Three Ways to Keep More Low-Income and First-Generation Students in College

By: Tina Fernandez

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As universities open across the nation – some for in-person classes and others for virtual or hybrid learning – I worry about how our low-income, first-generation, and underrepresented college students will achieve success during this unprecedented school year. College success was challenging for these groups of students even before the COVID-19 pandemic, but now barriers have multiplied and resources have dwindled. These challenges directly impact the majority of my organization’s beneficiaries, Achieve Atlanta Scholars—graduates of Atlanta Public Schools who are now enrolled in college. Among our nearly 3,000 scholars: 

  • 95% are Black or Latinx
  • 97% are eligible for Pell Grants
  • 51% are first-generation college students

When COVID-19 hit the United States, the virus severely impacted the higher education sector. During the last few months, research has emerged showing that we cannot continue to operate higher education institutions or support our most vulnerable students in the same ways we have in the past and expect successful outcomes. This pandemic has pulled back the curtain on the inequities we knew existed in higher education and we now face a fall semester that will require a shift in the way colleges and students operate. 

While it is clear that COVID-19 will continue to have an outsized negative impact on low-income, first-generation and underrepresented students, I want to share three interventions that schools and direct service organizations can deploy to help them achieve college success despite the impacts of the pandemic.

Provide Additional Financial Support
We know that financial support cannot be the only type of support we provide for low-income and students of color, but removing financial barriers often gets students in the door of higher education. A recent study revealed that low-income and students of color are not paying deposits or submitting the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) at the same rates as in previous years. We must encourage incoming and current college students to complete the FAFSA and support for families that need help to fill out these complicated forms. 

Once students get to college, they often face unexpected transportation, housing, and health needs that negatively affect their ability to stay in school. To address this for our Scholars, Achieve Atlanta partnered with Scholarship America to develop a pilot emergency grant program for a subset of Scholars who were eligible to receive grants of up to $500 each. Launched in January 2020, the program awarded more than $10,000 in emergency grants prior to COVID-19. When COVID-19 struck and campuses closed across the country, most students were forced back home, and many lost their jobs. Achieve Atlanta immediately responded by making emergency funds available to all Scholars enrolled in spring 2020. The grants helped students facing financial emergencies related to moving off campus and finding alternative housing, traveling home, paying for medical expenses, and securing technology (such as a laptop or Wi-Fi access) to transition to online coursework. Achieve Atlanta awarded more than $190,000, allowing students to focus less on finances and more on the changing demands of remote learning.

Offer Mental Health Support Services
When students begin classes this fall, they will do so under extremely uncertain conditions. For our low-income students who were already managing multiple stressors, we know that the pandemic has heightened those stressors. A survey of college presidents found that the majority of presidents are most concerned about the mental health of students – low-income students in particular.

For this reason, earlier this year, Achieve Atlanta partnered with a mental health services company to provide free counseling sessions for our Scholars and their immediate family members. We will continue to offer this service to Scholars during the 2020-2021 school year as our students work through conflicts, financial uncertainty, academic challenges, health concerns, and other mental health stressors.

Take A More Creative and Supportive Approach to Online and Hybrid Learning
I have been inspired by the creative approaches several colleges are taking to safely offer students a quality “college experience” on their campuses. While online learning is necessary in many instances, I encourage colleges to think differently about how we teach and engage with our students. Thousands of low-income students are deferring or stopping their college plans because of finances and because they fear they will not have the college campus experience that they had hoped for. While we may not be able to offer a traditional college experience, we can find ways to make online learning more interactive and coordinate opportunities for students to gain some of the life skills that college provides.

To all those making decisions about how young people are cared for and educated, I urge you to pull out all the stops. Be creative. Model resiliency. Help our most vulnerable students achieve the college success that they have dreamed about for so long.

At Achieve Atlanta – and at so many educational institutions and organizations – the pandemic has changed the way we work, but our why remains the same. Our organization still envisions a city where race and income no longer predict postsecondary success and upward mobility. No matter what your specific college education-related goal, we must all collaborate to solve the complex problems that this pandemic has put before us and we must believe that success is still very possible for our most vulnerable students.

About Tina Fernandez
Tina Fernandez is the founding executive director of Achieve Atlanta, a nonprofit organization with a mission of helping Atlanta Public Schools students access, afford, and earn postsecondary credentials.Tina’s prior work includes serving as a Clinical Professor at the University of Texas School of Law. She currently serves on the Teach For America Atlanta regional board, and the national boards of TNTP, Bellwether, Latinos for Education, and the National College Access Network. Tina is a Pahara-Aspen Education Fellow and a moderator for the Aspen Global Leadership Network.