More than a year after “Being Not-Rich at UM,” students reflect on continued challenges of navigating campus living costs

Tuesday, April 9, 2019 - 8:37pm

.

Design by Christine Jegarl

When LSA sophomore Aidan Sova transferred from Michigan State University this school year, he didn’t expect an increase in his cost of living. Sova, who self-identifies as a student of low socioeconomic status, said upon his arrival to campus, the major economic disparities between students at University of Michigan became abundantly clear to him.

Sova is an associate director of the Association of Big Ten Students, a forum for student representatives from each Big Ten college to address student needs and concerns. He served on student government at Michigan State and was on Michigan’s Central Student Government Executive Team as a policy adviser last semester. He said the University’s competitive nature makes low income students feel as though they must fit in with the lifestyle of students of higher socioeconomic status.

“I’ve been in a position to speak with people about different social expectations,” Sova said. “I definitely think Michigan by far is the most competitive and polarizing in the sense that if you’re low income here, I think you definitely have to try to blend in with people.”

In 2017, The New York Times found Michigan’s class of 2013 had the highest median parent income of 27 “highly selective” public colleges, at $154,000 per year.

In 2018, under alumni Anushka Sarkar and Nadine Jawad’s administration, CSG published an affordability guide to provide advice on how to save money while attending the University. After its publication, the guide was lambasted for being out of touch to struggles lower socioeconomic status students face. Suggestions for saving money included restricting impulse purchases and cutting back on laundry services.

In response, Public Policy senior Lauren Schandevel, another student who self identifies as low socioeconomic status, created her own affordability guide called “Being Not-Rich at UM” to provide what she hoped would be a more accurate and comprehensive publication for low socioeconomic status students. The document is public and can be edited by anyone.

Schandevel discussed how the CSG guide was offensive in its disregard for realistic economic limitations lower socioeconomic status students face.

“I think a lot of low-income students, myself in particular, were offended and a little frustrated about the assumption that we don’t have money because we are frivolously spending, when that’s not the case,” Schandevel said. “I think people were a little disappointed when the guide came out because we kind of expected more.”

Sova had heard about Schandevel’s guide before he transferred. While he initially paid little attention to the information in the document, he said he quickly realized it was a crucial resource for many students with low socioeconomic status on campus.  

“I was actually sent that guide probably by 10 different people before I got here,” Sova said. “And I remember thinking, as a Michigan State student at the time, I was like, ‘That’s ridiculous, I won’t need that, I’m sure it’s not that different over there.’ It sincerely is.”

Schandevel said a peripheral goal of the guide was to foster a sense of community among contributors and readers by publicizing a sort of database that could benefit many students who often feel invisible on campus.

“Being on a predominantly wealthy campus, low income students fly under the radar,” Schandevel said. “When that happens, they sort of internalize some of the alienation that they feel on this campus … Giving them space where they can find each other and share experiences is so powerful.”

City Councilmember Elizabeth Nelson, D-Ward 4, said in an interview with The Daily that the University should take more responsibility in helping students with affordability as enrollment increases, particularly with housing, but noted City Council’s limited say in the matter.

“I’m gradually learning about how little influence we seem to have over the University,” Nelson said. “As a city, we would like the University to take more responsibility for, ‘We’re going to admit this many more students and we’ve made no plans for where they will live.’”

According to a report sent to The Daily by Jennifer Hall, Executive Director of the Ann Arbor Housing Commission, an average four-bedroom unit in Ann Arbor is $1,140 per bed per month in rent, a 4.64 percent increase from the year before.

In February of 2018, CSG reached out to Schandevel for guidance on how to provide more effective resources to lower socioeconomic status students. In association with CSG, Schandevel created the Michigan Affordability Task Force, which plans to start writing a five-year plan next semester to serve as a reference for future CSG parties when creating legislation centered on the well-being of students on campus with lower socioeconomic status.

