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Nidia Bañuelos on Valuing the Skills and Assets of Lower Income and Underrepresented College Students

  • Nidia Bañuelos
  • October 28 2022
  • PC120-2022

Nidia Bañuelos
Nidia Bañuelos

In this episode, we hear from Nidia Bañuelos about how we can better value and measure the assets that college students from low income and traditionally underserved backgrounds bring to their education and to their later careers. Bañuelos is an assistant professor in the Division of Continuing Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an IRP Affiliate.

You can find recent work from Bañuelos and colleagues on using Community Cultural Wealth (CCW) frameworks to measure assets and social networks of college students though the Networks and Cultural Assets Project (NACA).

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Dave Chancellor [00:00:05] Hello and thanks for joining us for the Poverty Research and Policy podcast from the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I’m Dave Chancellor. For this episode, I talked with Nidia Bañuelos about how we can better value and measure the assets that college students from low income and traditionally underserved backgrounds bring to their education and to their later careers. Bañuelos is an assistant professor in the Division of Continuing Studies here at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. And she’s also an Institute for Research on Poverty affiliate. Let’s turn to the interview. Professor Bañuelos, we’re talking today about some of the work that you’ve done to better understand and measure the assets that students of color or lower income or nontraditional, quote unquote, college students bring to their education. So just to start off with who are these students that you focus on in your work?

Nidia Bañuelos [00:00:58] Yeah. In higher education research, we often use this word nontraditional and it’s really a misnomer. We all know it is because there’s a substantial portion of students in higher education who would be considered nontraditional. So, either they’re first-generation students or the first in their family to go to college. They’re working full time. They are adults with caregiving responsibilities. This is like a larger and larger chunk of people who are in higher education. By nontraditional, we really mean students that we think are being underserved by the four-year sector of higher education. And I first got interested in the student population because in grad school I studied for profit colleges and universities. As you may know, these are places that serve a lot of older students, like most of their students are over the age of 25 and they claim to kind of be a better fit for students who have certain demands on their time that kind of like traditional college students don’t. So, my research then was mostly interested in like the policy structures and these demographic changes that supported the growth of these places. And now I would say I’m becoming more interested in, you know, there’s this great demand out there, especially for students who are older, who are working, who may be low income, who have family and work responsibilities. They want to go to college. Right. There’s a huge demand out there. And a lot of them want even more than just workforce training, like training for a particular occupation. They want the broad liberal arts kind of experience. And so, the questions we’re starting to try to ask now are more about how traditional nonprofit four-year universities like UW can support those students. I hope that this is a question is kind of a broad, it’s a broad group which allows us to talk to students in lots of different kinds of situations. So sometimes we you know, in our surveys, we get a lot of students who are older and sometimes we don’t. But those the students that we talked to who are younger, they still tend to be first gen, they tend to be low income, they tend to be students of color. And so, we still think that universities could do a better job of serving those students as well.

Dave Chancellor [00:03:04] Yeah, that’s really helpful. I mean, just listening to you talk about this, it just seems like there’s such a wide variety of life experiences represented there. And, you know, in your work you use this framework of community cultural wealth to better understand these sorts of assets and strengths. And so, can you tell me what community cultural wealth is and how it kind of relates to broader concepts of human capital that we might think about?

