Creating a culture of success — for all college students

Becca Bassett. Photo by Tony Rinaldo

3 min read

Ph.D. candidate Becca Bassett, was working to support low-income, first-generation college students with weekly check-in calls, individualized academic assistance, and mental health resources through a program she’d founded with the Sunflower County Freedom Project in Mississippi when she realized there were larger, systemic issues standing in the way of her students’ success.

“I was frustrated and angry,” she says. “These amazing students, who had overcome tremendous challenges and obstacles and had important ideas about how they wanted to change the world, were being routinely under supported and undervalued by the universities they attended. So I said, well, I want to change that.”

Now, as a graduate student, Bassett is spending her time conducting extensive qualitative and ethnographic studies to better understand why higher education is failing so many low-income, first-generation students and looking for ways universities can shift their practices and cultures to provide more equitable outcomes. Currently also a fellow at the Harvard Radcliffe Institute, Bassett is being recognized for her work: she recently received the Cross Award from the Association of American Colleges and Universities for her commitment to research and teaching that advances equity.

Here, Bassett talks through her research, why graduation gaps at colleges and universities continue to grow, and the powerful difference consistent relationships on campus can make for all students.

You’ve worked extensively in the college support space. What were some of the compelling problems you wanted to investigate when you began your Ph.D.?
For as long as we’ve had graduation gaps between low-income, first-generation (LIFG) students and high-income, continuing generation students, we’ve also had support programs for LIFG students. So why, despite decades of institutional and federal intervention, are the graduation gaps not only stubborn but growing?

And were you able to answer that question?
I found that while these programs and the staff who run them were able to effectively direct critical resources to a small proportion of students within the university, these programs, and their staff, existed on the periphery of the power structure of the university. That limited their ability to enact the kind of structural solutions that would have supported the success of not just the students in their program, but all low-income, first-generation students.

What about how students used those programs?
I found student use of program supports was uneven and depended on their help-seeking mindsets and the quality of the relationships they formed with staff.