Postsecondary Education for First-Generation and Low-Income Students in the Ivy League: Navigating Policy and Practice
reviewed by Devon T. Lockard & Dominique J. Baker - July 16, 2018
Title: Postsecondary Education for First-Generation and Low-Income Students in the Ivy League: Navigating Policy and Practice
Author(s): Kerry H. Landers
Publisher: Palgrave/MacMillan, New York
ISBN: 3319634550, Pages: 257, Year: 2018
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Engaging with the issue that the U.S. has not seen any significant changes in the percentage of students from low-income families attending highly selective institutions requires a critical focus on student experiences. While there are many structural issues that affect all college students, there is persistent data showing that students from low-income families face additional challenges due to educational structures in the United States. In her book, Dr. Kerry H. Landers offers compelling evidence that the policies, structure, and culture of highly selective institutions do not equitably support the small number of low-income students admitted in successfully navigating higher education once they get to campus.
Through an ethnographic case study of 20 low-income students who were members of the classes of 2003 and 2004 at Dartmouth College, Landers challenges elite institutions to serve this population in a more equitable fashion. According to the author, this call is relevant and needed in a climate where elite institutions have introduced highly publicized no loan initiatives (financial aid awards comprised of grants instead of federal student loans) and need-blind policies (when admissions professionals do not consider a students ability to afford when evaluating the applicant) that begin to address barriers to college access, while generally neglecting to provide those same students with adequate academic support and campus life opportunities.
Landers starts the ethnographic research while the 20 students (referred to in this review as interview participants) are in their final year at Dartmouth, then interviews the students again four years after graduation, and conducts the final interview 12 years after graduation. Adding to the rich, longitudinal interview data from the 20 students, Landers also shares her own personal story, while adding student quotes from other qualitative research focused on low-income students attending elite institutions. She argues that even at elite institutions with low-income access policies, such as no loan or need-blind initiatives, there are still many persistent barriers that these students will face once they are college students.
Chapters Two and Three focus on the context of elite institutions by briefly reviewing the literature on the history of how these institutions began to foster exclusivity through an enduring campus culture. The chapters then outline how low-income students have to overcome significant obstacles in order to succeed in an environment built to cater to wealthier students. Landers argues that elite institutions have made improvements in gender and racial diversity, but still have work to do in order to create an inclusive campus for students of low-income status.
Chapters Four through Eight emphasize the cultural and financial capital differences that low-income students face at elite institutions. Interview participants reported differences that the author described as feeling that they live in two worlds (p. 37) when it comes to family and school, with specific insecurities about style of dress, social behavior, and etiquette. The author highlights that most of the interview participants reported an attempt to pass as at least middle-class. Interview participants also reported many financial barriers that they faced that were not covered by their financial aid awards from Dartmouth, such as the ability to purchase books for class, the ability to purchase luxury goods, opportunities for studying abroad, and being able to support themselves while interning away from Dartmouth. Due to these real and perceived differences, the students reported a feeling of not belonging throughout their time at the institution.
Chapters Nine through Twelve highlight the personal development and growth that the interview participants reported during and after their undergraduate career at Dartmouth. The interview participants reported overcoming challenges which ranged from changing family and home peer dynamics to interactions with faculty and fellow students, all while also completing their rigorous coursework. Many of the interview participants reported that persevering through these challenges enabled them to socialize better with people whose cultural capital [and wealth] was different than their own (p. 160). A majority of the students also reported that their decision to attend Dartmouth was a significant positive factor in their careers (in terms of career choice, prestige of position, and salary) and helped them to reach their long-term life goals.
Chapters Thirteen and Fourteen focus on the ways that college campuses have changed for low-income students since the interview participants attended Dartmouth and provide recommendations for change at elite institutions. Landers reviews the resources that low-income students now have available to them. Of particular note is the ability of students to create their own community of college students who are also low-income through social media. In addition, the author highlights that students having advocates at Dartmouth who are not current students, such as faculty, staff, and alumni, also serves as a critical source of strength. Landers concludes with a challenge to elite institutions to create inclusive campus environments for low-income and first-generation college students through changes in financial support, academic support, and advising.
This book enhances our understanding of the myriad obstacles low-income students face at elite institutions. The author posits that many of these obstacles are rooted in the interview participants low-income status. It would have been valuable for the author to investigate how the two different statuses (low-income and first-generation) combine to create unique experiences for the interview participants. The author correctly notes that Although many first-generation students are low-income, not all fit the category (p. 60). As six of the interview participants had at least one parent who earned a postsecondary degree in the United States, it would have been enlightening to learn more about how college generational status shaped the experiences of these low-income students.
Still, Landers book provides needed evidence about the college and post-college experiences of low-income students. The author advocates for a greater discussion focused on the experiences of first-generation and low-income students who have felt invisible on elite campuses for a long time. Overall, this book is valuable to the literature on student experiences, while challenging key stakeholders in higher education to examine what they are doing to help low-income students succeed.