The unseen reason why lower-income students drop out at a higher rate than their peers

Differences in financial resources, high school rigor, and family experience with college are well-documented hurdles for working-class students, but there’s also “an unseen reason” these students drop out at higher rates than their peers. Specifically, low-income and first-generation students often experience a cultural disconnect on campus, having learned to value interdependence and finding themselves unprepared for a college environment that emphasizes independence, Nicole Stephens and Sarah Townsend write in Politico.

Stephens and Townsend, business school professors at Northwestern University and University of Southern California, respectively, say years of research have revealed a feeling among lower-income students that higher education is “not set up for students ‘like them’” and that they are “guests in someone else’s house.”

Differing cultural norms

The authors say that students with fewer resources often are socialized to help people in their community, follow the rules, and not expect too much; by contrast, students with a robust economic safety net are socialized to assert their independence, take risks, and expect more from life. When schools overlook the value of interdependence and push lower-income students to “pave [their] own path,” they can create a self-fulfilling prophecy that increases working-class students’ stress, reduces their feelings of belonging, and undermines their academic performance.

‘I must not be smart enough’

Students unaccustomed to the nuances of independence also may be unnecessarily hard on themselves—for instance, jumping to the conclusion that they “just don’t have what it takes” when they’re struggling or thinking they shouldn’t seek out help.

The authors say that research conducted in conjunction with a Stanford University scientist has shown the power of teaching lower-income and first-generation students that “their setbacks in college are not because of their individual deficiencies, but instead due to contextual factors such as differences in preparation.” Orientation sessions fostering such awareness can encourage such students to seek help and improve their grades.

Related: Georgetown course helps first-gen students master ‘the hidden curriculum’ >

Messages of interdependence, group projects may help even the playing field

Stephens and Townsend recommend that colleges work to narrow the social class opportunity gap by promoting group collaboration on class projects, stewarding peer support networks, and connecting students with advisors. They also advise rebranding school marketing materials to emphasize community and expressly promote both independent and interdependent learning. Given that lower-income students often outperform socioeconomically advantaged peers in group project work, such cultural shifts may help even the playing field for all students, the researchers say.


Georgetown is committed to ensuring that all students have the resources and support they need to succeed. The Georgetown Scholarship Program provides programmatic support to more than 650 undergraduates, and the 50-year-old Community Scholars Program prepares its multicultural cohort of first-generation college students for success with a five-week academic summer program and ongoing support. The Regents Science Scholars Program further expands opportunities for students from traditionally underserved communities pursuing studies in the sciences.

Topics in this story

Next Up

Who benefits when colleges cut their sticker prices?

More private colleges are slashing their tuition prices. But do the changes really advance affordability?