and angry,” she says. “These amazing students, who had overcome tremendous challenges and obstacles and had important ideas about how they wanted to change the world, were being routinely under supported and undervalued by the universities they attended. So I said, well, I want to change that.”
Now, as a graduate student, Bassett is spending her time conducting extensive qualitative and ethnographic studies to better understand why higher education is failing so many low-income, first-generation students and looking for ways universities can shift their practices and cultures to provide more equitable outcomes. Currently also a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Bassett is being recognized for her work: she recently received the Cross Award from the Association of American Colleges and Universities for her commitment to research and teaching that advances equity.
Here, Bassett talks through her research, why graduation gaps at colleges and universities continue to grow, and the powerful difference consistent relationships on campus can make for all students.
You’ve worked extensively in the college support space. What were some of the compelling problems you wanted to investigate when you began your Ph.D.?
For as long as we’ve had graduation gaps between low-income, first-generation (LIFG) students and high-income, continuing generation students, we’ve also had support programs for LIFG students. So why, despite decades of institutional and federal intervention, are the graduation gaps not only stubborn but growing?
And were you able to answer that question?
I found that while these programs and the staff who run them were able to effectively direct critical resources to a small proportion of students within the university, these programs, and their staff, existed on the periphery of the power structure of the university. That limited their ability to enact the kind of structural solutions that would have supported the success of not just the students in their program, but all low-income, first-generation students.
What about how students used those programs?
I found student use of program supports was uneven and depended on their help-seeking mindsets and the quality of the relationships they formed with staff.
What did your research indicate was the way forward, then?
Obviously, universities can’t just accept students who have a certain help-seeking mindset. But they can proactively improve the quality of relationships between students, staff, and faculty at the institution. That got me thinking — if programs aren’t an adequate intervention because they don’t serve enough students and because they are unable to catalyze institutional change, what would an institutional commitment to low-income, first-generation students look like? And how would it be sustained in a field that is so prestige-driven and stratified?
Can you say more about those pressures that universities face and how they impact low-income, first-generation students in particular?
Universities are not rewarded for having high graduation rates for low-income, first-generation students. It does not increase their institutional prestige in our highly status-driven field. This work is also resource intensive. For a small, private university with a business model that is almost entirely tuition-dependent, that is facing dropping enrollments, students who are struggling to pay tuition, and stagnant federal and state support, how do you maintain financial solvency and primarily serve low-income students? State university systems also face political pressures to deliver education efficiently. And the extra support, time, and intensive resources LIFG students need may be viewed as inefficient by taxpayers and policymakers.
In your dissertation, you look at how universities manage to successfully support this group of students amid these competing pressures.
I did a year of intensive ethnographic fieldwork in two universities. Both are Hispanic-serving institutions in the same western state and they both achieve unusually high graduation rates for low-income, first-generation students — [roughly] 25 percentage points above the national average. I found that the faculty, staff, and administration at these universities culturally and structurally center low-income, first-generation students, validate their needs and contributions to the campus, and intentionally direct tangible and intangible resources towards these students.
What kinds of resources?
Intangible resources can be encouragement, validation, and respect. Tangible resources can include financial assistance, extra time on assignments, one-on-one time with counselors, individualized academic support, and food assistance. In both cases, these resources usually emerge from relationships — particularly, consistent interactions with a staff or faculty member who is committed to helping a student achieve their goals and sees that student as a multifaceted human being. Over time, consistent interactions with that type of person generate a supportive and trusting relationship that channels resources to students and serves as a key mediator between the student and this opaque, power-laden environment.
Like a mentorship program?
Mentorship programs are important, but I don’t think we need a program to have consistent, supportive interactions. I think we can embed those in first-year courses by having smaller courses or having overlap between who teaches those courses and is interested in serving as an adviser for first year students. We can try to encourage faculty to adopt practices that prioritize and facilitate building relationships in their classrooms — so, for example, having a face-to-face meeting with everyone in their classroom before week five or to make office hours opt-out rather than opt-in.
How else can faculty and administrators better support students?
Reduce the stakes of asking for help. Let students know that you do offer help — like extensions or giving additional feedback on a paper if they don’t understand something. I think we can change the way we have interactions in the classroom. We can also think about orientation as an ongoing series of interactions, rather than a two-day event, especially as students encounter critical parts of the semester, like connecting students to tutoring services offered before midterms.
It seems like that would be helpful to all students.
We have culturally decided that college is a time when you must navigate the system for yourself, and that this is a key step in your process of becoming an independent adult. But in fact, the students who are succeeding are highly resourced, supported, and guided by their families. As a result, the students who struggle internalize this idea that “it must be me. If this system is set up so that those of us who have the effort and want this the most will succeed, I must not be smart enough, driven enough, and this must not be the right place for me.”
I think these kinds of systemic changes can send an important message that counteracts our larger ideology of meritocracy, which is this falsehood that what separates those who succeed and those who don’t is initiative, ability, and effort. We know that isn’t true. So, let’s be honest — everyone needs help and only some students are getting it.