Skip to content Menu

Module 3: Barriers Facing Today’s Students


  • Develop a deeper understanding of how barriers like poverty, trauma, systemic racism, and other factors intersect and hinder student success.
  • Get familiar with research about the basic needs, and challenges, facing many of today’s college students.
  • Consider steps that could be taken on your campus to increase understanding of barriers to student success, and how that understanding could lead to actions that might improve student outcomes.


Imagine that you are standing at a busy intersection where many roads converge. You’re trying to decide which way to turn—which road to follow. Someone sent you a digital map, but it’s pages long, and the map has words and names of places that are mostly unfamiliar. There is a timer ticking in the background, counting down to a deadline to reach a destination, but you have no clear idea of what lies between you and completion of your journey. People are racing by you, and you hear them talking about how busy they are. You were raised to be respectful. It would be rude to stop someone who looks so busy (and important) to ask for help. You’re also hungry and tired. You have been couch-surfing the last two weeks, because you don’t have a permanent place to stay. More and more you are feeling like the safest thing to do is to turn around and go back the way you came. At least going backwards leads you to something that is familiar.

Many college students stand at the intersection of multiple challenges and barriers to success. This module offers a deeper look into the realities experienced by many of today’s college students. With a better understanding of the complexities of the barriers facing students, better maps, guidance systems, and support mechanism can be put in place to support their journey.

The content in this module can help users:

  • Build awareness and empathy for students’ experiences.
  • Learn more about the barriers to degree completion that students encounter.
  • Use research and data to develop and advocate for student support initiatives.
  • Consider a range of approaches to supporting students whose basic needs are not being met.

Tips for Using This Module

  • Group Meetings and Staff Training: Select and share videos that support your goals during staff meetings. Use the Featured Video Worksheet (below) with groups, or as an individual.
  • Onboarding New Staff: Integrate resources into onboarding materials for new hires.
  • Individual Professional Development: Provide access to resources to staff to support their personal learning goals and professional growth.

Introducing Barriers Faced by Today’s College Students

Use these brief videos to kickstart the conversation during your staff-training session.

What is Intersectionality?

Kimberlé Crenshaw: What is Intersectionality? This video is (1:54)

Watch Now

Why Do Drop Outs Occur?

Why do poor students drop out even when financial aid covers the cost? This video is (7:37)

Watch Now

Trauma and the Brain

This video is (4:28).

Watch Now

Reflection Questions

After watching the introductory videos, encourage participants to think about or share their thoughts.

  • What steps could you take to learn more about your students’ experiences and challenges? How could you learn more about the intersectionality of their challenges?
  • When a student has experienced trauma, their brain structure can change, leading them to perceive risks or threats everywhere. Can you think of specific ways in which these types of changes to the brain might be a factor into interactions with, and perceptions held by students?

Featured Video

Use this video and worksheet to build a deeper understanding of the challenges that some of today’s college students face. Consider how your interactions with students, and policies and procedures could be modified to reduce barriers for students.

Homeless College Students: Out in the Cold

For tens of thousands of college students in America, the toughest test they face is a lack of housing, seriously jeopardizing their chances to succeed. (This video is 12:10.)

Watch Now

Follow-up Worksheet

Use this worksheet as a follow-up activity with your team or staff members.

Download Now

In-Depth Videos

Use these videos to take a deeper dive into barriers students face during your staff training.

Anthony Jack–Author of "The Privileged Poor

On Diversity: Access Ain’t Inclusion | Anthony Jack | TEDxCambridge (12:42)

Watch Now

The Path for Non-Traditional Students

How can colleges best encourage and serve students from disadvantaged backgrounds, adult learners, veterans, and others outside the mold? (24:23)

Watch Now

The Real Price of College: Revealing True Student Financial Need:

The Real Price of College: Revealing True Student Financial Need (1:01:05)

Watch Now

Additional Print Resources

Download these print resources for to use in staff-training or as an individual.

Articles and Other Print Resources

Visit these online periodicals and magazines and print them for your staff-training or as an individual.


Trauma-Informed Practices for Postsecondary Education: A Guide

This guide is intended to raise awareness of trauma in postsecondary education institutions, help educators understand how trauma affects learning and development, and provide practical advice for how to work effectively with college students who have been exposed to trauma

Read Now


One-Stop Center Models

One-Stop Center Models: A Guide to Centralizing Students’ Basic Needs Supports

Read More


These books offer an in-depth look at barriers facing students and how to address it.


Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream

Paying the Price offers an in-depth analysis and understanding of our nation's college financial aid system.

Read Now

The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students

In this bracing exposé, Anthony Jack shows that many students’ struggles continue long after they’ve settled in their dorms. Admission, they quickly learn, is not the same as acceptance.

Read More