Nidia Bañuelos [00:03:27] Yeah, that’s a great question. So, the framework was developed by a feminist scholar, Tara Yosso. She has been cited thousands of times now, and I think it’s because the framework really appeals to researchers, and it appeals to students as well. When we share it with students, they kind of can see themselves in the framework easily, but critical to what is essentially responding to kind of deficit-based narratives about communities of color specifically. So, it was developed out of Chicano studies. So often you see it used in Chicano studies, scholarship, or scholarship with Latino students. But the idea is essentially that when we think about traditionally in social sciences, things like social capital or community cultural, while we’re talking about what’s considered a dominant social capital. For example, knowledge about college that comes from parents who went to college or knowledge about a particular job opportunity because you’re connected to the boss of that organization you’re applying to. So those are what we call like dominant forms of social capital. And the same is true for cultural capital. We think about certain kinds of knowledge, taste, dispositions and, you know, credentials as being more valuable than others. And so, what yes. What her colleagues noticed is that the narrative about students of color used to be, well, we bring them to the university, and we give them those things that they’re missing, that knowledge, those skills, those dispositions. And it’s really kind of like a replacement theory of educating people. They’re this they’re like an empty vessel. They have nothing in there. And you are filling them with the right kind of stuff, right? CCW is trying to flip that on its end by saying that students already come to college with a lot of, you know, wonderful skills and assets are not these empty vessels. Instead, what we want to do is recognize and celebrate those skills that they already have and then maybe build on those skills, so they get new ones. And, you know, I think that what we’ve seen in the qualitative literature on CCW, which is pretty extensive, is that students report, you know, just someone recognizing that they have, for example, skills and caretaking because they’ve had to care for a younger sibling and work. And go to college. That might make them actually an excellent teacher in the future. Right. Or an excellent pediatrician. Skills that you develop in your family and by navigating kind of all of your challenges are still really valuable and useful at school. So, what we’re trying to do with the framework is we’re trying to quantify it, which is somewhat controversial, given that it’s a critical race theory. And normally, you know, in critical race theory that the priority is on allowing communities of color to kind of express their own narratives, their own voice, which is often what we see a lot of qualitative research in that. But our argument is that we think that administrators will pay attention to quantitative scales, measuring students’ career cultural wealth, and that also allows us to see connections between their cultural wealth and educational outcomes. So, like correlations between things that we can’t necessarily see with qualitative work as well. So that’s why our work tends to be more mixed methods. But it’s, you know, it’s, it’s something that we’re still grappling with is like how to take the numbers that we’re getting from our, from our data and still have them be in the spirit of the framework and that critical race theory that.

Dave Chancellor [00:06:52] As you kind of alluded to, largely it’s sort of like traditional four-year institutions. This is something that they haven’t really done well before and probably aren’t really doing well yet. But also, it seems like there’s interest from administrators.

Nidia Bañuelos [00:07:05] Yeah, I think there’s definitely been a shift in thinking and that’s kind of evidenced by the popularity of the cultural wealth framework. So before I worked at UW, I worked at UC Davis and I taught in a Doctorate of Education program. So those students were mostly people who were working in higher ed or K through 12 administration. So, they were principals, they were superintendents, they were dean of admissions, or you know, the vice chancellor of the community college system was one of my students. And they were very interested in this framework because I think they were seeing at times policies and programs in their school that were really well intentioned. But we’re saying things like our program is designed to give students the networking skills that they lack. So sometimes, even like explicitly in the program descriptions, you’ll see the word lack or that they don’t have. And I think for a lot of those students who themselves were students of color, had gone through the public education systems they were working for. The idea that you’re actually leading by saying, here are all the things you have. We value them and we’re going to help you notice them in yourself. And we’re going to give you the skills to speak about those things in a way that other stakeholders can understand. Right. Maybe people who don’t fully grasp the framework yet. That was I think, was really compelling to them. So, I do think that the tone on these things is shifting because, you know, as evidenced by the interest in CCW and I would say that we always want to be careful to say, you know, there’s the challenge that like we could be presenting this really rosy picture, like, oh, students already have everything they need to succeed. Well, of course they’re coming to college to get other skills and other strengths. And so, the new literature on CCW is really interested in how students combine their cultural assets with dominant cultural capital they may actually have from their communities or their schools or, you know, in some in some way, shape or form and the skills that they gain in college rate. And this is this kind of notion of patch patchwork capital that you’re taking these different skills in, you’re in, you’re combining them. I think certainly what we don’t want to do is tell students, like leave those skills that you have from your family, your community at home, you know, and focus solely on these dominant skills. So, I think, yeah, I don’t want to make it sound dire, like all universities are still talking in this way where they’re kind of telling students, we’re going to help fix you. I think that’s less and less common. And I think that’s really good that there’s this interest in it now.

Dave Chancellor [00:09:32] You talked about caregiving as an example before, but what are some of these metrics that you’re looking at, some of these skills or different sort of cultural assets that students have?

