Learning from Success: How Original Research on Academic Resilience Informs what College Faculty Can do to Increase the Retention of Low Socioeconomic Status Students

Erik E. Morales


Utilizing resilience theory and original research conducted on fifty academically resilient low socioeconomic status students of color, this article presents specific objectives and values institutions of higher learning can adopt and emphasize to increase the retention and graduation of their most statistically at-risk students. Major findings and suggestions include: constantly build students’ self-efficacy; help students realistically appraise their own strengths and weaknesses; encourage help seeking tendencies; and provide clear linkages between academic success and future economic security.

According to a recent report from National Center for Education Statistics, by the year 2022, White and Asian students will increase their attendance on college campuses by 7%, whereas the rate will be 26% for African American students and 27% for Hispanics, two groups with disproportionately higher poverty rates (Hussar & Bailey, 2014). These students will continue to make up larger and larger percentages of students on college campuses nationwide. While these can be viewed as positive and exciting forecasts, they bring with them new sets of challenges.

Given the changing racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic demographics of the United States, as well as shifts in expectations as to who seeks a college degree, a majority of institutions of higher education are struggling with one essential question: How do we retain and graduate greater numbers of ethnic minorities and students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds? The consequences of not meeting this challenge can be viewed on both a macro and micro level.  From a societal perspective, unemployment rates, reliance on public social service agencies, incarceration rates, and America’s place in the global hierarchy are all either directly or indirectly linked with the successful education of working class and poor students, many of whom are ethnic minorities. On a more local level, as more and more first generation college students enter colleges across the country (Jehangir, 2010), institutions are increasingly recognizing the value of effectively meeting their needs (Bastedo & Gumport, 2003), for if they don’t, current and future enrollment targets may not be met.  Furthermore, those with the most influence over the potential success of these students, college faculty, already acknowledge the need for, and desire, effective ways of meeting their needs (Erisman & Looney 2007).

The difficulties colleges face in effectively teaching and graduating lower socioeconomic status students, often from ethnic minority backgrounds, continues to be a pressing issue. However, the issue is not a new one. Back in the early 1970s K. Patricia Cross (1971) famously talked specifically of the inability of colleges to adjust to the needs of the changing student bodies of the time. Since then, the numbers of poorer and first generation college students have only increased. Furthermore, many noted researchers in the field still acknowledge that not enough is known about how low socioeconomic college students experience and manage college life (Pascarella, Pierson, Wolniak, & Terenzini, 2004;  Pike & Kuh, 2005).

The rest of this paper will further define and explore the parameters of these issues and then utilize original research on academically resilient students to provide specific approaches faculty can adopt to increase the degree of resilience and persistence among first generation college students. These suggestions will be categorized and explained, then justified through related research literature.

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.5430/ijhe.v3n3p92


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