First Generation/Low Income Working Group submits final report

Working group recommends dedicating space and office with full-time staff to support students

The First Generation/Low Income Working Group (FGLIWG) submitted its final report to the Office of the Vice Chancellor (OVC). 

The working group includes staff from the Division of Student Life (DSL), Office of Minority Education (OME), Office of the First Year (OFY), MIT Admissions, Career Advising and Professional Development, Student Support Services, Student Financial Services (SFS), residential communities, and academic departments, as well as undergraduate students. 

The group was charged in 2019 with determining what support was being offered at that time to first generation and/or low income (FGLI) students at MIT and where gaps existed, with reviewing available data to better understand experiences of FGLI students, identifying national best practices to support FGLI students, and determining what existing resources could be improved or additional resources could be added to better support FGLI students. 

The group would then report to its sponsors in the OME, DSL, and OFY and to Vice Chancellor Ian Waitz, Vice President and Dean for Student Life Suzy Nelson, Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart PhD ’88, and Provost Martin Schmidt PhD ’88.

The group developed four main recommendations for MIT to better support its FGLI student population.

The first is to institutionalize a definition of being FGLI to help students understand their identity and use available resources.

The second is to dedicate a space and office with increased full-time staff support for FGLI students. 

The third is to offer a first year seminar, taught by a FGLI faculty member, to teach about and help students transition to MIT.

The fourth is to hold training for faculty and teaching staff on using inclusive language inside and outside of the classroom to create an equitable environment.

The FGLIWG met 16 times during the 2019–20 academic year from September 2019 to May 2020. The group saw presentations from groups that support FGLI students such as the QuestBridge Scholars Network, the First Generation Program, Class Awareness Support and Equality, and the Accessing Resources at MIT (ARM) coalition and completed readings of previous research on support for FGLI students. 

The group divided into four subgroups beginning in January 2020: benchmarking; focus groups; data collection; and resources, services, and academic experiences.

The benchmarking subgroup assessed support provided by peer institutions to their FGLI students, particularly through the Consortium on Financing Higher Education.

The subgroup found that all of MIT’s peer institutions have at least three full time staff members dedicated to FGLI student support and initiatives, whereas MIT “only has 1/3 of one (1) employee’s role dedicated to this work.” Additionally, a majority of peers have a dedicated physical space for FGLI students and staff, which MIT does not have.

The focus groups subgroup facilitated six focus groups: two with students who identified as low income, two with students who identified as first generation, and two with students who identified as both.

Sessions with the focus groups found academic preparedness, career selection support, community resources for parents and families, community building opportunities, and identifying guidance and support as themes.

Students reported feeling inadequately prepared for academic rigor compared to peers who had access to more advanced classes. They also expressed that their families could not help them prepare for the transition to MIT or provide academic advice, having not experienced college before.

Students also expressed that they felt lost or unsure where to begin when thinking about life or careers post-MIT, with some feeling pressured to declare majors with the highest salaries upon graduation rather than explore or feeling that the “real world” would be an additional obstacle beyond college.

They also described facing difficulties navigating support and finding a community of peers with similar challenges in a higher education environment due to the limitations of resources for FGLI students existing at the Institute.

Students also expressed that having a dedicated space for FGLI support would be very helpful and allow them to seek help efficiently as well as have a place to go to for assistance and community support.

The data collection subgroup gathered feedback and reviewed survey information from MIT Institutional Research (IR), MIT Admissions, and SFS.

The subgroup found from Admissions and SFS that of the approximately 4,500 undergraduates enrolled during academic year 2019–20, 25% were low income, 18% were first generation, and 12% were both first generation and low income.

Additionally, IR found from survey results that the financial situation of FGLI students impacts their experience by reducing their opportunities for extracurricular activities such as being able to participate in study abroad, community service, and unpaid research or internship opportunities. 

IR also wrote that FGLI students “report less strong community ties, both within and outside of MIT,” with fewer having conversations with faculty members and having fewer faculty of whom they could ask for a letter of recommendation. They also report “thinking that others at MIT don’t think they belong at higher rates” than their peers, and fewer report having a support network outside of MIT or seeking career advice from alumni or parents.

The resources, services, and academic experiences distributed surveys to undergraduate academic administrators evaluating the services and support they provide to FGLI students within departments and connected with MIT support offices to assess existing support systems and resources.

The subgroup found that beyond the first year, MIT does not have a system in place allowing students to self-identify as FGLI, that most advisors only receive information on their advisees via WebSIS and their first-year folder (including information on ASE scores and transfer credit), that departmental advisors are not trained on how to build relationships with their advisees, that departments do not provide training that is specific to supporting FGLI students, and that not many offices have specific programming for supporting FGLI students.

The subgroup did find that certain offices, including the OVC, OFY, and OME, have programming for FGLI students including workshops and training and that the ARM coalition is an additional resource that helps to alleviate some financial hardships for low income students.

The FGLIWG also described steps for continuing research on supporting FGLI students, such as including FGLI student voices in grading and academic policy decisions, providing support for families of FGLI students, addressing support for FGLI graduate students, providing targeted career advising for FGLI students, continuing the work of the Food Insecurity Solutions Working Group with respect to FGLI students, and adding questions to Institute surveys specifically aimed at FGLI students to track support for them.

The group recommends revisiting the report in two years to assess progress on its recommendations and identify areas requiring additional attention.

The group also provided COVID-19 specific recommendations, as FGLI are disproportionately affected by challenges associated with the pandemic due to a lack of resources at home/off campus. 

The group compiled a document of technological resources that MIT could provide to support students at home such as a WiFi hotspot or tablet, though the group found that students who rely on internet access or other technology from MIT “experience frustrations as a result of their geographical location and access to basic amenities.”

The group found that for many FGLI students, living off campus or at home is significantly more stressful and less conducive to learning than time at MIT and implemented recommendations including intentionally matching students with student success coaches who have worked with FGLI students, building upon digital support group platforms, and creating digestible online resources for navigating MIT resources at home.