The students served by the NEIU include many who come from low-income backgrounds. It is important not to equate being low-income with struggling for basic needs. They are not synonymous.

The ways in which we talk and write about students who are low-income should convey compassion, inclusion, and sensitivity. Writing about poverty and those who do not have the money they need is, of course, a sensitive matter and sometimes a source of shame and stigma for the student.

Participation in programs targeted to students who are low-income or whose parents are low-income (e.g. Pell-eligible or receiving Pell) are common proxies for "low-income." Proxies are used primarily because measures related to students' economic well-being are often unobserved in the higher education context, as parental income/wealth is highly confidential.

While these categorizations or proxies can be helpful in demonstrating context, they are only proxies and not equivalent to "low-income." For example, only U.S. citizens and green card-holders are Pell-eligible, so this would not refer to undocumented students. 

There are several terms that are often used in the context of discussing students of low-income backgrounds. These include:

Socioeconomic status (SES): Tends to refer to a combination of factors related to a student's social class. In the context of students, this typically includes family income, parental education (e.g., first-generation status), and parental occupation.

Underrepresented: Underrepresented refers to racial and ethnic populations that are represented at disproportionately low levels in higher education. Historically means that this is a 10-year or longer trend at a given school.

Underrepresented minorities (URMs) are African Americans, American Indians/Alaska Natives, and Latinos, who have historically comprised a minority of the U.S. population. The term is mostly used for reporting aggregate student data.

Underserved: Underserved students are defined as those who do not receive equitable resources as other students in the academic pipeline. Typically, these groups of students include low-income, racial/ethnic minorities ("people of color" or "students of color" is the preferred use, not "minorities"), and first-generation students, among others.

Races and ethnicities that are included: African American, American Indian/Alaska Native, Hispanic/Latino, and Native Hawaiian/other Pacific Islander.

"Historically underserved" students are defined as low-income students, those who are first in their families to attend college, and students of color. "First-generation students" refers to their parent's/parents' highest education level is high school or less.

There is no standard definition of what "first-generation college student" means, but it can be used to refer to students who are "among the first in their family to go to college" (e.g., their parents did not attend college) and/or students who are "among the first in their family to graduate from college" (e.g., their parents' highest level of education is some college).

General Writing Guidelines

When Writing About and for Students from Low-Income Backgrounds:

  • Choose "food security" over "food insecurity" (a deficit-focused approach). A student may be facing food security issues or concerns. "Hunger" is a symptom of very low food security, but "hunger" and "hungry" should be used carefully.
  • Choose "homelessness" over "housing insecurity" (not "housing instability"). Consider that both housing and food security issues fall on a spectrum, with homelessness being the most urgent, acute end of the housing security spectrum.
  • Dealing with a lack of money, food, and/or reliable housing is a source of shame for some, but not all, students. Approach the topic with sensitivity and ask exactly what the student feels comfortable sharing in any content that will be made public, including photographs. Encourage a framework that helps students understand they are not alone. Describe the issue as a national housing and financial aid crisis that pushes many students into these circumstances, rather than a personal problem or one that blames the student.
  • While the term "underserved" is commonly used to mean those who are low-income and historically underrepresented, you may want to consider using the term "under-resourced."
  • Be aware of encouraging any perception that students are "working the system" to get free food or other assistance.
  • Don't use "poor," "impoverished," "underprivileged," or "disadvantaged" to describe students who are low-income.
  • Listen carefully to how a student or another source tells their story and use similar or the same language. Watch for assumptions and biases in your writing about the reasons for their income status, stereotypes, etc.

Resources & Sources:

Dr. Denise Bevly, former director, Basic Needs Initiative, CSU Chancellor's Office

Education Writers Association: How to Report on Undocumented Students in the Time of Trump

Dr. Jennifer Maguire, assistant professor, Humboldt State