Academic Success for Low-Income Students: A Complete Guide for Students, Educators, and Parents
Featuring expert advice from Tygue Luecke, teacher at Oakland International High School
Fast Facts About Low-Income Families and Education Barriers
One of the most stubborn relationships in education research is the link between lower socio-economic background—including low household income—and poorer academic outcomes. Children growing up in low socio-economic status families face more barriers within the U.S. public education system, including underresourced schools, less exposure to reading or pre-reading skills or informational resources, and a complex of factors that lead to higher dropout rates.
This guide provides a comprehensive overview of the challenges lower-income students face at all levels of their education, and solutions for parents, teachers, administrators, and students themselves.
Online Learning: Challenges and Solutions for Low-Income Students
Online learning holds a lot of great opportunity in that it can offer an adaptable learning environment for educators and students. However, there are some huge challenges for lower-income students to access and participate in online learning. Here we explore the challenges and solutions.
Challenge: The Digital Divide
Not all students (especially those without the financial means) can afford the computer or other technology essential for high-quality online learning.
Challenge: Wi-Fi Access
Quality internet or broadband connection isn’t possible for every student.
Challenge: Computer Literacy
Every student has different computer literacy levels and some may need more technical support or it may take them longer to get up to speed on the technology.
Challenge: Building Interpersonal Connections
It can be difficult to establish meaningful connections with teachers and classmates through online platforms. This can be even more challenging for students if they are struggling with the coursework.
How Teachers Can Support Low-Income Students
Low-income students experience unique challenges that are crucial for their teachers to understand. Here we provide insight into those challenges and their solutions.
Challenge: Limited Ability to Buy School Supplies or Class Materials
Every year, teachers give out lists of desired school supplies and/or class materials. Many students or their families don’t have the means to purchase these items, which can create a huge barrier for lower-income students.
Challenge: Language Barriers
Many younger students who were raised speaking another language have a great deal of difficulty keeping up with schoolwork in English, their nonnative language.
Challenge: Fewer Books and Resources at Home
Because of a lack of financial resources, lower-income homes are less likely to have books and other educational resources at home. This can create a gap in literacy between lower and higher-income students. Additionally, lower-income families might not promote reading at home for a variety of reasons, but often, it wasn’t modeled to them or they have to work multiple jobs and don’t have the time.
Challenge: Lack of Stability and Limited Support from Family
The financial situations lower-income students face can often have an effect on their home and family life. In many cases, their parents have to work multiple jobs to make ends meet, so their ability to help with homework can be limited. Additionally, if an older student has younger siblings, they’re often tasked with caring for them while their parents work. With all the financial challenges also comes the general lack of stability, which can lead to food instability, frequent moves, and sometimes homelessness. All of this can make keeping up with schoolwork difficult.
Additionally, college students with limited financial support often work to pay for school and their living expenses. This can make it hard for students to complete homework assignments and can also contribute to exhaustion and inability to stay focused in class.
Challenge: First-Generation College Students
Lower-income college students are often the first in their family—or among the first in their family’s generation—to go to college. Because their parents didn’t have the college experience, there are significant barriers to applying for and completing a college degree. For upper-level high school students, they are less likely to understand both the college application process and financial aid options to pay for it. For first-generation college students, research shows that 33% of those who started postsecondary education didn’t complete their studies (compared to 26% for their continuing-generation peers).
How School Administrators Can Support Low-Income Students
Administrators have the unique ability to help lower-income students from a systems perspective. They serve as both a support to the teachers and to the broader school community. Here are some challenges and solutions that administrators can address.
Challenge: Lack of Access to Extracurriculars
Lower-income schools are less likely to have the funding to offer extracurricular offerings. Usually the first to be cut are art, music, and drama classes. But in many cases, some sports can be eliminated. While these programs may not seem necessary to academics on the surface, they can actually have huge impacts on a student’s success and feelings of belonging at school.
Challenge: Less Access to Higher Education and Lower College Graduation Rates
There are a lot of reasons that higher education is out of reach for lower-income students. One huge reason is the rising cost of tuition. While scholarships and financial aid are available, most students are graduating from college with significant student loan debt.
