I Was a Low-Income College Student. Classes Weren’t the Hard Part from the September 10th New York Times, is an excellent piece by Anthony Abraham Jack, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, on his experience as a low-income student at our neighbor: Amherst College. The article articulates several, perhaps less commonly considered, challenges that students with lower incomes face in the college environment. What can we do within the structure of our classrooms to mitigate some of these challenges? A few thoughts from our experiences here at UMass
Moving to free and open textbooks and homework systems. In physics 131 and 132, I use a custom free-and-open educational resources. These textbooks reduce the cost down to $35 for access to the online homework system. This cost is quite low compared to other courses on campus. However, even so, I still usually have a handful of students who come to me asking for an extension on the first homework because they need to wait for a paycheck to afford this. Fortunately, I can make an arrangement with the textbook company who manages the homework system to get a temporary access.
A bias still exists, however. I can only help those students who come forward and ask for it. I have also experienced students who, at the end of the semester (when students start to calculate their grades), come forward and tell me. I, of course, make allowances, but my range of options reduces as the semester progresses.
While I am currently working to develop a system that will be completely free-to-students, until that project is finished, I will make a note in my syllabus explicitly inviting students to see me if they are having financial challenges that prevent them from accessing this required resource.
Another important consideration is the fact that students with lower incomes, almost uniformly, must work. These additional scheduling constraints, also an issue for students with familial obligations, can make attending traditional office hours a challenge. These issues are why we offer a TA-staffed consultation room with a wide variety of hours, including later in the evening. Since moving from individually selected office hours to this more centralized system, we have observed an increase in office hour usage.