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 recent phone interview, Waldorf clarified that this isn’t just a Duke-specific problem, but an issue that exists across the country and is exacerbated by some of the wealth she and others see at Duke.
I was in a class once where a professor basically assumed that no one in the class had cleaned a house for money, and that wasn’t true,” Waldorf says. “It’s sort of like an erasure of that population,” she says.
Beth Breger, executive director for Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America (LEDA), a scholarship organization that helps high-achieving, low-income students gain admission to America’s top colleges, says part of the problem stems from the fact that a majority of campuses are set up for your average upper/middle class student, one who comes to school with a certain set of “soft skills” that disadvantaged students still need to learn.
“Setting up a bank account for the first time. How to make an appointment with a professor. How to ask for a recommendation letter. How to navigate support from a TA (teaching assistant),” are things lower-income students need to learn, Breger says. And these knowledge gaps are just the tip of the iceberg.
As anyone who’s ever subsisted on ramen noodles for weeks on end knows, the effects of an empty wallet can pervade virtually every aspect of life. Students I spoke with talked about how, despite full academic scholarships that cover tuition, room and board, difficulties arise with everything from affording on-campus student events (such as musicals or concerts), to missing out on Greek life, to eating alone in at the dining hall on a Friday night when friends are eating out somewhere they can’t afford.
Even something as simple as a trip to the laundry room can serve as a reminder of the income disparities. Christian Ramirez, a LEDA scholar who grew up in Queens and is currently a junior at Harvard, remembers a time during his freshman year when his mother came to visit and decided to help him with his laundry. They both noticed piles of clothing on top of the washing machines in his dorm’s laundry room and Ramirez realized that he had seen those exact same piles a week or two before. The realization — that someone would simply forget to pick up his clothes — took both Ramirez and his mother aback. “When I do laundry, I literally make sure I have every single sock and no piece of clothing is left behind,” he says. “I personally cannot afford to replace them,’’ he says.
Clothes can be one of the most conspicuous indicators of wealth, and more than one low income student noted the designer threads peers wear serve as persistent reminders of the wealth gap. Yasmine Arrington is a Jack Kent Cooke scholar — the recipient of a prestigious scholarship from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, so named for the former Redskins owner
who left his fortune to high-need, high-achieving students — who now attends Elon University, a southern school where guys favor khakis and many girls wear the preppy Lilly Pulitzer brand. Arrington remembers her reaction when she discovered what an average Lilly Pulitzer piece might cost.
“I was like, ‘oh my goodness a dress for $200?’” Arrington, an Elon junior, says. However, she says it doesn’t get to her because she focuses on developing her own style for her own prices, which most importantly, makes her happy. “I don’t feel deprived because it makes me more unique. My style is my style and no one else is going to walk in with my suede boots or jeans.”
Nightlife offers its own set of dilemmas. Those whose wealthier friends don’t mind footing the bill for a night out — in the name of friend-group unity, perhaps — find accepting such financial help can introduce a certain level of guilt.
“If we go out, and friends are like, ‘oh no, I’m getting this, I’ll pay for this,’ and then it’s like bah!” says Edith Carolina Benavides, a Jack Kent Cooke scholar who is a senior at Harvard. “I literally owe so much money to my friends, beyond owing them so much for their support and being there for me.”
Maureen Mahoney, the dean of the college at Smith College, and Barbara Cervone, president of the education non-profit What Kids Can Do both noted that medical problems — particularly lagging dental care or undiagnosed learning disabilities — can cause significant snags for poor students who might already be reeling from the academic culture shock. Cervone remembers one high achieving student from the Dominican Republic who, in her freshman year at Wellesley, found she had several rotting teeth, which couldn’t be fixed because the university’s health policy wouldn’t cover it. After a petition to the college president, the policy changed and the student was able to get the care she needed and continue with her studies. But the situation highlights how proactive students have to be to procure the funds and care they might need.
This proactiveness doesn’t always come naturally, Mahoney notes, as many high-achieving students (low income or otherwise) have trouble asking for help when they need it. Assuming, of course, a low income student knows exactly what resources they need. Renata Martin, a Jack Kent Cooke scholar at Brown says that she never saw herself as “disadvantaged” while growing up, but coming to a school like Brown brought to light all the resources and opportunities she had missed out on, and missing out on even the simplest things – like academic support resources or individualized academic attention – can make it hard to look for them in a higher-ed scenario.
