As elite academic institutions continually affirm their unwavering commitment to recruiting diverse student bodies, they must also commit to retaining them. While the day that students find out they were admitted to their dream schools is amongst the happiest in their lives, there is often a daunting reality that these students must face: the top-tier institution they plan to attend is incomparable to anything they have ever experienced. Whether this concerns academic rigor or social norms, this transition is usually not smooth sailing.
As for my own experience at Penn, I was almost immediately stunned by the rampant pre-professionalism when I arrived on campus. As I had just begun to settle in with my classes, I heard everyone in the common area of my dorm building fussing about club applications – how many to apply to, which were considered top tier, and how best to approach the application and interview process. ‘People are applying to clubs?’ I thought to myself, puzzled at the concept.
I was immediately taken aback by this exclusivity — not only of opportunities, but of knowledge of the norm that had been accumulated from siblings, parents, or other mutuals. I soon realized that this was the “hidden curriculum.” This was the manifestation of a lack of priviness, bolstered by certain cultural, financial, and familial conditions. Coming from an economically diverse public school in a modest, Midwestern suburb, I was the only person from my area to come to Penn, and I was entirely unfamiliar with brands like Longchamp and Canada Goose. To say that I experienced some culture shock would be an understatement.
It should come as no surprise that minority, first-generation, and low-income students often struggle with the transition to university. The adjustment to a newfound sense of independence, freedom, and responsibility is difficult for anyone. But, when coupled with the incessant guilt of having abandoned your family, the extreme pressure to succeed, and a gnawing sense of alienation, the experience begins to feel insurmountable. To make matters worse, students from low-income backgrounds likely have never been exposed to the academic rigors of elite universities, and oftentimes must work tirelessly to reap academic success, in addition to picking up a job for financial support. As a first-year student in my first semester, I felt an overwhelming sense of pressure to succeed; I felt the need to prove my competence and to make my family feel that their sacrifice was worth it.
College dropout rates in the U.S. are highest amongst Indigenous, Hispanic, and Black students, and three-quarters of dropouts are first-generation college students. Students identifying with these groups are also disproportionately of low-income status and are less likely to have parents who attended four-year universities. The simple fact of having parents who attended college in the U.S. — who are knowledgeable on the cultural norms, expectations, and best practices for success — can make a world of difference in a student’s experience with higher education. While unconditionally supportive, my parents–who immigrated to the U.S. after completing their bachelor’s degrees in Sudan — have never encountered the FAFSA, and cannot equip me with advice on the most rewarding student organizations, or connections to secure competitive internships.
Indigenous, Hispanic, and Black students who don’t come from low-income backgrounds, however, still demonstrate higher dropout rates than their white counterparts. While of course, ethnicity and socioeconomic status often reinforce each other, this suggests that income is certainly not the sole contributor to these high rates. These high dropout rates are directly tied to social belonging; Minority students drop out because they question whether they belong on a college campus. Lower-income students lack the dominant cultural capital valued by the general campus community and consequently face feelings of alienation and isolation. Campus cultures that are historically tailored for affluent students tend to push other students into the margins, and socioeconomic status only amplifies ubiquitous racial alienation.
To combat this sense of otherness, universities should take it upon themselves to put programs in place that provide a sense of community for first-generation, low-income students. At Penn for example, Penn First Plus is a program dedicated to alleviating the academic and social transition to an elite institution like Penn. Through hosting a pre-orientation program, and providing academic and financial support among other mentorship opportunities, PFP aims to address that very issue of belonging and enable students to feel that Penn is where they should be.
In late August, however, the Penn First Plus program announced that their Course Materials Access Code Initiative, which provided free access codes for various course materials, would be discontinued. The initiative ensured that low-income students retained access to homework platforms, books, and other resources necessary for success in a number of courses — things that wealthier students don’t think twice about. In being deprived of this resource that was once available to them, not only are students burdened with additional stress, but they are afflicted with a sense of insecurity and unease, serving to once again remind them that they do not belong.
While initiatives like the Course Materials Access Code Initiative seem promising, a university’s sincere, unwavering commitment to the support of its underrepresented and marginalized students is paramount. Although changing the culture of these prestigious schools is no small feat, providing opportunities for students to find community amongst themselves is a step in the right direction.
For instance, The Pregame, a student-run summer mentorship program for Black incoming freshmen at Penn, pairs upperclassmen mentors with mentees to provide advice, guidance, and unfiltered insight into what it means to be Black at Penn. Like me, many Black and other marginalized students commit to elite schools not knowing anyone, entirely oblivious to the imminent culture shock that awaits them. The support of fellow students who can empathize with your experience is often the most precious form of sustenance. For me, finding a community of peers who could identify with my experiences, and offer support, validation, and guidance has made all the difference. They have helped me to establish myself, to find rewarding opportunities, and to truly feel like I belong in spaces that can otherwise seem formidable.
To truly honor their commitment to the recruitment and retention of a diverse student body, universities must make strides to uplift and invest in programs like The Pregame, to better ensure the success and longevity of all students. The unfortunate reality is that University-sponsored programs such as Penn First Plus may not always be reliable for students. Other programs — those made by students and for students — do far better to ameliorate the issue of belonging, and should attract further support and investment.