The invisible minority: FLI students and online learning

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Navigating Stanford as a first-generation, low-income (FLI) student presents significant challenges. FLI students face impostor syndrome and stereotype threat, greater risk of mental health problems, limited academic exposure compared to peers, and often arrive on campus plagued by the spectres of an unstable homelife and the pressure to be the “financial savior” of their family. With the University’s recent announcements regarding next year’s remote learning plan and an ongoing global economic recession, the changes necessitated by COVID-19 have only furthered the educational inequities faced by FLI students.

Off-campus learning initially began as an emergency solution, but now looms on the horizon as an indefinite reality — one that has proven more devastating to some students than others. Issues of inadequate access to technology, food and housing insecurity, lack of healthcare and unstable home environments have preoccupied FLI students this quarter, and will continue to do so in the coming academic year. 

To better understand these issues, The Daily conducted an anonymous survey of 115 FLI Stanford students with questions that explore the challenges of online learning. To add nuance to the survey’s data, respondents were asked to submit candid commentary on their personal stories. Results should be interpreted with caution, keeping in mind that this was not a random sample.

While Stanford reports that 47% of students receive some amount of need-based financial aid, only 17% of students identify as FLI, making the FLI experience foreign to many students and faculty. As a result, many in the FLI community feel its members slip through the cracks of institutional inattention.

What makes a student FLI? FLI students are the first person in their family to attend a four-year university and/or come from low-income families (frequently both), but there is no strict cutoff that defines “low-income.” Stanford’s financial aid policy provides a full ride for students of parents with a total annual income below $65,000 and typical assets for this income range, and covers full tuition up to the $125,000 mark. Students from a wide range of income levels resonate with the FLI identity, as there are other factors besides income level, such as number of family members, cost of living and medical expenses that determine a student’s financial resources. (The data collected by this survey can be disaggregated by household/family income level as seen in the chart below.)

Technology access

One of the most critical factors in online learning is technology access. The Daily’s survey found that 20% of FLI students lack reliable access to a device suitable for attending classes and completing homework. This metric does not capture the extent of the technology-related barriers of online instruction — 36.6% of FLI students have been absent from class or not turned in an assignment due to inadequate technology and 58.2% are frequently interrupted in class or meetings due to Internet connectivity problems. Internet connectivity was found to have the second largest impact on academic performance (cited by 24.3% of respondents). Suboptimal home environment had the greatest impact with 63.5% of students lacking access to an environment conducive to learning.

A FLI student having somewhere to live off-campus does not guarantee they have a home conducive to learning. The shift from a supportive community on-campus to what is, for some, a toxic living environment, has taken a large toll.

One example of a negative environment was described by a student who said: “I very much wanted to avoid coming home [because] my mother has borderline personality disorder … Her behavior has become increasingly self destructive and chaotic. I cannot concentrate on my school work when there is constant chaos at home that I cannot extricate myself from.”

While the FLI student body is not a monolith and some students do come from positive home situations, experiences like that of the student above show the potential extent of the challenges of learning from home. Many students also cited difficulty balancing coursework with taking care of siblings or working a job to support their family. 

Another student shared their difficulty accessing technology.

“During the first three weeks of the quarter, I’d have to go to my friends house for internet access. It did not help that the libraries were closed due to COVID-19 … Managing psets and attending classes was extremely difficult.”

The constant stress of suboptimal home environments and compromised technology access left students feeling discouraged.

“Online learning intrinsically puts FLI students at a disadvantage, by relying on infrastructure, environments and access to technology that can often be out of their reach.”

Food security and healthcare access

“How am I expected to write my 15 page paper and 9 hour pset when I don’t even know when my next meal is?”

This student’s concern underlines the wealth disparity among Stanford students. While 17.4% of FLI students frequently worry where their next meal will come from, 34.8% agree that their food security has significantly decreased since leaving campus.

“My room was so hot and I of course don’t have AC,” one student wrote. “My fridge broke down and my food, which I bought with food stamps, went bad.”

Dining halls aren’t the only thing FLI students are severely missing — 51.3% of surveyed students were receiving healthcare services — either physical, mental, or both — on a campus that they now no longer have access to. Similarly, 50.4% currently lack access to affordable or reliable healthcare. These numbers are even more alarming considering the pandemic and FLI students’ increased risk for mental health instability.

Online learning experience and faculty response

The challenges presented by off-campus learning has left many FLI students feeling disillusioned, with one student explaining: “I do not recognize the student I was on campus; I had a 3.8 GPA in hard classes and was always up to engage in class and go to office hours. Now I feel so lost and alone … it feels like everything around me is stopping me and I can’t help it.”

The graph below breaks down the factors that had the greatest impact on FLI students’ academic performance this quarter. Under the “other” option, students listed issues of housing insecurity, deaths of family members and time zone differences.

70.4% of FLI students agree that online learning causes them to be at a disadvantage relative to their peers, and 67.9% feel that online learning has damaged their mental health. When remote learning began, the administration made an effort to increase educational equity with additional financial support for certain students and the S/NC grading system. However, at the conclusion of the quarter, less than half of students surveyed agreed that the Stanford faculty had been accommodating of their circumstances.

Some students wrote about positive experiences: “I am an international student on full aid. Still, I have been incredibly lucky. Stanford has supported me financially to an extent that I face no financial hardship whatsoever.”

Others did not feel their situation was adequately addressed: “I came to Stanford thinking I was going to be supported. Stanford by far has the best resources for FLI students, and yet when the students reach out to their instructors telling them what they need, they get met with resistance … to be received in that way is the most disheartening thing.”

When the data was analyzed to compare the average rating of faculty accommodations by income level, there did not appear to be a strong trend between a student’s financial resources and their opinion on accommodations. 

This suggests that student experiences may have varied based on other factors such as the specific faculty members they interacted with.

“Teacher accommodations are widely variable and dependent either on teachers’ own biases … [or] campaigning by students…to create accommodations.” They added that the system is one that “squeezes the students who need help the most into situations where they cannot succeed and no longer have the mental health or stamina to continue fighting to get to a point where they can succeed.”

Another student struggling with food and housing insecurity called upon the administration to improve communication “and listen to FLI students’ needs more because all the difficulties arising in this quarter will not go away for us if we are remote for large parts of next year.” 

Stanford First-Generation Low-Income Partnership (FLIP) has published thorough guidelines to assist instructors in accommodating students, including suggestions for flexibility with due dates and grading policies, open-ended curriculum with less testing, continuously seeking student feedback, and making lectures and sections recorded, just to cite a few.

Despite the overwhelming difficulties that come with online learning, many FLI students do not have the resources to take a gap year, and plan to continue taking classes remotely if unable to return to campus.
While many students’ adaptations to remote learning constituted navigating awkward breakout rooms and watching lectures on 2x speed, FLI students say that they have also had to contend with food and housing insecurity, inadequate technology access, lack of healthcare, hostile home environments and faculty who have denied requests for adequate accommodations.

When FLI students were most vulnerable, many felt that faculty failed to uphold Stanford’s promise of being “committed to supporting all its students on their academic journey.” Throughout the survey, FLI students encouraged Stanford to implement changes in the coming academic year as remote learning becomes a new reality and the remarkable resilience of FLI students is tested again.

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