Op-Ed: Class diversity needs more than scholarships

Tuesday, February 2, 2016 - 12:04am

The University of Michigan-Ann Arbor is testing new approaches to recruit and enroll more high-achieving, low-income students from across the state. But will these efforts be enough to attract and retain students — most of whom are the first in their families to attend college? To illustrate low-income, first-gen student experiences, imagine Eve — the daughter of factory workers — graduating high school as class valedictorian. She is the oldest of three children and her parents have combined yearly incomes of $35,000. Eve has been accepted to the University of Michigan and she loves Wolverine football.

When her financial aid package arrives, Eve sees both scholarship and work-study offers — neither will have to be paid back. However, she will need substantial tuition loans over four years. This worries her parents, but she is determined to enroll in her dream college and eventually attend medical school.

By early November of her first year, Eve realizes significant differences between her and her peers. New friends have travelled overseas on multiple family trips and everyone has plenty of extra money to buy things like football tickets. She will not be watching football in the Big House. Her roommate, the daughter of a cardiovascular surgeon and a trial attorney, is surprised Eve’s parents are blue-collar workers. Others proudly announce they will leave college with very little debt. How can this be? Eve wonders. But when she learns from her sociology professor that 36 percent of Michigan freshmen have family yearly incomes more than $200,000, she understands.  

Eve is doing very well in her classes, especially organic chemistry, but is feeling self-conscious and rather exotic. Did she make the right decision to attend a college where she feels so out of place? Are there any other first-gens? Does Michigan even recognize students like her? Is there a place to go and talk about her adjustment difficulties?

To help address financial struggles for students like Eve, Michigan has recently announced a pilot two-year scholarship called High Achieving Involved Leader for qualified, low-income Michigan students. HAIL pays four years of tuition and covers $60,000 of necessary fees. Students, parents and guardians, high school principals and counselors at 259 Michigan public schools (rural, suburban and urban) all receieved HAIL information last fall.

Another hands-on program recognizing economic challenges is a new LSA laptop computer policy. Low-income LSA students can loan laptops — at no charge — for the duration of their four years of study. This initiative will likely continue in the future and could be a significant resource for HAIL students and other incoming freshmen.

We hope other colleges — Engineering, Business and Nursing, for example — initiate similar policies because buying a computer can be a major financial burden for lower-income families.

We celebrate initiatives to help talented, low-income, first-gen students pay for college, but wonder if the University will also provide the necessary social support structures. Will the University assist low-income students in feeling comfortable on a campus where 89 percent of undergraduates have parents with a college degree and likely much higher household incomes?

Research tells us that economically disadvantaged students — both white students and students of color — on predominantly middle-and upper-middle-class campuses, like Michigan, often feel isolated. Attending a highly selective college is the initial stage in the difficult process of upward mobility — widely encouraged and celebrated in American culture. But this can be very complicated for students as they pull away from the working-class communities that carefully nurtured them. Colleges like Michigan become portals to unfamiliar, economically privileged experiences and futures. Will HAIL recognize these well-known facts and help students achieve a sense of belonging — especially in their first two years of college?

Could a new First Generation Student Office, for example, provide highly visible recognition that low-income students are present and supported on campus? An office could offer first-gens space to meet and help promote academic and personal success. Other universities have recognized these first-gen challenges.

Five years ago, Stanford University established a Diversity and First-Gen Office that helps direct first-gens to needed resources (e.g. academic advising and career planning). Highly selective campuses can feel quite foreboding for those who have grown up in the working and lower classes.  Parents and students look to the University of Michigan, with its considerable resources, for leadership in providing essential support networks for low-income, first-generation students as they pursue their American dreams.   

Dwight Lang teaches in the sociology department at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor and is faculty adviser to the Department of Sociology-sponsored undergraduate group “First Generation College Students @ Michigan.”

Candice Miller, from River Rouge, Mich., is a sophomore in the College of Literature, Science and the Arts at the University of Michigan.