Strategy 5: Create a culture of support

Understanding the complex and difficult experiences of low-income students and addressing their needs for financial support is critical. However, steps to better support low-income students can’t be taken in isolation. Low-income students continue to trail their higher-income peers in attaining certificates and degrees.38 The systematic, broad-scale implementation of what works to improve low-income student success remains, at best, uneven within and across institutions.39 The current smorgasbord of discrete, disconnected programs at most institutions has manifest as “solution-itis” instead of a culture of support.40 Increased support for low-income students needs to be strategic, integrated, and sustained as part of the broader institutional efforts to improve student retention, completion, and learning outcomes.

A recent report prepared for Lumina Foundation by Indiana University’s Center for Postsecondary Research41 reflects the need for institutional culture to be intentionally shaped to promote student success, inside and outside the classroom. Specifically, the report identified institutional drivers for creating and sustaining a culture of support for today’s students, including the following:

  • Greater consideration of evidence about the quality of student experience, and programs and services that positively contribute to student success.
  • Emphasis on assessment data informing the sustainability and improvement of student success efforts.
  • Greater integration of curriculum and co-curriculum.
  • More interconnected policies and programs, less isolated initiatives.
  • Enhanced relationships between faculty, staff, and student affairs professionals.
  • Clear and comprehensive financial supports.
  • Greater attention to the achievement of student learning outcomes, student development and non-cognitive skills, civic goals, and students’ educational and personal goals.
  • Connect developmental education with supportive educational programs including learning communities and link to academic programs of study.
  • More comprehensive approach to addressing students’ current realities (financial stress, food insecurity, sexual assault, racism).
  • More measurement and benchmarking of student success interventions.
  • Continuous monitoring and improvement systems address inequities in student success.

The Working Students Success Network is an example of postsecondary institutions working to change culture to better support low-income students. While the WSSN initiative has led to essential services being provided to tens of thousands of low-income students, more important is its role as a catalyst for long-term institutional change and capacity building.

Specifically, WSSN colleges made a significant investment in changing institutional culture and developing campus-wide buy-in to promote and integrate the WSSN program into the institutional mission. WSSN was conceived to be more than just another short-term, grant-funded project for community colleges. The intent was to serve as a catalyst to help colleges become more student-focused, engage faculty and the community, and ensure that WSSN services had long-term sustainability. Changes in institutional culture included:

  • Re-engineering program offerings and student service models to better address equity goals and serve low-income students seeking to gain a stronger financial foothold for themselves and their families.
  • Redefining faculty and staff roles to focus more holistically on students and getting buy-in from faculty and staff to take on these roles.
  • Focusing on high-touch intake processes to ensure that students see WSSN services as a normal part of their college-going experience and as central to their success.

The commitment to cultural changes was crucial to building sustainability for the WSSN model, and for the success of students served through the program. Institutional culture must be shaped to promote student success, inside and outside the classroom. An integrated approach ensures collaboration among stakeholders, and supports the adoption of what works at scale for low-income students.