A recent Gallup-Purdue study  on the relationship between student experiences in college and later job satisfaction concludes that what matters is not “where you go” but “how you do” college. According to the report, students who participate in what the authors term the “winning combination” -- research projects, extracurricular activities, internships and close relationships with faculty -- are more highly engaged in their jobs after college. What the authors fail to acknowledge, however, is the fact that how students “do” college is often governed by pre-existing inequalities that our higher education system does little to ameliorate.
The report glosses over the reality that students from low-income families tend to cluster in less-prestigious public colleges and universities. These institutions often have scarce resources, resulting in high student-faculty ratios and fewer opportunities for students to engage in the ways that appear to correlate with later job satisfaction.
Even at colleges with bountiful resources and a low faculty-student ratio, however, students from higher-income families are more likely to participate in activities that increase college engagement. Such students are far more likely to have contacts at the college and to feel comfortable building relationships with faculty. Lower-income students, on the other hand, often face barriers -- including the need to work -- that make it difficult for them to pursue college experiences that might help them in later life.
Beyond these structural impediments, low-income students face a problem that is more nebulous and difficult to address: cultural mismatch. Often, students from working-class backgrounds interpret the differences between their background and the middle-class norms they encounter at college as signifying that they do not belong. As Paul Tough recently chronicled in a New York Times Magazine article, these students often experience feelings of discomfort, inadequacy and exclusion, which hinders their ability to make meaningful connections with faculty, staff and peers.
Even when working-class and first-generation students partake in extracurricular activities, or meet with faculty or staff, they struggle to achieve the same benefits as their more affluent peers. My research indicates that participating in study groups and extracurricular activities, meeting with staff and socializing with faculty does not improve the GPA and persistence of low-income students, but does result in significant returns in those areas for students from higher-income families.
Why the benefits of these experiences accrue so lopsidedly is difficult to parse: one reason may be that higher-income students are better-able to leverage opportunities that arise when interacting with faculty. A recent study finding that professors were less inclined to respond to emails from female or minority students hints at another partial explanation: biases may undermine the usefulness of interactions with faculty for low-income students.
Regardless of what causes the disparate effects, colleges must acknowledge that a range of impediments prevents low-income college students from participating in and benefiting from meaningful extracurricular activities and relationships. They should assess the range of non-classroom activities available -- such as student government, student-led publications, and intramural sports -- and consider whether these opportunities should be structured differently to maximize accessibility and value for students from less advantaged backgrounds.
The “University Leadership Network” at the University of Texas -- highlighted in the New York Times article -- is an example of a program that arose from such purposeful consideration. The program is designed to both deeply engage low-income students in the kinds of activities that Gallup-Purdue correlates with later job satisfaction, and to simultaneously quell feelings of inadequacy.
While they are not a cure-all for the reproduction of inequality in American higher education, these kinds of wrap-around supports may be necessary for low-income and first generation college students to reap the same benefits from the “winning combination” of college experiences that more advantaged students already enjoy. Paired with larger policy changes to eliminate structural barriers to college access and completion, they offer a promising tool to improve equity.
Lauren Schudde is a research associate at the Community College Research Center at Columbia University's Teachers College.