Advice for Faculty and Staff

Supporting Low-Income Students: Suggestions for Advisors, Faculty, and Staff

Your support can make an enormous difference in helping low-income students thrive at MIT. Providing support does not have to be hard, time-consuming, or require specific knowledge of a student’s socioeconomic status. The practical suggestions below will encourage and empower low-income students but will actually benefit all students.

1)  Be open and genuine


Why It matters: Most students will never mention their socioeconomic status or financial concerns, as economic inequality is hidden and stigmatized. The following tips will make it more likely that students will see you as an ally and share their concerns.

What To Do:

  • Share your professional experiences. What made you want to be a professor? What do you like most/least about your work?
  • Share your mistakes. How do you handle setbacks? How did you manage it or overcome it?
  • Share where you come from. Where did you grow up? What kind of town was it? What did your parents do for work? Who is in your family now (e.g. spouse, kids, pets).
  • Ask students about where they grew up. What were the schools like in their hometown? Did many people from the hometown come to universities like MIT?
  • When you ask personal questions, tell them why you are asking. This helps students understand your intentions and clears up any misunderstandings about underlying biases.


2)  Instill a sense of belonging


Why It Matters: An MIT student from a low-income town once told their advisor: “People from neighborhoods like mine don’t come to MIT. Where I come from, most people don’t even go to college.” Similarly, an MIT physics professor from a working-class background once described his mother’s suspicion of higher education/financial aid as “People like them don’t help people like us.”

This sense of “us versus them” captures the “outsider” status that some low-income students experience.  Academic setbacks and failures can be seen as a confirmation that “people like them” do not belong at places like MIT.


What To Do:

  • Break down “insider” knowledge, such as jargon, acronyms or university-specific terms in higher education that we assume students already know. Higher education is filled with terms, acronyms, references and norms that are largely tied to previous exposure based on class and socioeconomic status. Unfamiliarity with such terms and norms can feel like there is an “invisible script” based on class and reinforce a sense of being an “outsider”.   Explaining  these university-specific terms and acronyms clearly and explicitly will help alleviate this.
  • Humanize authority figures at the Institute by discussing ways that they are fallible. In addition to sharing your own personal mistakes, it can be helpful to share any (publicly available) stories of well-known and highly respected figures and their setbacks, failures, and disappointments on their road to success.
  • Put flyers in your office that highlight resources (e.g. Swipsehare meal swipe flyer or an ARM Coalition pamphlet).
  • Use course syllabi to offer resources for course materials/equipment. Let students know that course materials are on reserve in the library, and that they can contact you (or department administrators) if they cannot afford course equipment.

3)  Inoculate against setbacks

Why It Matters: Academic failures and disappointments are inevitable and even necessary at times, but do not need to be debilitating. There are ways to help immunize students from getting stuck.


What to Do:

  • Help them anticipate that academic disappointments and self-doubt will happen. Encourage help-seeking as a replacement for self-doubt.
  • Share your own detours and setbacks, and those of other prominent respected figures (if that information is public knowledge).
  • Help them identify their unique strengths by commenting on those you have directly observed.  
  • Help them identify the qualities they most value, e.g humor, humility, compassion, perseverance. Separate from their own strengths, it can be helpful for students to identify what principles and general features of a person they find most important overall, and which of these values and traits they can tap into in the face of setbacks.

If students disclose financial worries…

4)    Refer to resources

Why it Matters: Referring students to resources is the most efficient way for them to get the help that they need.

What to Do:

If a student discloses financial worries, reassure them that they are not the only one coping with these difficulties, and that others have found strategies and solutions to manage them. Let them know that help and support is available. Point them to concrete resources like the ARM Coalition website, SwipeShareStudent Financial Aid.