I think the hardest part is not even financial – it’s trying to know about most of the things that your peers know about,” she says. “It can be isolating, going to a public high school with all these differences you don’t think about until you go to an elite school where you stand out in many different ways.”
Some colleges, like Smith, and scholarship foundations, like LEDA, try to spread awareness of the academic and financial support resources available to low-income students. At Smith, this support includes a (limited) extra fund available to students in emergency situations, so if a family emergency arises and a last-minute flight across the country becomes necessary, a low-income student can make the trip. Not all campuses or scholarship organizations offer this feature, so it’s important to check with the office of student life and/or the financial aid office to get a full list of student benefits and resources.
While many of the students interviewed say that life as a low income student at an elite campus got progressively easier as they got older and carved out their own niches, Duke’s Waldorf notes that her low-income status adds additional pressure to one of the more trying parts of senior year: hunting for a job or applying to graduate school.
I don’t have money to pay for transportation for interviews. What if my phone gets shut off right before an interview?” she says. “A lot of the Duke population is not thinking about, ‘is it difficult for my neighbor to job search because they don’t have nice interview clothes?’”
To be sure, the solutions to these issues vary on a campus-by-campus basis. Some student career service centers — like
Barnard’s — have a suit-borrowing program from which students without business-professional clothing can borrow a donated dress suit with their student ID, at no cost. Other campuses, such as UNC, have a stipend students can apply for that can help pay for interview clothes. Likewise, some colleges and graduate programs (William and Mary’s Mason School of Business is one) have stipends available for job-hunting transportation costs.
LEDA’s Breger says that graduate school application costs – including prep courses, prep books, test fees and school application fees – are so high that is not uncommon for a low income student to decide the costs are prohibitive. Instead, they may graduate and work for a few years to save money and then apply to graduate school. The good news is that there are fee-waivers available for low-income test takers of the
GRE, GMAT, LSAT and MCAT; the bad news is that because different testing boards run each exam, the eligibility requirements and application process for the fee waivers vary from test to test, so it’s important to read the fine print before you count on receiving discounted exam fees.
It should be noted that job-related resources aren’t just for low-income seniors; there are a number of stipends and scholarships available for low-income students who wish to pursue unpaid internships and research opportunities earlier in their undergraduate careers — opportunities that are frequently limited to their higher-net-worth counterparts. College Greenlight is one such resource for these scholarships: a division of scholarship search engine Cappex, it dedicates its algorithms to finding resources especially targeted to low-income or first-generation college students (often one and the same). Among the scholarships currently available on College Greenlight is a
$10,000 award for a student interested in broadcast journalism or digital media; a $25,000 award with a potential spot in Merck’s summer program, specifically for an African American college junior; and four consecutive paid summers at Warner Brothers Studios in Burbank, California.
Jonathan April, College Greenlight’s general manager, says that many colleges offer their own internship stipend programs, so it’s important to supplement a Cappex/College Greenlight search with visits to the financial aid office and the career services office (the dual visit might be a pain, but it’s better to leave no stone unturned with these things.)
Ultimately, it’s spreading awareness of resources like these — and not being afraid to have discussions about economic disparities on campus — that will help low-income students feel more at ease at elite universities, students and adult experts say.
Low income students “need to be assured that they’re as entitled to all the resources of a Smith education as any other student here. It’s often not so much about direct intervention so much as exposing them to all the incredible opportunities we have here, and to make sure they know these opportunities are for them,” Smith’s Mahoney says.
Breger echoes these sentiments. “You’re getting an education valued at a quarter-million dollars and you should milk every dollar you can,” she says. “Get the most bang for your buck whether it’s your buck or not. These resources are part of what make these campuses so phenomenal. It’s not a sign of weakness to ask for help; if anything it’s a sign of strength.”
If hearing advice from adults doesn’t help, take it from someone who’s still navigating this often tricky terrain. Harvard’s Christian Ramirez remembers feeling alone as a low-income student at an Ivy League institution at first, but slowly realizing there were many other students like him and it was okay to ask one of them, or an administrator, for help.
“[The school’s] resources are there to help you, and don’t be afraid to seek them out,” he says, ultimately concluding that success is possible if students channel one key characteristic. “It’s about being tenacious. I think tenacity in these situations can go a long way.”