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Open Access Publications from the University of California

“I don’t think the university knows me.”: Institutional culture and lower-income, first-generation college students.


Recognizing the complex and diverse factors impacting first-generation and lower-income college student outcomes, this study seeks to explore the under-examined role of institutional culture on the experiences of these students. Using data gathered from interviews with 6 lower-income, first-generation college students participating in a TRIO Student Support Program at a large, public 4-year institution, we examine how institutional culture shapes student sense of self at the university. Results indicate that institutional culture manifests in two main ways: 1) through administrative and faculty perceptions and interactions, and 2) through peer perceptions of and interactions with social class. The results of this exploration highlight the complexity of the lower-income, first-generation college student experience and point to an opportunity to shift the discussion of these populations away from the use of a deficit language that focuses on the shortcomings of the student, and moves toward an acknowledgment of the role of the institution in the barriers that students face.

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