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The Myth of the Bootstrap

Student Success Socioeconomic and Class Issues in Higher Education
July 28, 2015 Jabari Bodrick

Many people, inside and outside of the Academy, seem to be firm believers in the bootstrap narrative. The bootstrap narrative is essentially the belief that a person in the United States who works hard, assumes personal responsibility, and maintains a strong moral center can accomplish anything.  Unfortunately for many students from low-income families, this narrative does not reflect their experiences at institutions of higher education.  

In 2013, 9 percent of students from low-income families earned bachelor's degrees by age 24, in contrast to the 77 percent of students from the wealthiest families.  These figures, published in the Pell Institute’s 2015 revised Indicators of Higher Education Equity in the United States report, demonstrate students from high-income families were 8 times more likely to earn a bachelors’ degree by age 24 than students from low-income families.  Similarly, students from high-income families in 1970 were 6 times more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree than students from low-income families.  

These numbers provide evidence the idealistic bootstrap narrative does not hold true for most students from low-income families. Many intelligent and hardworking low-income students struggle to overcome food insecurity, homelessness, and/or the mental and emotional stress adversely impacting their ability to earn a degree.  In truth, I feel like I am preaching to the choir since many student affairs educators are aware of the issues prohibiting students from low-income families from graduating.  Nevertheless, I encourage student affairs educators to use the Indicators of Higher Education Equity in the United States report data and the resources on the Socioeconomic and Class Issues in Higher Education Knowledge Community (SCIHE KC) website to identify and address the issues on their campuses preventing students from low-income families from earning a bachelors’ degree.  I also invite you to share the actions being taken on your campus to address the obstacles precluding low-income students from graduating with the SCIHE KC community by utilizing the SCIHE KC’s social media platforms and by requesting SCIHE KC sponsorship for relevant annual conference proposals.

Jabari Bodrick

Co-Chair, Socioeconomic and Class Issues in Higher Education Knowledge Community