Leveling the playing field for low-income, first-generation college students

“If you don’t ask the right questions, you don’t get the right answers. A question asked in the right way often points to its own answer. Asking questions is the ABC of diagnosis. Only the inquiring mind solves problems.” – Edward Hodnett

There’s a lot of value in asking “Why?” The 5 Whys is a technique used in the Six Sigma DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control) methodology to explore the cause-and-effect relationships underlying a particular problem.  It doesn’t involve data segmentation, hypothesis testing, regression or other advanced statistical tools.  It does include repeatedly asking the question “Why?”  With this simple question, layers of symptoms can be peeled away to reveal the root cause of a problem.

All too often the issues we see are merely surface complexities created from a root cause problem.  Compounding problems make it even more difficult to isolate and address the issues affecting the outcomes of a child or family or community.  What lessons have we earned?  We must always remain in diligent pursuit of the true issue at hand.  Our investments must always seek to address root causes.  Sometimes those surface problems must be solved along the way.  Throughout the journey we must share our conclusions so we can partner with others to collectively produce both immediate results and long-term systemic changes.

Leveling the Playing Field for Low-Income, First-Generation College Students

The Dell Scholars Program is the foundation’s college persistence and completion program. To ensure low-income, at-risk students have the support they need to earn a bachelor’s degree, it offers students a range of resources, mentoring and financial assistance.  For 10 years, Oscar Sweeten-Lopez, lead program manager for the Dell Scholars Program, has sought to clarify misconceptions about the challenges facing students in the program—because what seems straightforward about the make-up of the student body is actually quite complex.

Every year, Oscar addresses assumptions that the circumstances that lead so many low-income students like those in the Dell Scholars Program to drop out of college are simple.  He repeatedly explains that the root causes of the issues these kids face have little to do with motivation or academic preparation.  In reality, it’s all about what they deal with outside the classroom.

[quote]”One of the very different things about the Dell Scholars Program is recognizing that low-income and first-generation students don’t just struggle with surface things like finances, or knowing which classes to take. They recognize other issues, like maybe a student lives at home and has to care for younger siblings or provide for their own children.” – Former Dell Scholar Angelica Tello[/quote]

Extreme Circumstances

Think about the people at your job.  When a child faces a serious illness, or an accident impacts a family, or a spouse enters substance abuse treatment, your co-worker is affected.  Who wouldn’t be?

Why would a new college student have time for hours of studying if he had to work two jobs to support his family after his father’s job-ending knee injury left the young man as the only family breadwinner?

Why would anyone expect a young, single mother, unable to find appropriate housing and childcare near her college campus, to be able to balance student and parent responsibilities, and to excel at math?

Families who can’t provide support (or who may themselves need support); lack of awareness about the financial aid consequences of low grades; lack of awareness about which financial aid options are affordable over the long term; the constant pull back home to deal with family issues. These are the things that play into low income students’ inability to succeed in school.  Without understanding the circumstances of these students, you could conclude that most aren’t academically prepared.

When we began the Dell Scholars Program, we didn’t make assumptions about the surface problems.  We asked, “Why, if students have a desire and ability to overcome barriers and achieve goals don’t they do it?”

Deeper Insights Create Opportunities

By asking why, we learned more about the root causes we were trying to address. We learned that many Dell Scholars have no idea how to tap additional financial aid or even understand the benefits or shortfalls of one choice over another. We learned about different situational hardships. We learned that simply making a phone call at the right time can help students get the support they need to stay on track.

In response, we added services to our Dell Scholars Program that extended well beyond financial support for each student. We put together a support network comprised of their schools, families, peers and a dedicated Dell Scholars Program team at the foundation.  We added a Scholarship Assistance Program (modeled after traditional Employee Assistance Programs offered by companies to their employees) that offers services to help scholars and their families deal with personal problems.  We built an online community for mentoring and peer interaction.  And we continue to adjust our approach by anticipating and planning for student obstacles before they occur.

To date, and despite the challenges in their lives, the Dell Scholars Program has helped a total of 2,460 at-risk students – 865 of whom have completed college and 1,650 of whom currently working toward graduation. The lesson? Don’t give students a check and set them free. Keep asking why.28