Teaching Disadvantaged Students to Advocate for their Needs

It is difficult to ask for something you do not know is possible. The recent New York Times article on the struggles of poorer students to thrive at university brings up a lot of important issues, but what I want to discuss is how the expectation that students will advocate for their own needs often fails to consider the differing levels of knowledge of higher education and experiences with administration that students bring with them.

One of the young women the article follows received less grant money than she should have because the financial aid office assumed that her family income had to be higher than was reported because of how much they were paying in rent. She only learned about this assumption after a reporter looked at her file. Her school’s defense, however, was that she should have said something:

“The method that was used in her case was very standard methodology,” said J. Lynn Zimmerman, the senior vice provost who oversees financial aid. “I think that what’s unusual is that she really didn’t advocate for herself or ask for any kind of review. If she or her mother would have provided any additional information it would have triggered a conversation.”

Wealthy Students Know the System Works for Them

The problem here is not only that she did not know that there was a specific calculation hurting her. Students from more privileged backgrounds are used to more flexible and responsive systems and administrators; they are likelier to go into the financial aid office and ask questions about how their aid package was determined even without any idea that a specific error had been made. They know that they can ask for more, and ask for explanations. If you are used to administrations that mostly enforce inflexible rules, you will not have this same sense.

It certainly never occurred to me to go to the financial aid office and ask why I was offered so little, even though people I knew from far more comfortable backgrounds were given more. Instead, I scraped by, in part by learning how to sneak food from campus events home in Tupperware. (It helped that I was at an in-state school.)

Beyond Financial Aid

Though grants and loans may be the most important things that students from lower incomes miss out on because of not knowing what they can ask for and when it is worth talking to faculty or staff. Students from high-end schools where small classes and a general sense of collegiality allow for close connections between teachers and students take for granted that they can drop in during their instructors’ office hours to chat about the course material, or even just about academic life in general. Students without this kind of background may assume that office hours are intended to provide extra help for struggling students, or they may simply be intimidated by the idea of talking to a professor one-to-one.

Students who are used to the system working for them are also more likely to ask for exceptions—if they need a specific course to graduate, or to be admitted to a specific program and that class is listed as full, for example. If they talk to the academic advising office and get an unhelpful answer, they are more likely to ask someone else.

So What Can We Do?

As teachers in higher education, we need to make it clear to students that the system is supposed to serve them, not by giving them good grades as a gift, but by creating a context in which they can learn as much as possible which, if they do their parts, will be reflected in their grades. It is not unusual to include a list of campus resources in a syllabus, but we also need to tell students how and when to use them. For example, instead of simply listing the financial aid office, we can suggest that students talk to the staff there if they do not have enough money to fund their studies and ask about how exactly their packages have been calculated.

When it comes to office hours, I usually go a step further and instead of just telling students why they might come talk to me, I require them to visit at least once during the term. One visit can break the barrier of fear. In the future, especially if I find myself teaching a first-year class in which this would be appropriate, I might also require them to visit campus offices, ask questions, and report back.

How do you help students from disadvantaged backgrounds learn to advocate for themselves on campus?

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