This is your brain on poverty—and how colleges can help

The stress of living in poverty can hijack our ability to focus on other tasks and solve problems, says Elisabeth Babcock, President and CEO of the Crittenton Women's Union and author of a study on building pathways out of poverty.

She explains that stressful situations spark the brain's limbic system, which stores long-term memory and processes emotions. A wave of fear and anxiety from the limbic system floods the brain's prefrontal cortex, overwhelming its ability to solve problems, set goals, and execute tasks. 

Why anxiety causes poor test performance

This happens to everyone going through a temporary, stressful event, but Babcock points out that living in poverty means dealing with constant, additional challenges like those arising from daily financial struggles or class bias. Dealing with these pressures takes up so much of the brain's resources that there's little bandwidth left for other things.

This cognitive overload creates additional barriers to success that stand in the way of low-income students accessing and graduating from college. On average, just 51% of Pell Grant recipients complete college, compared with 65% of their non-Pell Grant peers. 

The orientation and onboarding phase can be a particularly difficult transition because of the onslaught of information, choices, and deadlines.

College leaders can respond by redesigning the onboarding process to eliminate unnecessary stress and fight-or-flight reactions, according to Melinda Salaman, director of strategic research at EAB. She explains that the right coaching and tools can also empower students to learn stress-management techniques and navigate college more successfully (Mathewson, The Atlantic, 4/19).


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