The Grinnell College community needs to ask more questions about how it can support low-income and first-generation students.
The New York Times released its “Most Economically Diverse Top Colleges” list yesterday, and Grinnell ranked second for its commitment to recruiting students in every income bracket.
As a first-generation third-year student, I have no doubt that Grinnell’s Admissions and Financial Aid Departments deserve this high praise, but it is imperative to remember that support for low-income and first-generation college students must exist beyond admissions and financial aid practices. Admissions cannot create further economic diversity once a class has arrived on campus. At that point, our entire institution must provide exceptional support to preserve economic diversity until graduation.
Nationally, 89% of low-income, first-generation college students in the United States do not finish their degree in 6 years, with 25% dropping out after their first year. Grinnell’s retention rate for both first-generation and low-income students is much higher than the national average, and four-year graduation rates for all students remain high (see graph above).
Many factors contribute to this relative success, including the fact that it is much more difficult to fall through the cracks at a liberal arts school of 1,600 students than a public university of 30,000.
But our graduation rate for these students can still be improved. Grinnell must intentionally support low-income and first-generation students during the four—or more—years between accepting an offer of admission and receiving a diploma. We cannot simply measure the experience of economically diverse students at Grinnell via retention rates. We must also ensure that these students have the same quality experience during their time on campus as their non-first-gen, non-Pell-eligible, non-low-income peers.
One problem has already been solved. Before September 2014, Grinnell’s first-gen community met once each year in April during the last weeks of the school year—a time that was far too late to provide support to students who may be struggling to complete their classes. Thankfully, this academic year is beginning with an entirely new approach to support these students.
Programming is starting earlier and occurring more often so that students can form relationships with members of the college community who can help them handle issues earlier in the semester and help them extinguish larger fires later on. This is far more beneficial than hearing retroactively about support systems that might have been critically important if they had been aware of them months, or even semesters, earlier.
College-sponsored programming is only a first step, though. As students, we pride ourselves on our openness, yet we are still extremely incapable of having candid conversations about class outside academic settings. Even then, our discussions revolve around denouncing others’ classism, while evading our own class.
The Grinnell community as a whole needs to ask more questions about how it can support low-income and first-generation students. How can our campus create more allies? How can we create an environment that enables productive discussions about economic diversity?
Only together can we support the incredible economic diversity that our Admissions Department has been able to provide. Our one-on-one conversations need to reflect that commitment to make Grinnell truly inclusive.