Narratives and Low-Income Millennials

Narratives and Low-Income Millennials

There are multiple narratives for low-income millennials. The college matriculation-to-graduation narrative is not a common one among most working class young people. In fact, low-income students are a rarity on most four-year campuses, especially at the most competitive colleges. A study conducted by UCLA professor Richard Sander points out that their presence on competitive college campuses rivals the representation of minority students in the pre-civil rights era.

According to an article on first generation students by Richard Kahlenberg in The Atlantic, the lowest socioeconomic quarter of the population accounts for just 3 percent of the student body at the most competitive colleges. These students often feel isolated on campus. Kahlenberg notes that African-American and Latino students on elite campuses “often came from prominent families with highly educated parents. One study of selective colleges found that 86 percent of African Americans at elite colleges are middle or upper class.”

Among low-income millennials who actually make it to competitive colleges, many exist in a messy mixture of outward assimilation and inward alienation. They are stuck between two worlds — each full of competing narratives. Do they cling to the identity and defining narratives of their “home culture”? Or do low-income students juggle multiple identities, like layers of an onion, to construct fleeting and inauthentic narratives to navigate the avalanche of new experiences they encounter in college?

Low-income students tip-toe into college with meager finances and outsized family responsibilities.

Sometimes we forget that low-income students do not share the preconceived narrative of college embraced by the typical millennial. For most middle and upper middle class students, there is no doubt about going to college. The major question becomes what to do with the college degree. Low-income students tip-toe into college with meager finances and outsized family responsibilities. How many college students are mediating medical care for confused and clueless family members while studying for an exam? To this day my parents call me when they have a problem because they have no idea how to access services most middle and upper middle class families take for granted. I remember asking my mother, “What will you do if Dad has another heart attack?” She replied, “Call you.”

French-Cuban diarist Anaïs Nin noticed how the narrative of the individual often gets lost in academic analyses of social phenomena. Think “access to higher education” or “achievement gap”. She wrote that “this indifference to the individual, total lack of interest in intimate knowledge of the isolated, unique human being, atrophies human reactions and humanism. Too much social consciousness and not a bit of insight into human beings.”

Individuals have their own unique narratives. But do we listen to them?

Individuals have their own unique narratives. But do we listen to them?

We often fail to ask low-income students to share their individual stories, preferring to conceptualize another prescriptive program to help “them” assimilate to an often unsympathetic elitist educational culture. Empathy is missing from our analyses. “Remarkable things can happen when empathy for others plays a key role” in understanding and solving challenges that low-income millennials face each day throughout their college years. By collecting stories and “providing easy access to the stories and experiences that promote emotional understanding,” write design thinkers at IDEO, we can produce an archive of “empathic artifacts.”

I remember asking my mother, “What will you do if Dad has another heart attack?” She replied, “Call you.”

Imagine what we can learn from the insights deduced from narratives of low-income students themselves brought to life through interviews produced on iPhones, and stories conveyed by music and poetry or visualized through art. One thing we might discover is that traditional financial aid packages do not meet the realtime needs of low-income students.

Financial aid covers tuition and room and board. And a 100 percent scholarship sounds great. But for low-income students, these financial aid packages fail to provide for winter coats, food during school breaks, and unforeseen medical or dental emergencies. Not to mention the economic burdens facing low-income families, which can constrain an individual student’s future. Asking low-income students themselves about the realities of their lives will yield insights — authentic raw material for policies and programs.

Empathy becomes a unifying force to design customized tools that sustain low-income millennials through college. Each student fills a toolkit with resources based on their own evolving narrative. And the toolkit expands as those low-income millennials who manage to graduate from college enter the professional workforce, writing and rewriting authentic narratives throughout their lives.




Karen Collias

My name is Karen Collias and I founded Knowledge Without Borders™ to infuse creativity and innovation into the most salient educational issues affecting global contemporary society. I attribute my enthusiasm to cross the borders of traditional knowledge domains to the multi-disciplinary nature of my education and professional experience. The first in my family to go to college, I have a Ph.D. from Columbia University. My professional experience focuses on interdisciplinary research, teaching, and strategic thinking at a variety of institutions, including Princeton University, the Smithsonian Institution, and the U.S. Department of State. I currently am crossing borders to write about creativity and innovation in education and philanthropy.



  • Anna March 08, at 10:27

    It seems that empathy is a concept that many aspects of society and many people would benefit from incorporating into their perception of different socioeconomic classes, especially in the way policies and programs are designed.


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