Promoting first-generation and low-income college students

3 Apr April

4 Strategies for Working with Low-Income Students

1. Optimize Your Non-Verbal Communication with Students

According to Dr. Payne, low-income students will perform better in your class or show up to your advising appointment if they like you. They decide if they like based upon your non-verbal communication. This is a learned behavior in poverty as students have learned to detect threats from non-verbal communication.

Practice:  Open your posture to students.  Sit in front of or beside a student.  Check your mannerisms and tone.

2. Give "Time Leads"

Low-income students tend to battle external instability in their environment.  Many juggle jobs, children, insecure housing, and inconsistent support.  Faculty and staff can help by communicating expectations in a way students can understand (see above) with plenty of lead time to account for instability.

Practice:  Make sure all assignments are listed in the course syllabus.  Avoid impromptu assignments.

3. Clarify Communication by Reducing Higher-Ed Jargon

Consider the following sentence:  "You need to lift your SAP hold then see the Registrar about your transcripts so we can enroll you before census."  We need to thoughtfully (re)consider the vocabulary our students have and take the time to either explain or clarify content.  Students may not be responding to our communications because they do not understand it.  Be sure to listen to the episode below to hear Dr. Payne's response to "they should be able to understand this, they are in college."

Practice:  Dr. Payne suggests explaining "Another way of saying this is..." when using new vocabulary in the classroom.  Be mindful of higher-ed jargon when making student interventions.

4. Hold the Tension between Toughness and Care

It is not uncommon for low-income students to verbally spar with, attempt to intimidate, make a pass at, or otherwise try to shock faculty of staff.  The motive is simple: students are testing your toughness.  Toughness is currency in poverty.  Hold your ground framed in dedication to your commitment to your work and to the student.  You are more likely to earn the student's respect.

Practice:  Make expectations clear the first week and hold your own against student testing.  Your commitment to each student's success should also be known.  You cannot successfully challenge a student from whom you have not earned respect or built rapport.


Dr. Ruby Payne wrote what many consider to be the authoritative text on working with students in poverty.  Her premise?  Students struggle in college because they have not learned the "hidden rules" that dictate how they should behave, speak, and interact.  Because both students and staff have failed to understand this dilemma, students in poverty struggle to adapt in an environment that was not created for them.

In our first episode, I join Dr. Karen Goos, Assistant Vice Provost for Enrollment Management at the University of Central Missouri, as we engage Dr. Ruby Payne in a conversation about promoting the interests of first-generation and low-income students in college.

About the Host:  Chris Beggs is the current Director of TRIO - Student Support Services at the University of Central Missouri.  Student Support Services is a federal access program that supports first-generation, low-income, and disability-challenged students to degree completion.