Schandevel reflected on CSG’s attempt throughout this term to address concerns of students with lower socioeconomic status through initiatives like a housing survey and the introduction of the task force. She proposed a housing survey for students to report their housing experiences, rating landlords and housing companies. According to Schandevel, the housing survey — implemented by former CSG President Daniel Greene’s administration — will be annual.

CSG President Ben Gerstein, an LSA sophomore, and Vice President Isabelle Blanchard, an LSA junior, said they believe additional surveys to gauge student opinion and experiences are critical to their mission for the upcoming year.

“I think doing surveys like that helps us to compile the information to really draw proper conclusions from it and also to have the data to share with administrators or City Council about what the real facts are that students are experiencing,” Blanchard said.

Blanchard said their administration will work to advertise campus resources to maximize affordability.

“For academic affordability, it’s touched upon usually every year, lowering the cost of textbooks, but also increasing the amount of textbooks we have in the library.” Blanchard said. “It’s CSG’s job to publicize the resources that are already available.”

After reading Schandevel’s guide, Ann Hower, director of the Office of New Student Programs, created a PDF version of the document to be used as a central guide on affordability for incoming students. Hower said she was moved by the collaborative nature of document.

“It was the students offering encouragement and support,” Hower said. “I think there can be a feeling that a student may feel like they are all alone … The most important part of this is keeping the student comments.”

After the publication of “Being Not-Rich at UM,” Hower collaborated with Schandevel to create the Student Support Task Force, which debuted in February. It aims to address disadvantages students of lower socioeconomic status face on campus.

“We recruit these students, we admit them, we want them to have an excellent opportunity, and if there’s any barrier to their participating, we want to identify those and remove those, so every student has the same possibilities … to make sure there’s no difference in experience based on what your socioeconomic status is,” Hower said.

LSA senior Meaghan Wheat collaborated with Schandevel to create the Social Class and Inequality Studies minor in an effort to provide further opportunities for students to learn about specific social class disparities. Wheat discussed how she hoped the minor would bring awareness to the influence social class yields on individuals’ everyday lives.

“I felt like coming to University, I realized that social class does have a big impact in some ways how you succeed here,” Wheat said. “...Not just, you know, people who are living in poverty, but thinking about how do privileged people navigate this space, too, how does cultural capital play a role in university setting?”

The concern regarding lack of wealth diversity in CSG was discovered during the time of the publication of the affordability guide. A CSG demographic report said 76 percent of student officials came from households earning an annual income greater than $100,000.

Current CSG positions are unpaid, which discourages some students from joining due to the large time commitment that oftentimes must be filled by a salary job.

“For me, I never see myself running as vice president or president unless something dramatically changes because I need to work, I need to be doing other things and so I just don’t have that luxury to run for such a position,” Sova said.

Gerstein discussed his consciousness of this lack of wealth diversity and his commitment to better representing the voices of students of lower socioeconomic status throughout his term.

“We both take really seriously the criticisms that have been placed on CSG because of … reports in the past showing how much students with wealth are participating in CSG,” Gerstein said. “… Isabelle and I want to look towards finding ways where we can make CSG a more inclusive space internally and then hopefully use that model to help other student organizations make their clubs more inclusive.”

Gerstein and Blanchard spoke about specific goals they had in mind to render CSG positions more accessible to students with lower socioeconomic status, such as excused absences from Assembly for work, their intention to promote the Leadership Engagement Scholarship for students to take part in club leadership positions, and educating students on how they can become more involved through their website.

Despite these changes, Schandevel hopes to see a more economically diverse, representative student government in the future. However, she said, any such change will require support from University administration through official programs.

“In a perfect world, I would like to see some more racially and socioeconomic diversity in the Assembly, I would like to see low-income students’ and students of color’s voices amplified,” Schandevel said. “I do want to say there is only so much CSG can do when it comes to a lot of these bigger problems.”

Daily News Editor Rachel Cunningham contributed reporting to this article.