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Beyond the Income-Achievement Gap: An Examination of the Conditions that Promote High-Achievement of Low Socioeconomic Status Students in College

  • Author(s): Olson, Avery B.
  • Advisor(s): Pizzolato, Jane E
  • et al.

The benefits of a college degree are greater than ever, yet low-socioeconomic status (SES) students continue to have lower college enrollment and completion rates than their more affluent counterparts. Existing research has focused attention on the major barriers facing low-income and low-socioeconomic status students. Most studies associate the college enrollment and completion disparities as related to a lack of academic preparation, financial barriers, and a lack of social and cultural capital that would otherwise enable students to successfully navigate the college environment. Only a fraction of research has focused on the successes of lower-SES students throughout their educational trajectories, despite the fact that there are nearly a million high-achieving, low-SES students in the United States.

Using an adapted version of critical resilience theory and Harper’s (2010; 2012) Anti-Deficit Achievement Framework, this study used an asset-based approach in examining the educational pathways and experiences of high-achieving students from low-SES backgrounds. This study examined what personal, familial, and institutional factors contributed to the educational success of high-achieving, low-SES students, and how these factors facilitated college opportunities. Employing both a phenomenological and narrative qualitative method, the main sources of data collection were background demographic information surveys, one-on-one interviews with 21 participants, and three focus groups with 12 participants. The sample of participants included high-achieving, low-SES college seniors at UCLA.

Three main findings were derived from this research: (1) three unique familial encouragement types were identified as significant in aspirations, motivation, and the development of participants’ strong sense of self; (2) academic preparation and experiences with the college curriculum provided unique challenges that explicitly demonstrated the ways that personal, familial, and institutional factors contributed to the development of resilience that enabled participants to successfully navigate these challenges; and (3) these experiences appeared to be instrumental in providing the means of developing coping strategies that enabled them to avoid negative outcomes. The findings suggest opportunities in K-12 and college administration to identify innovative practices and policies that ensure greater postsecondary access and success amongst low-SES students—including how families are involved, and strategies for addressing prohibitive college costs and types of aid disbursed to students.

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