Nidia Bañuelos [00:09:41] Yeah, that’s a great question. The community cultural wealth framework has these six forms of capital. So, they are aspirational capital is one does essentially the idea that you like you get these goals for your own success, often from seeing people in your community and what they’ve gone through or your family and what they’ve gone through. There’s navigational capital, which is the skills that students gain from kind of moving through spaces or working in institutions that weren’t necessarily designed with them in mind. So, one example of this is considering like, you know, the financial aid application process that is a is a bureaucratic, bureaucratic task that you have to kind of navigate, is a low-income student that maybe a higher income student wouldn’t have to do. But those skills of knowing who to talk to, what, how to fill out forms, how to work the system are actually valuable skills that you can apply in your job. Familial capital is another which is essentially kind of like pride in your family, the support that you get from your family. There’s social capital, and in this case, the focus is on what’s called the non-dominant social capital. So, for example, we often say like being connected to people in power is useful. That is true. But it’s also useful to have knowledge of an institution from anyone who works there. So, there’s this great qualitative research that shows that students sometimes from, you know, Spanish speaking communities can be connected to teachers’ aides at their school or custodial staff at the school or, you know, the people who work in the cafeteria. And they still get knowledge about the school that teachers she’s kind of harsh or this teacher he’s great right from those people. It’s still valuable information that students are getting. There’s also linguistic capital, which is a favorite of mine. Is that the kind of value of bilingualism that comes from like growing up, speaking a different language? And there’s a lot of great evidence that, you know, developmental psychologist knows a lot better than me to show that kind of children who have to translate, they get a good sense of what their audiences need. They become kind of better communicators generally. So, the idea is basically like if you were translating for a grandparent who couldn’t speak English and that was time you were spending, and another kid was spending time learning the violin. Those are both very useful assets and skills. But we shouldn’t say, oh, well, clearly, like bilingualism appears here on this person’s resume, you should put that translation on your resume and say, you know, I’m an adept translator and hopefully colleges and universities and employers will value those things. And I say that the last thing that we have added to our work comes from, again, looking at a feminist scholar who suggests that we should measure students’ spiritual capital so the assets that they get from their religious faith. And interestingly, what we learned in our research is that students who have more spiritual capital, who score high on those measures, they tend to value jobs that are service oriented, and they also tend to have more work relation, which means that they feel confident in their ability to choose their future job, in their work, which is very closely linked to job satisfaction. So, it’s good to have work on religion.

Dave Chancellor [00:12:58] You recently released a report on measuring Latina and Latinos’ community cultural wealth and some of their social networks based on work. You did just down the road from us here at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. Can you tell me about that report and some of the things that you learned?

Nidia Bañuelos [00:13:14] So we conducted surveys and interviews, and this is part of our commitment to kind of do indexed methods research so that we get the numbers. But we also hear the students’ voices as they are talking about those skills that they have. So, we measured their community cultural wealth through these new instruments that we’re creating to measure that concept quantitatively. We also asked them about their social networks, which is something that’s very important to us because we want to see how community cultural wealth kind of moves through social networks. We have these classic name generator questions where we ask students who in the last six months have you talked to about academic or career matters? And then we ask them questions about that network of people. And then we also ask them about their career attitudes and preferences. And I think we learned a lot from the series, our first measuring CCW quantitatively. So, we have a lot of things that we want to correct. But I think what was really interesting to us is that they were Latino students. This is the student population that arguably like CCW was partially created for, right? So, they all scored very high on measures of CCW that make sense. That is somewhat designed for them, but there’s a lot of variation in the kinds of CCW they have and how they employ it. So, we did a cluster analysis and we found that there is actually kind of like four different kinds of students. In terms of how they use their CCW. For us, this is really important because I think students of color often run into the challenge of. You seem kind of benign or even positive stereotypes about their racial group. That can be kind of confining. Right. So especially with Latino students, there’s this this kind of narrative of Latinos being very family oriented and family, family centric. And we don’t want to accept those students who are not you know, are not driven by their family or their family support. So, we actually identify there’s a group of students that we call pioneers who have very little family support but still maintain really high aspirations. And their networks are composed more of their friendship groups like Kin Kinship Networks that they’ve created for themselves. So that’s why we always want to kind of have some subtlety in how we interpret the data. Right? We don’t want to say, oh, you can now treat all Latino students this way, right? They’re still they’re still individuals and they have a lot of, you know, a variety. And so, one thing we suggest, actually, is that we, you know, as we’re moving to use this tool more for practitioners or create tools for practitioners that career services professionals and student services professionals sit down with students and maybe talk through some of these forms of community cultural. Well, what do they think they have? What’s driving them so that, you know, like the individual you’re talking to and what and what motivates them? I think the other interesting thing that we found from that study is that can be cultural wealth. Social networks and career wise are related to each other in these really interesting ways. So, the vast majority of people that students list as talking to about academic and career advice are family members, even though the family members in there in the sample tend to not be college educated. So instead of saying, well, they shouldn’t do that, right, they should talk to people who are college educated about college. We are instead taking the approach of saying, look how well they’re doing right? Like in our sample, most of the students are they have financial worries that they’re navigating. They work at least 16 hours a week and they maintain a B averages and they are in good standing with their college and their college students or the UW students. That means their strategies are working and what the university needs to do is say, okay, what can we help you with? That will ease some of these other worries and burdens and concerns instead of saying, don’t talk to your mom about, you know, career advice or academic advice because she’s not college educated. Just continue to talk to that person because that strategy is working for you. But how can we help alleviate the other concerns you have?

