​Providing every student a ‘true Washington University experience’​

Socioeconomic advisory group recommends ways to better serve low-income and first-generation students

A new report from a universitywide socioeconomic advisory group provides Washington University in St. Louis a roadmap to better serve its growing number of low-income and first-generation students.

Led by Harvey R. Fields Jr., PhD, assistant director for academic programs at Cornerstone, the Center for Advanced Learning, the committee recommends the university:

  • Help students better prepare and transition to college life.
  • Identify and provide the resources students need to engage fully in academic and campus life.
  • Use data to track progress and outcomes.
  • Build systems that guarantee future student affairs and academic initiatives align with the university’s mission to serve students of all backgrounds.
  • Create a university culture that welcomes and values every student.

“The message needs to be, ‘Every Washington University student belongs here, and we all are committed to their success,’ ” Fields said. “As the percentage of Pell-eligible students increases, there may be an impulse to look for differences and attribute those differences to a student’s background. That would be a mistake.

“We need to emphasize to every student, faculty and staff member that diversity and inclusion matter. We are a premier institution and this is what premier institutions do — provide opportunities for others.”

Visit the Office of the Provost site to read the full report.

Washington University historically has admitted a lower percentage of Pell-eligible students than its peers. That is changing. Eleven percent of this year’s freshmen class is Pell-eligible, an increase of three percent. By 2020, 13 percent of students will be Pell-eligible. Washington University also is on track to raise some $400 million in new scholarship dollars.

But a growing number of low-income students brings growing challenges. For example, can the university provide ample and meaningful work-study experiences? Can it collect and share data that predicts which students may need extra support? Can it better train advisers?

Provost Holden Thorp, PhD, convened the group last spring to answer those questions and identify barriers low-income, first-generation and middle-income students face on campus. The group conducted focus groups, interviewed campus partners, studied reports and peer-reviewed articles on socioeconomic diversity and traveled to universities to study best practices.

“There’s a significantly greater percentage of low-income students, and I am starting to hear from people that this is noticeable is a positive way,” Thorp said. “We have to make sure these students will succeed while they are here, and I think they will.”

Pell-eligible students are academically successful at Washington University, graduating at the same high rate as students who are not Pell-eligible. However, many feel isolated from peers who have the financial resources to participate in a broader range of activities.

Take, for example, the standard lab coat. The official “cost of attendance,” which determines financial aid, does not cover equipment and gear such as lab coats. That leaves students struggling to close the gap on their own.

“Some majors are more expensive than others,” Fields said. “In chemistry, you may have more fees or equipment. Other majors may expect you have certain experiences such as studying abroad. So it is important for us to determine the true cost of college.”

Other co-curricular activities, career-planning trips and campus traditions such as Senior Week also cost money. Though funds often exist to offset costs, Fields said the onus is on the student to “make the ask.”

“What can we do to make sure every student has a true Washington University experience?” Fields said. “Not everyone can do everything, but there are essential things we want every student to be able to experience.

“Can we create a process so students aren’t forced to make the ask? Because every time they have to ask yet another person, ‘Do you have any resources to help me have this experience?’ it makes them reveal themselves. That’s draining. Some would rather go without the opportunity than continually put themselves out there like that.”

Fields is heartened that some departments already are exploring ways to better serve low-income and first-generation students. For instance, the First Year Center is working toward making pre-orientation and summer advising programs more accessible.

Ultimately, though, this work extends beyond discrete offices and departments. Fields said we all play a role in changing campus culture. He recommends all community members participate in robust and ongoing cultural training.

“There are people like me at WashU, people who come from low-income, first-generation backgrounds,” Fields said. “But as an institution — as a culture — we don’t always understand, accept and embrace students from different socioeconomic backgrounds. We may see these issues as problems, as opposed to celebrating the success of these students and what they bring to the table.”

Thorp agreed. The next step, he said, is to share the group’s recommendations with departments and offices, and to determine which ones should be addressed first.

“We’re certainly going to need for everyone to come around a common set of goals, but from what I’ve seen there is a lot of enthusiasm that WashU is taking these steps,” Thorp said.

“It’s really important to understand that the students who are being admitted are just as academically qualified as anyone else. They have every hallmark of success.

“What I like about Harvey’s recommendations is that he is helping us figure out how to serve those students well and to communicate to them, ‘We are excited that you are here, and we know that you will be successful,’ ” Thorp said.