The Challenge Of Being Poor At America’s Richest Colleges

Shelling out $300 for one chemistry textbook. Jetting off to Budapest, Paris and Rome while studying abroad in Madrid. Grabbing a last-minute Amtrak ticket to Manhattan for a job interview during senior year.
For many students at America’s elite colleges, these are as much a part of university life as pulling all-nighters and complaining about dining hall food. But for low-income students, these are not only unaffordable luxuries, but part of a topic that can be more taboo than sexual orientation: the size of their wallets.

By Maggie McGrath via

Bostock Library at Duke University

Entrance to Bostock Library at Duke University. Duke senior KellyNoel Waldorf wants Duke students to be able to openly discuss income and class disparities. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Much has been written about getting high-achieving, low-income students through the Ivy-covered gates of America’s top colleges. And indeed, the focus on improving the economic diversity of college admissions is needed; a recent Brookings study found that just 8% of low-income students  applied to a “reach” school  and just 34% of high-achieving students in this group attended one of the country’s 238 most selective universities.  (The study defined low income as being in the bottom fourth, income-wise, of families with a senior in high school. For 2008, the year studied, low-income meant a family income below $41,472.)

Not surprisingly, while poor kids are underrepresented on elite campuses, the wealthiest kids are overrepresented. At Harvard, 45.6% of undergraduates come from families with incomes above $200,000 — in other words, incomes in the top 3.8% of all American households.

Yet for all the studies and attention paid to how to get more low income students onto America’s top campuses, there’s little discussion (on or off campus) about what life is like for those students after they win admission.

In a guest column for Duke University’s student newspaper that recently went viral, senior KellyNoel Waldorf addresses how isolating it can feel as a low-income student at an elite university. “Why is it not OK for me to talk about such an important part of my identity on Duke’s campus? Why is the word “poor” associated with words like lazy, unmotivated and uneducated? I am none of those things,” she writes. “Why has our culture made me so afraid or ashamed or embarrassed that I felt like I couldn’t tell my best friends ‘Hey, I just can’t afford to go out tonight?’”

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