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Emotional support from family is essential to outcomes for low-income students, a new study shows.

“Low-income families have a particular resource that they have plenty of and that they invest in their children, and that’s emotional support,” said Josipa Roksa, a professor of sociology and education at the University of Virginia and the lead author on the study. “We shouldn’t underestimate that value and the importance of that resource.”

Roksa and her co-author, Peter Kinsley, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin Madison, surveyed 728 students in their first year at eight different four-year institutions who had applied for financial aid in Wisconsin. Roksa asked each student about the financial and emotional support they received from their families and how engaged they were on campus and collected information about their academic success to determine how the three measures were related. The results were recently published in Research in Higher Education. The abstract is available here.

Students who reported receiving more emotional support from their families were 19 percent more likely to have a grade point average of 3.0 or higher, 19 percent more likely to accumulate at least 24 credits during their first year and 24 percent more likely to finish a second year of college. Financial support from their families was unrelated to all three of those outcomes.

While the importance of emotional support was somewhat expected, Roksa was surprised to learn that it also impacted students’ feelings of inclusion and belonging on campus.

“Family support is related to how much kids study, how they engage with faculty, whether or not they belong,” Roksa said. “Those things that we hold dear in higher education as indications of academic and social engagement and that we usually try to address institutionally are actually related to parental support.”

She believes that low-income families are traditionally overlooked by higher education institutions because they’re perceived as having less to contribute, and that colleges shy away from family engagement in general.

“Higher education institutions have in some ways been resistant in engaging families because of stories about helicopter parents, but those are typically parents from more affluent backgrounds,” Roksa said. “The helicopter parents get a lot of attention, but that’s certainly not all parents, and certainly not the parents of lower-income students.”

She discussed how many colleges still view themselves as acting in loco parentis, or in place of parent, and worry that keeping families engaged may interfere with the integration of students onto their campuses. To better retain and support low-income students, Roksa believes colleges need to look beyond the financial and social standing of families. It is assumed that low-income families commit fewer financial resources to their child’s education, but in reality both affluent and low-income families contribute the same proportion of income to their child's education.

“The general assumption is that because [low-income] families don’t have social/cultural capital, they can’t contribute that much. We’re saying that’s wrong,” said Roksa.

Parent orientations and family visit weekends won’t cut it, Roksa said. Colleges need to engage families throughout the year.

It's important to note that the results are not necessarily generalizable to all students. The sample was restricted to students at colleges and universities in Wisconsin, was made up of students interested in STEM fields and was predominately white. Roksa thinks a more diverse sample might show even greater effects.

“We think that if we had a more diverse sample, the emotional support may even matter more, because students of color face challenges in higher ed like discrimination and harassment and microaggressions,” she said.

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