Dave Chancellor [00:17:05] What are some of those strategies that you saw in your results? What did what did you see these students doing?

Nidia Bañuelos [00:17:13] Yeah. So, one thing that we thought is that and we’ve talked to some career services professionals who say that they’re already doing this. I think a lot of people are. But is to think about students’ community, cultural wealth in programing. So first of all, offer programing where you’re helping students see these things because not everyone is. You know, I feel like when I learned of the framework, I was like, wow, this really blew my mind. Not all students are going to know about it. A kind of creating workshops where they talk about their strengths, identify them within themselves, and then very practical workshops where you’re taking these skills that you’ve developed through your family and your community and learning how to talk about them to a med school. Right. Or like, you know, an engineering and engineering program. Second is thinking about kind of groups of students who are motivated by different forms of communication, while they’re supported by different forms of people’s wealth and offering specific programing to them. So, thinking about actually partnering with spiritual organizations or student religious organizations so that students can have conversations about career and faith, because this was a big thing that came up both in our survey and in the interviews, is that students are driven kind of some students are driven by their faith-based values. And there seems to be not much conversation in the career services and about how your faith can affect your choices and that kind of package. We also had the suggestion that even though a lot of since are adults and they are, you know, they’re independent, maybe involving their family more directly in in supporting them. Right. Like making building stronger connections with family members. And that can also mean like making sure that children with or sorry, students with children and with families are having opportunities to participate in programing, like maybe even letting them have bring their kids in, providing childcare. These are things are very simple solutions, but I think a lot of career services professionals are already thinking of when we do these workshops with them. We’re just trying to give them a language essentially for talking to administrators to say, you see, we’re doing well. And there’s some evidence to suggest that we’re doing the right things. So that’s one of our goals.

Dave Chancellor [00:19:26] Yeah. So, we’re of course here at the Institute for Research on Poverty. And I’m curious about the inequality aspects or dimensions of this and potential that this has to reduce inequality. I’m just thinking about, you know, graduation rates, what Christian college students, you know, what their pathways into that first job have looked like and what we’re up against?

