The Book

Breakaway Learners: Strategies for Post-Secondary Success with At-Risk Students

This powerful book explores how institutions of higher education can successfully serve “breakaway” students—first-generation, low-income students who are trying to break away from the past in order to create a more secure future. The gap between low-SES and high-SES students persists as efforts to close it have not met with great success.

In this provocative book, Gross offers a new approach to addressing inequities by focusing on students who have succeeded despite struggling with the impacts of poverty and trauma. Gross draws on her experience as a college president to outline practical steps that post-secondary institutions can take to create structures of support and opportunity that build reciprocal trust.

Students must trust their institutions and professors, professors must trust their students, and eventually students must learn to trust themselves.

PUBLICATION DATE: April 21, 2017.


  • Addresses flagging efforts to improve the educational progress of low-income students;
  • Focuses on the institutions that serve students as opposed to efforts to fix failing students;
  • Provides concrete strategies and describes their actual impact on individuals and institutions across the educational landscape, including opportunities for replication and scalability;
  • Contains illustrations to animate the book’s core concepts.


Available in the following formats: hard cover, paperback and ebook

Karen Gross is a Washington, DC–based advisor and consultant to non-profit schools, organizations, and governments. She was president of Southern Vermont College and senior policy advisor to the United States Department of Education. >READ HER FULL BIO HERE


“Teachers and faculty are remarkably focused on self and interpret student action (or inaction) as a personal affront. Really? Not everything is personal and focused on faculty.”

“Deescalate and defuse, not ramp up and sanction.”

“We underestimate the depth of the behaviors of hypervigilant people because we do not actually see them.”

“In other words, professionals within the institution assume that the absence of uptake is evidence of a lack of interest, lack of commitment, lack of effort.”

“In short, these professionals need to understand money’s language and be able to speak it to help breakaway students find pathways to higher education and solutions for their financial and family obligations.”

“The current Parent PLUS Loan product is too expensive (including interest rates) and too keyed to credit worthiness.”

“If children are not exposed to opportunity, it is hard for them to know it is there.”

“Lasticity is at once an outcome, a process, a goal, a trait, a characteristic, a construct, and an architecture to facilitate and foster breakaway student success. But those descriptors do not do justice to lasticity’s meaning, because it is also a catalyst for culture change.”

“Breakaway students are moving (actually often wrenching themselves) away from where they were to where they can be. Some succeed. Others do not.”

“It makes little sense to focus on the end point—graduation and graduation rates—if you can’t get the beginning right.”

“The majority of the current student-focused attention is targeted at those who have failed and what we need to add to their tool box of skills. We employ a deficiency model.”

“Stated in its simplest form, lasticity describes the set of express conditions (related to qualities, processes, approaches, values, and interconnectivity) that, if met and satisfied, operate to facilitate breakaway student success across the educational pipeline.”

“We know that on a campus, you can do 98% of things “right,” but one nasty comment or misunderstood encounter can make a breakaway student unsettled or worse.”