The Pell Partnership, our latest report, has been noted for “debunk[ing] the notion that Pell grants are somehow being wasted.” And it’s true. Quite a few colleges and universities across the country are serving low-income students well — that is, they are graduating them at the same rates as (or in some cases, even better than) their peers from high-income families.

We spoke with nearly a dozen of these schools to learn more about how they recruit, support (academically and financially), and otherwise ensure low-income students a fair chance at a postsecondary degree. We featured two schools in the report — Western Oregon University and Smith College — but here’s a few of the common themes we heard in other conversations:

Help students build their support networks. Students who participate in the Educational Opportunity Program (a program available at many colleges to support low-income and first-generation students) often come to campus underprepared. At California State University–Stanislaus, nearly three-quarters of EOP students are required to take remedial English or math. Four years ago, to boost success in these courses and long-term retention, officials at Stanislaus decided to try a new approach: Once students finish their remedial English courses, they are enrolled in their first credit-bearing English course — with the same professor and the same classmates. “It becomes a learning community for this group of students … to stay with each other for the whole year,” said Martyn Gunn, associate vice president for student affairs. This year, officials are looking to expand the same concept to math.

Give second chances. Adapting to college life is tough, particularly for low-income students who often are the first in their family to go to college. That’s, in part, why Caldwell University lets students start over. For gateway courses with high fail or withdrawal rates among freshmen (think: math, sciences, or courses with heavy writing), students who fail in the fall semester have the opportunity to re-take the course during the three-week break in January — at no additional cost. While courses are intensive (a semester’s worth of material crammed into three weeks), students have some familiarity — having just taken the course — and classes are about half the size. Of students who participate, more than 80 percent stay enrolled through their sophomore year.

Encourage students to ask for help. For many low-income students and first-generation students, there’s a stigma attached to asking for help. It shows they don’t know, they’re not sure, and perhaps they don’t belong. “A big issue is overcoming that stigma,” says James Baldwin, a first-generation graduate and now vice president of enrollment management at University of Pittsburgh–Bradford. And it’s an important one to overcome because it often means students who are eligible for financial aid or other resources may opt to go without. To make sure low-income and first-generation students know how to access important financial resources and get the help (in any form) that they need, Baldwin communicates through open houses, freshmen seminars, email reminders, table tents in the cafeteria, announcements in the residence halls, and social media. (“The only thing we haven’t done is sky writing,” he joked.) They also pass a list of students with balances to the financial aid office, where representatives cross-check their qualifications and backgrounds with any donor scholarships that might fit their profiles.

Create an open, inviting learning atmosphere. One of the highest demand support services on the University of California–Riverside campus is one led by students themselves: The Supplemental Instruction Program. This program accepts any students from classes with high drop, fail, or withdrawal rates (e.g., calculus, organic chemistry, and economics, to name a few), and it allows them to sign up for a peer-led course that supplements what students are learning in large lecture halls. “It’s a non-threatening environment,” said Steve Brint, vice provost for undergraduate education, making it easier for students to ask questions when they’re unsure. Peer educators are upperclassmen who have received a high grade in the course, taken it again, and are trained to lead students through discussions.

Alleviate anxiety around money. Each term, the dean of students at Knox College reaches out to any students who have not yet finished paying the previous term’s tuition bill. They talk about credits, course load, work obligations, and forecast the next year or two — all in hopes of finding a solution, including financial aid or an easier pay-back option, that can help ease any financial burden. Because low-income students who are carrying a balance can easily feel overwhelmed by mounting costs, the hope is that these conversations can alleviate any pressure before the next bill arrives. “It gives students the opportunity to talk about money with not just the money people,” said Laura Behling, vice president for academic affairs.

Photo credit: Western Oregon University

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