College Affordability Guides Provoke Debate, Action on Economic Inequality on Campuses

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Early last year, the University of Michigan (UM) Central Student Government (CSG) released a Campus Affordability Guide. The document was reportedly designed to offer Ann Arbor students information and leads on how to lower expenses and live more economically.

Divided into various sections covering issues including housing and transportation, the CSG guide offered several tips. For example, students can sell a vehicle and use public transportation instead. According to the guide, this move would help them avoid car maintenance costs and, in some cases, “get cash fast.”

The document also encouraged students to unplug unused electrical devices to avoid draining power and to “insource household chores” instead of “paying someone to do gardening or laundry.”

On the surface, the guide provided a range of viable ways to stretch a dollar. But to many underprivileged students, the document was offensive. 

Lauren Schandevel
Lauren Schandevel

“People saw the CSG guide and were obviously angry and insulted,” says Lauren Schandevel, a senior at UM’s Ann Arbor campus. “This was especially true for low-income students whose problem is not that they do not know how to save money, but that they don’t have enough money to save.”  

Schandevel grew up somewhere between working class and working poor and now describes her economic status as “solidly lower middle class.” She prides herself on having become a UM student without the benefit of economic privilege.

For her, the CSG guide was a stark reminder that “there are a lot of assumptions [made] about what UM students look like, what kind of cultural capital they have, and what they can afford.”  

A rash of jokes, complaints, op-eds, and social media posts about the guide echoed that sentiment. Many of these reactions came from students who believed that it was out of touch with the on-campus realities faced by low-income students.

In response, Schandevel decided to author her own such publication. She created a Google document, to which she shared a link on social media, and called for other UM students to help her develop a more realistic college affordability guide. 

The resulting document, “Being Not-Rich at UM,” includes detailed, firsthand tips and advice on everything from housing, food, and transportation to textbooks, clothing, and employment. For example, the guide suggests that students interested in living off campus consider apartment complexes that offer free rent in exchange for employment. This work usually involves creating resident events, managing the front desk, and showing and leasing apartments.

Since its creation, “Being Not-Rich at UM” has gone viral, gained national attention, and inspired similar guides at other universities, including the University of Texas at Austin and Michigan State University.

“It has built a sense of community around our shared experience being low-income or first-generation students,” Schandevel explains. “For once, we feel heard and seen.”

In its introduction, the “Not-Rich” guide is described as a place for contributors to be honest about the struggles lower-income and first-generation students face on campus. These barriers are significant in part because data indicate that more students at prestigious higher education institutions in the U.S. come from the top 1 percent of the income scale than from the bottom 60 percent. Additional data from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation reveal that low-income students account for only 3 percent of enrollment at the country’s most competitive colleges and universities. 

This dearth of students from the lowest socioeconomic groups contributes to increased feelings of marginalization among these individuals, as the majority of their peers cannot relate to their struggles. 

Making College Affordable for Some

Tiffany Jones
Tiffany Jones

Rising tuition costs are often cited as one of the reasons why academically qualified, low-income students are grossly underrepresented at selective colleges and universities. However, Tiffany Jones, PhD, director of higher education policy at The Education Trust, says that states and institutions are also not engaging in efforts to make college more affordable for those who struggle the most to pay.

“Funding to assist with college costs is targeted to middle- and upper-income students who can otherwise afford to attend college,” she explains. “Often, college and university programs allocate financial aid based on grades and test scores — both of which are highly correlated with income.”

Jones notes that public colleges and universities spend $869 million on their wealthiest students compared with $809 million on the poorest. That trend also translates to private nonprofit education institutions, which Jones says allocate more than 50 percent of aid to their most affluent students. As a result, many high-achieving, low-income students simply cannot cover the cost of college. Those who do enroll often cannot afford to stay due to non-tuition expenses tied to housing, food, and transportation.

Jones believes that higher education institutions can do better to help these students. “Colleges and universities with resources and high completion rates for low-income students should provide more support to cover their full cost of attendance,” she says. “This should be the case even if it means that less aid is available for merit programs.”

Blurred Economic Lines

From a student perspective, Schandevel says that at UM, issues around social class remain contentious. Also, the line on campus between “rich” and “not rich” is blurry because people tend to think in terms of relative wealth rather than absolute wealth.

“Students on campus think they are ‘middle class’ if they live in a wealthy city but are not as wealthy as their friends,” she explains. “They often fail to see the larger context in which they have more money than most of the U.S. or world population.”

To address these and similar issues, Jones says that colleges and universities should track and use accurate data regarding the experiences of and outcomes for low-income students. “This will help inform administrators’ development of [appropriate and effective] strategies and approaches that are specific to given campus environments and contexts,” she says.

Toward a similar end, Schandevel, who is studying public policy with a minor in community action and social change, has contacted UM’s office of New Student Programs in hopes that the “Not-Rich” guide will be incorporated into the university’s new student orientation. 

She says that “Being Not-Rich at UM” has connected her to other people doing similar work and has given her a platform to speak about important issues. And although awareness is vital, Schandevel thinks that more action is what’s needed. 

As a senior, she plans to devote her final year at UM to working to alleviate inequalities on campus — in part, through the Michigan Affordability and Advocacy Center. Students recently founded this organization to improve the quality of life for lower-income UM students. 

But Schandevel sees that as only the beginning. “This guide and the attention it has received made a tiny dent in the work that needs to be done to address economic inequality in this country,” she says. “This journey has only affirmed my passion for pursuing economic justice for everyone.”

Kelley R. Taylor is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity. This article ran in our November 2018 issue.