Another reason higher education feels out of reach for students is that many of their parents didn’t attend college. With that, they don’t have the expectation to be on the path to college, which then makes completing their degree feel daunting and insurmountable.
Challenge: High Teacher Turnover
Teacher turnover is a huge challenge in lower-income schools where studies have shown that teachers are more likely to leave the schools in urban and rural schools than wealthier suburban schools.
Challenges and Solutions for Parents/Guardians of Low-Income Students
There can be many financial challenges for sending your kids to school, even in a public-school setting. Here we discuss some challenges and potential solutions for overcoming them.
Challenge: Affording School Lunch
Affording a nutritious school lunch is a challenge millions of families around the country struggle with. It’s a huge form of stress for parents and their kids.
Challenge: Inability to Help with Homework or Access Tutors
Busy parents/guardians with demanding or multiple jobs often find it difficult to help their kids with homework in the evenings, which can be a consistent form of stress. Additionally, without the financial ability to hire tutors, it can be difficult to help your child supplement their education through tutors in subject areas they’re struggling in.
Challenge: Lack of Understanding about College and Application Process
The college application process is daunting. And then you have to figure out how to pay for it. If you haven’t gone to college yourself, it can take a lot of time and resources to figure out how to get your child to that step.
Challenges and Solutions for College Students
Going to college can be an expensive endeavor, which can make the day to day challenging. Here we explore some solutions to overcome those challenges.
Challenge: Can’t Afford Textbooks
Textbooks can be expensive. While not every class requires an expensive book, some (especially science and math courses) do, and it can be difficult to purchase those.
Challenge: Affording Both Tuition and Living Costs
While tuition costs can be alleviated through your financial aid, there’s still the added burden of living costs. Living on campus can also be cost-prohibitive.
Challenge: Lack of Reliable Transportation
If a student lives off campus, not having reliable transportation to school can be a huge burden. And it can be expensive as the average full-time community college student spends over $1,700 per year on transportation alone.
Challenge: High Levels of Stress
Most students deal with some level of stress related to their schoolwork, but financial stress adds a huge layer of anxiety that can make every day a challenge.
Coming from a low-income household will likely look different from student to student, but there are a few concerns that teachers can look out for.
If a teacher knows their student’s family struggles with income, one overarching issue to keep in mind is social stigma. While it is highly encouraged for teachers and schools to do what they can to help out their low-income students, they should always do so in a way that avoids singling out a student publicly. These students may already struggle socially or emotionally due to factors related to coming from a low-income household, and it is advised that teachers and school staff consider this when offering help to students. With this in mind, there are a few major concerns teachers can consider.
One concern which public schools already work to address to some degree is food insecurity. Students may already be on a free or reduced-cost lunch program to make sure they are nourished during school hours, but most schools do little to address food insecurity at students’ homes after hours.
If a teacher notices that a student repeatedly reports being hungry, or that they show signs of fatigue, lack of focus, or excessive irritability, the student may be facing food insecurity at home. In this case, it is a good idea for the teacher to have a one-on-one chat with the student and ask if they are getting enough to eat at home. If the student says that their food needs aren’t always met, the teacher can help the student and/or their family locate the nearest food bank. However, it is ultimately up to the student and their family to access those services.
Department or team case management of students is also a great opportunity to discuss food insecurity. If a department or team of teachers realizes that they have multiple students facing food insecurity, they should bring this issue up with their administration or leadership team. The school’s administrative team may be able to set up regular visits from food banks for families to pick up food after school.
If there aren’t enough students to make this a viable option though, administrators can also organize robo-calls to families with students on free or reduced-cost lunch programs containing information about local food banks or other resources that may be of benefit to the families. The more support a school can provide its students from a structural or programmatic level, the less teachers will have on their already overfilled plates.
Another major issue to keep in mind for students from low-income families is the amount of responsibilities they may have at home. While many students may have homework, extracurricular activities, and/or chores after school, students from low-income families may also have additional responsibilities beyond those of their peers.
