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Fostering ‘Engagement’ with College Students on Welfare

Federal law requires welfare recipients to work 35 hours a week in exchange for benefits. Time spent in pursuit of a bachelor’s degree counts toward that work requirement in New York City. To find out what student engagement “looks like among (college) students on public assistance, why it is important, … and how it can be enhanced,” John Jay College Professor Nicole Elias and her colleague Madeleine Marrin conducted focus groups among students and faculty. Their findings were published in the journal Teaching Public Administration.

Student engagement is considered a major factor in academic success, and it can take many forms, including meeting with professors outside of class and participating in clubs and other extracurricular activities. But improving engagement with students on welfare is challenging. Many of them are first-generation students of color who are older than typical college age. Between their commutes, jobs, and responsibilities as parents and family caregivers, they’re time-pressed. Many said their biggest need was “a quiet space on campus” where they could work, rather than extracurricular opportunities that involve more time or travel.

The researchers, in their recommendations, suggested that faculty build field trips and career experiences into syllabi instead of scheduling them outside of class hours. One professor recognizes the many demands on student time by offering a “bank” of allowable late days.

Another challenge is building relationships with faculty. Students “often reported negative interactions with faculty” after revealing that they receive public assistance, the authors wrote, and they feared being stigmatized if they were “outed” to faculty or classmates. Some students recounted “relationships with faculty that were at times tense or difficult,” but that they felt ultimately contributed to their growth. And while one student reported meeting with every professor to discuss her learning style, many said they’d had zero contact with professors outside class hours.

It’s incumbent upon faculty, the researchers wrote, to lay the groundwork for relationships with students by creating “an initial rapport” and comfort zone: “By shifting the focus from logistical to relational availability, faculty may be able to engage more effectively with students who experience stigma surrounding their socioeconomic level.”

The authors also propose a paid peer mentorship program in which “highly engaged student recipients of public assistance act as a bridge for their peers,” coaching them on how to build relationships with faculty and boosting their engagement with a peer support network.

Beyond SUM

Work By

Nicole Elias (Assistant Professor, Department of Public Management) | Profile 1
Madeleine Marrin (Graduate Assistant, Center for Career and Professional Development) | Profile 1