Date Awarded


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)




Pamela Eddy

Committee Member

Virginia Ambler

Committee Member

Neal Holly


Abstract Low-income Pell Grant recipients represent a small percentage of undergraduate students at America’s elite colleges and universities. The purpose of this phenomenological case study was to understand the lived experiences of low-income Pell Grant students who attended a most competitive college. I used Tinto and Pusser’s (2006) institutional action model as my theoretical framework because this theory enabled a focus on the institutional factors low-income Pell Grant students identified as contributing to their persistence to succeed within the most competitive college context. My study employed a qualitative research approach. The 11 student participants – seniors, juniors, sophomores, and freshman – all expressed ways in which elite college experiences had impacted their collegiate persistence to succeed. From the findings emerged themes of adapting, access to support, feedback, people mattered, and context. This research found low-income Pell Grant students were grateful for financial assistance that paid for their higher education. Yet, the participants noted challenges with certain institutional areas that negatively influenced their sense of belonging and participation in extracurricular activities, and these provide insight into how institutional programs can be improved. Reduced cultural capital meant the low-income students were reluctant to seek academic assistance and to ask the elite colligate administration for support. Elite institutional leaders and federal policymakers can benefit from this study. The research findings are important for practitioners seeking to improve socioeconomic diversity at our nation’s most competitive colleges. Keywords: low-income student, most competitive college, Pell Grant



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