This is the greatest concern for students in middle and high school, though even some students in elementary school may have to complete tasks at home to help their families thrive. For example, students may have to cook for their families or care for younger siblings while their parents work. If they drive, they may be responsible for picking these siblings up from school and taking them to activities or appointments.
Additionally, students from low-income households in which the home language is not English may have to serve as interpreters for their parents or family members. This kind of responsibility may require that the student spend numerous hours at medical or legal appointments or hours at home helping their family members understand important documents. Furthermore, a student of working age may bear heavy financial responsibilities for their families. They may have to work after or even before school hours to help pay for their family’s rent or food costs, or to send money to family members abroad.
Of course, all of these responsibilities can have a significant impact on the amount of time a student has to complete homework. If a teacher knows they have many students from low-income families in their classes, they should keep this in mind as they plan their curriculum, making sure to only assign homework when they know it is necessary to a student’s learning.
A teacher should also consider why they are giving homework. If the main function of the homework is to help the student build strong work habits, then it needn’t be excessively long. If it is more for practicing skills learned in class, the teacher should keep in mind quality over quantity. If, for instance, a student can maintain and develop their skills by completing ten targeted exercises on the unit’s learning objectives, then there is no need to assign thirty.
Should a teacher only have a few students in their class with particularly heavy responsibilities at home, flexibility is key. In this case, it is advised that they discuss home responsibilities during family conferences or regular check-ins with the student. If it is possible, a teacher and student may even make an alternative deadline contract to ensure that the student can complete work when they have time. A student who works long hours two or three days a week may fail to meet deadlines if they are assigned daily homework, but they may be able to complete all their work by weekly deadlines if that is pre-arranged with the teacher. In the end, this kind of flexibility can help the student remain academically engaged and possibly keep them from becoming discouraged by failing grades.
Furthermore, students from low-income households may have limited access to technology. Nowadays, many students have smartphones, laptops, or desktops, but it should not be assumed that all students are capable of completing digital work on a regular basis. Some students may have smartphones but no Internet or computer access at home, and while it is possible for them to complete some work on their phones, it can be extremely difficult. A student who uses a smartphone to type an essay, for example, is much less able to spot spelling, grammar, or formatting errors in their work. They may also be less able to complete projects without help from someone with more access to technology.
Many schools have computer labs for students to access when needed, but it is also important to keep in mind that, due to home or work responsibilities, students may not be able to stay long after school to use those computer labs. For this reason, access to technology should be brought up at all family conferences for a teacher to understand how their expectations for a student aligns with the student’s ability to meet those expectations and their family’s ability to support. Some phone companies offer free or low-cost Internet services with proof of low income, so if a teacher knows a student struggles with access, they may look up if such offers exist in their area and relay their findings to students and families.
Lastly (though this is by no means an exhaustive exploration of all of the issues a student coming from a low-income household may face), students may struggle with transportation to and from school if they come from a low-income household. If the student’s family has no car or if family members have to be at work when the student needs to get to school, and the school district doesn’t offer a bus option (or an affordable one), the student may have to rely on public transportation. Though this may get the student to and from school, it might not do so on time.
In many cities, public transportation tends to be irregular and off schedule. Though smartphone applications exist to give predictions of local bus and train arrival times, they can be faulty. If a student relies on public transportation, it is important for the teacher to remain flexible and understanding. If a large number of students face this issue, it may require that the teacher restructure their lesson plans so that the most vital information won’t be missed if students arrive late in the morning.
Now, if a student’s tardiness is severe and consistent and is causing serious detriment to the student’s learning, a little forgiveness and curricular wiggle room won’t be enough. In this case, it is essential to talk to the student and their family to discuss ways to support the student’s attendance.
For families with parents or guardians who work long or odd hours, the student’s primary caregiver might not even be aware how late a student arrives or with what frequency, and discussing it may lead to a quick solution. Sometimes, it may be the case that the student just needs to wake up earlier so as to avoid relying on the one bus or train that will get them to school on time. In other cases though, there may be issues of safety or logistical complications that aren’t so easy to address. Talking to a family may reveal that schedules need to be rearranged or carpools need to be set up so that their child may be able to safely and regularly arrive at school on time.