The Accessibility of Student Engagement

Have you ever thought about why a student isn’t getting involved as much as you’d like?

Did you chalk it up to “they’re focusing on school,” “they don’t have enough time,” or even worse, apathy? What if we changed our train of thought and looked at it through a socioeconomic lens and began to think about how our students’ decisions are impacted by their backgrounds and support systems?

Our students’ decisions are dramatically impacted by their support systems — not just the support available on campus, but by the support they are provided emotionally and financially outside of the institution. Everything from what campus jobs, internships, study abroad options, or organizations a student wants to be involved in can be impacted by their background and support systems.

As higher educational professionals we work to get students involved because we believe — no, we know — that there is a benefit.

We know that students will have more meaningful relationships, develop transferable skills, and apply what they learned in class to real-world situations. Unfortunately, there are barriers that prevent students from getting involved — major financial barriers.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2007, 21% of full-time college students aged 16-24 years old worked between 20 and 34 hours per week, and 8% worked at least 35 hours per week. In 1970, only 4% of 16-24 college students enrolled full-time worked 35 hours or more each week, and only 11% worked 20 to 34 hours. This makes getting involved in the traditional sense more and more difficult.

In addition, it is important to think about what kind of support a student has for getting involved. Are they being encouraged to apply for that unpaid internship? Are they told they should run to be an unpaid executive officer of a student organization?

These might not be luxuries that they are afforded, especially with the potentially looming student-loan debt, worry of paying next semester’s bill, this week’s grocery bill, or any other familial obligations. It is our job to be thinking of these challenges and to help our students see a path towards meaningful involvement.

Here are some tips for supporting students who may be having a challenge getting involved due to what is going on in the background of their life.

Be willing to talk critically about ROI

It’s always great when a student comes to you bright-eyed about getting involved, wanting to shout from the rooftops about the awesome benefits of being involved. 

This isn’t always going to happen though, and some students don’t have a system that supports them in understanding the benefits to involvement, or what involvement could look like. It is our job to show them the return on investment. In order to do this we need to think critically about what our student involvement opportunities actually provide students; we need to be able to show students how their involvement can have a direct benefit to them. There is plenty of research to support the connection between involvement and post-graduate success, so share that with them. And let them know that involvement looks different for everyone — they don’t need to sign up for every student organization.

Lower fees

When hosting fee-based programs, work to identify ways to cut the student-shouldered cost. With budget cuts and student affairs departments being asked to do more with less, this is an increasingly difficult situation, but if we can reduce the cost we might open more doors. When thinking about off-campus programs, academic or co-curricular trips, and other fee-based opportunities, we should always be thinking about who we are excluding wth the cost to participate.

If there are no places to cut cost or increase subsidies, are there ways to support fundraising? Use your creative thinking powers, and connect with folks outside your department to brainstorm ways to make the event more inclusive. 

Be aware of funding opportunities

Whether they’re sponsored by your institution or by a community organization, stay in the know about scholarship opportunities.  While yes, we should expect students to research scholarships and additional funding opportunities on their own, it can be truly meaningful when a staff member is aware of a financial concern and is able to make a genuine recommendation to help solve that problem. Sync up with your campus’ financial aid office and discuss how you can work together to make that information easily available for students. 

Provide examples of success

When sharing stories of success with students be sure to include students from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds and experiences. Sharing stories of diverse people who have followed different paths helps affirm that there is not one “right way” to a successful life. It is crucial for us to help our students realize that there are many pathways to success. This means that we shouldn’t only share stories of past students who worked two job, were the president of a student organization, had internships, and graduated summa cum laude. They were an amazing student, yes, but so were others. And, if possible, you can build a mentorship program so that students can connect with alumni who have similar experiences. 

How do you work to support your low-income students? What barriers to engagement have you encountered? Let us know on Twitter @themoderncampus!


Education and Socioeconomic Status. (n.d.). Retrieved October 16, 2017, from

Schanzenbach, D. W., Bauer, L., & Breitwieser, A. (2017, April 26). Eight economic facts on higher education. Retrieved October 16, 2017, from

Understanding the Working College Student. (n.d.). Retrieved October 16, 2017, from

Ryan Bye

About the author: Ryan Bye (he/him) serves as the Director of Student Involvement & New Student Programs at Valparaiso University and has previously held roles in residence life. He is committed to building community, drinking coffee and meeting new people. Learn how we can help get your students involved.