Nidia Bañuelos [00:19:46] That’s a great question. I mean, I think that there’s some evidence to suggest that actually it depends on kind of like the survey you’re looking at, that a lot of first year students are actually using career services at higher rates than students who are continuing generation. And that’s true for students of color in some places as well, depending on, again, where you’re looking. So, I think that this is this is a really squishy part of our work. Like I you know, I really wish that our work could do more to just kind of just give students money that they need, right, to get through. Like, I wish we could apply to grants and just say my grant is just to give students everything they need to get through college. But I think one thing that we’re kind of hoping that we contribute is to provide providing those students with like kind of emotional support and kind of like the right kind of services when they get to that office. Because we were surprised at how often in interviews we heard students bring up a person who was discouraging and the person maybe didn’t even mean to be discouraging or it was the end of the day and they were tired. And, you know, who knows how many other students they had seen? You know, college counselors came up quite a bit. And those things stick with students for so long, right? Just an offhanded comment like, well, I don’t think you should apply. There’s just a stretch for you. And I think you should go to the local community college that can really kind of divert students. And one thing that we hope that we’re providing with students is just a language for people who support them to talk about them in ways that are more emotionally supportive. And that is not going to transform the inequality that we’re seeing in terms of where students are applying to college, what how students are persisting in college and what they’re doing after college. But I do think that it can do something right, a little a little small something. The other thing that came up in our work that we have not explored as much but we’re interested in, is that sometimes how you frame a job really influences how students think about it, right? there’s this great work by and I’m cutting on who’s at UNLV. And she does these interviews with students who say things like, you know, I’m a chemistry major. I’m interested in chemistry. I want to be a chemistry teacher, not a chemistry professor. One of these jobs pays more than the other, right? So, in terms of thinking about inequality, this is important distinction. But when you ask students why, they say professors have no influence on my community. I remember my chemistry teacher I want to go back to. Like me. I want to serve my community. I don’t want to do this job that is just disconnected from my community. So, I think we also need to think about students critical to their values in their careers and how we’re framing certain jobs as being like these are service oriented jobs and they tend to be low paid. These are jobs that are not service oriented. And you can make more money, right? Why can’t. Why can’t we reframe those jobs that are that are higher, higher paid as also being kind of service oriented and connected to students’ community. So that’s something we that came up in our in our work has come up in previous work that we have not explored enough.

Dave Chancellor [00:22:49] I want to ask what’s next in this work for you? And what are some of the areas that you’re especially focusing on? I know that you’re expanding this framework, the CCW framework, and really looking at career transitions, but what comes next?

Nidia Bañuelos [00:23:03] Yeah. We are very excited that we received funding from the National Science Foundation to kind of take our work to Texas. We are working with the Texas UT system and the West Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation. We call it Allisam, but it’s essentially a program to help underrepresented students of color move into STEM graduate programs and to get into STEM field. And they are interested in kind of measuring their students strengths as opposed to kind of deficit based narratives about their students, like overcoming, you know, things and the university kind of helping them to overcome things. And part of what we’re doing is that we’re following students. We’re doing a classic junior study where we take juniors and we follow them for three years so we can see them going out into their careers. And what we really want to see is how they’re using these assets to develop their social networks. So, we’re taking social network measures, mutual cultural wealth measures, science identity measures, career attitudes measures at every stage. And we can see how their social networks change as they move out onto the job. So that’s something I’m really excited about because I think, you know, it’s nice to partner with engineers. They’re very different from us, but it’s also exciting that they kind of care about the same things that we do. The other thing that I’m hoping to do in my work and I haven’t fully figured out how to do this, but I have a fellowship with a mortgage center this year and I’ve been learning so much from them about community based participatory action research. And so, as a thinking more about working with students who are older and who, you know, are lower income and have children, I would really love to do kind of a smaller scale project where I involve students in that position as researchers, right? So, paying them for doing the work, having them ask the questions about their own experience, having them collect, collect the data and having them be coauthors. Right. So, because nobody knows the challenges of being an adult student as much as a person who is living, living that. Right. So that’s tat’s a direction that I hope to go into the future, is to take the lessons that we’ve learned from our bigger, larger scale studies and apply them to something smaller that would really involve students as researchers.

Dave Chancellor [00:25:20] Well, as I think is such exciting work. And I’m just so grateful for you taking the time to talk with us about it. Yeah.

Nidia Bañuelos [00:25:25] Thank you so much, Dave, for inviting me on. I really enjoy talking about this stuff. Dave Chancellor [00:25:31] Thanks again to Professor Banuelos for talking about this work. If you want to check out the report we talked about, there’s a link in the show notes. The production of this podcast was supported in part by funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation. But its contents don’t necessarily represent the opinions or policies of that office. Any other agency of the Federal Government or the Institute for Research on Poverty. Music for the episode is by Martin DeBoer. Thanks for listening.


Education & Training, Employment, Inequality & Mobility, Labor Market, Postsecondary Education, Racial/Ethnic Inequality