Constructing Affordability: How Institutional and Relational Contexts Affect Retention of Undergraduates from Low-Income Families

college student

This multisite, mixed-method, comparative study investigates how institutional and relational contexts shape the meaning of affordability for 60 students from low-income families as they move through their first 18 months of college. The study aims to develop setting-level measures of contexts that promote positive perceptions of affordability among students from low-income families. These measures could be used to create targeted contextual interventions to increase students’ chances of college completion.

We accomplish this by:

  1. documenting how institutions and the communities in which they are situated interact to construct contexts of affordability, and thereby shape the experiences of low-income undergraduates.
  2. observing and analyzing students’ relationships and the settings in which they spend their time to assess how these contexts affect their perceptions of college affordability and of the purposes of attaining college degrees.
  3. utilizing quantitative and qualitative approaches to examine how students’ educational plans and goals evolve during the first 18 months following college enrollment. We examine this evolution in relation to their assessments of affordability, their institutional and relational contexts, and their reasons for attending college. We document if and how students connect their assessments of affordability and their decisions to return for a second year of college.

Sara Goldrick-Rab, Founder, Wisconsin HOPE Lab and Professor of Educational Policy Studies and Sociology, University of Wisconsin–Madison

Nancy Kendall, Associate Professor of Educational Policy Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison 

Alison Bowman, Associate Director, Wisconsin HOPE Lab

Denise Goerisch, Postdoctoral Fellow, Wisconsin HOPE Lab

Esther Kim, Postdoctoral Fellow, Wisconsin HOPE Lab

Frank Vernon, Postdoctoral Fellow, Wisconsin HOPE Lab

Matthew Wolfgram, Senior Researcher, Wisconsin HOPE Lab

Ja’Dell Davis, Project Assistant, Wisconsin HOPE Lab

Kathy Villalon, Project Assistant, Wisconsin HOPE Lab


Policy Briefs

coming soon


UW-Madison's Sara Goldrick-Rab says college is a financial gamble for too many

Study Sponsors

William T. Grant Foundation        Lumina Foundation        Great Lakes