Document Type



Doctor of Philosophy


Education, Educational Leadership & Policy Studies

Date of Defense


Graduate Advisor

Dr. Patricia Boyer


Dr. Carl Hoagland

Dr. Lisa Dorner

Dr. Jerome Morris


The rising cost of higher education has created substantial access and persistence barriers for low-income students. Consequently, gaps in educational attainment between low-income students and their middle- and high-income peers have continued to widen over the last few decades. Colleges and universities have taken notice of these growing disparities, and several institutions have responded by developing need-based financial aid programs to close unmet need gaps for Pell Grant recipients. These last-dollar financial aid programs have opened doors for more low-income students to attend selective institutions, but it is unclear how these programs will influence their persistence and completion rates. The purpose of this study was to gain a better understanding of the factors that influence the persistence of high-achieving, low-income students who receive scholarships or grants that cover their full cost of attendance.

This basic qualitative study examined the lived experiences of 12 low-income students attending a large, public research university in the Midwest on full-ride scholarships. Academic challenges, cultural incongruence, and family adversity emerged as major themes for persistence barriers in this study. However, the participants benefited from institutional support structures including academic support services, mentoring, residential programming, identity-based student organizations, and high-impact educational practices. The encouragement, support, and validation they received from family, friends, and the campus community also emerged as critical resources to keep them motivated and focused on their goals while dealing with adversity both on and off campus. Implications of the findings are presented along with suggestions for future research on the persistence of low-income students.