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American colleges and universities make great promises of economic and social mobility but consistently fail to deliver on them, leaving thousands of low-income, first-generation (LIFG) students in debt and without a degree.

These students, for whom higher education holds the greatest promise of social and economic mobility, deserve better.

Becca S. Bassett earned her Ph.D. in Education at Harvard University in 2022 and completed her dissertation as a Radcliffe Fellow during the 21-22 academic year. Her research combines sociocultural and organizational approaches to explore how American universities can design and implement programmatic, academic, and organizational changes to ensure first-generation, low-income students thrive and succeed at equal rates as their continuing-generation, higher-income peers. She is currently writing a comparative ethnography of two Hispanic Serving Institutions that achieve unusually high rates of success with their low-income, first-generation students. Becca's scholarship has been published in top journals of higher education including The Journal of Higher Education and The Journal of College Student Development. 

Book Project

Keeping the Promise: How a Remarkable Group of Universities are Driving Equity in America

Keeping the Promise tells the story of an extraordinary group of universities who doggedly pursue equity in a field defined by hierarchy and prestige. Nationally, low-income, first-generation (LIFG) students are about half as likely to graduate from college than their more privileged peers. But a small group of universities are quietly defying this trend: they admit large numbers of LIFG students and graduate them at rates that far exceed the national average. Keeping the Promise takes readers into the classrooms, financial aid offices, and leadership meetings of two distinct "Equity Engines"-- a small private liberal arts university and a large regional public. By combining rich ethnographic observation with cultural and organizational analysis, the book provides a systematic examination of the people and practices that power equity-driving universities and the external pressures that undermine their work. By centering the duality of these unique universities—as both powerful, agentic, local campuses, and precarious organizations under constraints—I offer critical new insights into student success, organizational creativity, and how to transform American higher education to promote a more democratic and equitable society.


Bassett, B.S. (2023). “Do You Know How to Ask for an Incomplete?:” Reconceptualizing Low-Income, First-Generation College Student Success Through a Resource Acquisition Lens. Harvard Educational Review. 93(3), 366-390. Link

Bassett, B.S. (2021). Big Enough to Bother Them?: When Low-Income, First-Generation Students Seek Help from Support Programs. The Journal of College Student Development. 62(1), 19-36. Link


Bassett, B.S. & Geron, T. (2020). “Youth Voices in Education Research.” Harvard Educational Review. 90(2), 165-171. Link

Bassett, B.S. (2020). Better Positioned to Teach the Rules than to Change Them: University Actors in Two Low-Income, First-Generation Student Support Programs. The Journal of Higher Education. 91(3), 353-377. Link

Public Writing & Interviews

Creating a Culture of Success-- For All College Students. (Jan 3 2022) The Harvard Gazette. Link

Bassett, B.S. (2021). To Reduce Inequality on College Campuses, Invest in Relationships. Inside Higher Ed. Nov 1. Link


Bassett, B.S. (2021) Review of "A Field Guide to Grad School: Uncovering the Hidden Curriculum" by Jessica Calarco. Harvard Educational Review. 91(1), 138-141.

Bassett, B.S. (2020). Review of "Campus Counter Spaces: Black and Latinx Students' Search for Belonging at Historically White Universities" by Micere Keels. Harvard Educational Review. 90(4), 667-671.

Bassett, B.S. (2019). Review of "The Educated Underclass" by Gary Roth and "The Adjunct Underclass" by Herb Childress. Harvard Educational Review. 89 (4), 695-699.

Book Reviews

Book Project: Equity in the Balance

The Precarious Position of America's Mobility-Generating Universities

All universities reproduce some level of social inequality, but they do not do so uniformly. Some universities graduate their LIFG students at much higher rates than their peer institutions. What can we learn from these institutions about the practices, policies, and cultures that enable LIFG success?

In this comparative, ethnographic project, I examine a crucial but understudied group of universities: lower-status, regional universities that serve large numbers of LIFG students and graduate them at rates far above the national average. To better understand how these universities advance equity in our highly-stratified, prestige-driven field, I spent a year interviewing and observing faculty, staff, and administrators at Mission U and West State, two "LIFG Success Institutions" in the same Western state. Drawing on rich, ethnographic data, I illustrate that Mission U and West State are simultaneously deeply committed to LIFG students and reliant on economic and political systems that do not value these students as highly as their more privileged peers. By following Mission and West State’s response to the pandemic and its differential impacts on their organizational models, I conclude that the fate of mobility-generating universities rests on our ability to reposition higher education as a public good.

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