Special Topic: Issues of SES in Higher Education

Socioeconomic Status and Adjustment to College

Examining how low SES students are experiencing and adjusting to college as compared to students from higher SES backgrounds.

By Autumn L. Backhaus, MS

Previous research has established that individuals from low socioeconomic (SES) backgrounds are less likely to attend college (e.g., ACSFA, 2001; GAO, 2002) and that those who do attend are less likely to graduate then their higher income peers (e.g., King, 2005; Terenzini, et al., 2001). However, few have asked the question: What do we know about how low SES students are experiencing and adjusting to college? As a doctoral candidate in the counseling psychology program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, I set out to answer this question through my dissertation project. Given that low SES college students are less likely to graduate, I wanted to better understand how low SES students are experiencing and adjusting to college as compared to students from higher SES backgrounds.

Previous scholarship (e.g., ACSFA, 2001; GAO, 2003; King, 2005, Terenzini, et al., 2001) has revealed that several factors associated with lower levels of adjustment to college are also related to individuals’ low SES background. For example, increased experiences of stress, decreased social resources, decreased academic resources, lower likelihood of parents with college education, and increased levels of depressive symptoms have all been associated with low income college students as well as lower levels of adaptation to college. In other words, students from low SES backgrounds may be at higher risk for maladjustment to college because of their exposure to factors generally related to lower adjustment to college. It is clear that a complex relationship may be occurring among various risk factors, student SES, and adjustment to college. However, no studies exist that examine the direct relationship between SES and adjustment to college.

My dissertation titled "The College Experience: The Relationships Among Student Socioeconomic Background, Experiences of Classism and Adjustment to College" is designed to specifically examine these complex relationships. I am collecting data via an online survey, and expect to began analysis in November, 2008. The purpose of my study is to examine the various relationships among student SES, student adjustment to college and student experiences of classism. The main goal of my dissertation is to answer these questions and to use the information to propose potential interventions aimed at improving the experiences of low SES college students. My hope is ultimately to address the SES-based graduation rate discrepancies.

Overall, I believe that my dissertation has the potential to inform efforts aimed at improving the inequities that exist related to socioeconomic status in the realm of higher education. The investigation of the experiences and adjustment to college for low SES students is in the best interest of everyone involved including university administrators, state legislators, professors, college counseling administrators, parents, and especially students.