In prior columns, I’ve discussed poverty’s general effects, but I haven’t honed in on its specific influences at the University. Our campus culture frequently creates hardships and pains associated with poverty.
In 2011, 63 percent of University students came from families earning incomes over $100,000. Given that the median family income in the United States at the time was $51,324, it’s a pretty reasonable assumption that our campus is affluent. Don’t let this wealth lull you into brushing off socioeconomic issues, though, because this only sharpens the pains and struggles associated with lower socioeconomic status at the University.
First, our student body’s general affluence drives the expectation that students can afford any and every small purchase. I’ll be the first to attest to this. During freshman year I was surprised at how frequently and casually people ordered takeout, went out to eat, purchased clothes, spent money on cabs and went out for coffee. I’m not casting judgment on these people, but I couldn’t frequently and spontaneously follow their habits. From talking to some of my other low-SES friends, I know that I’m not the only one that feels this pressure, and yes, these expectations did cause pressure and stress. I oftentimes had to craftily reject invitations to hang out or feel guilty about spending money that I really shouldn’t have spent. While these problems aren’t as burdensome as starvation, homelessness and the lack of autonomy frequently associated with poverty, this doesn’t invalidate the reality that they do cause stress. The culmination of thoughts and anxiety about spending money equate to a noteworthy pain — especially when it instills a gap between you and your peers.
More issues continue to divide lower- and higher-socioeconomic students — particularly off-campus housing. As I’ve written in previous columns, our off-campus housing is unreasonably expensive. Many students cannot afford the high-luxury apartment complexes like Zaragon and Landmark. Furthermore, a majority of reasonably located and average-quality housing costs upwards of $600 per month — prices that students oftentimes cannot afford to pay. Due to financial restrictions, poorer students face specific and difficult decisions. They must either pressure their friends to limit rental options or exclude certain friend groups as possible roommates. And again, while I agree that some people in poverty face worse circumstances, this doesn’t diminish the reality that college students should have fundamental freedoms like the option to lease reasonable housing with any friend group.
Lower SES also affects students academically and professionally on this campus. Even students receiving the most financial aid from the University are often required to work part-time to cover their cost of living, including expenses outside of tuition and room and board. While it’s understandable in most circumstances to expect students to work a part-time job to earn money, this expectation is slightly blurred at the University. Most work-study students work at least 10 hours per week, and many students financing their tuition work other jobs that require even more hours. At a school like Michigan, a required 10-hour-plus weekly commitment can seriously inhibit students from achieving their full potential. For example, a University student seriously interested in a student organization on campus may not be able to meet the time requirements of becoming a student leader. An impoverished student would find it almost impossible to balance an leadership position in a student organization, work a job and balance classes. While I do believe that low-SES students should help contribute to their schooling, it’s not acceptable for this work to inhibit the pursuit of their passions.
We need solutions to alleviate these problems. While the University should be applauded for enacting policies like covering 100 percent of in-state student’s demonstrated need, the system for determining need should be updated. The amount that a student is expected to contribute to tuition is determined through the Federal Application for Student Aid’s assessment of family income. While financial need is correlated with family income, the two are not always directly tied. As stated on an online FAFSA reference guide, a student coming from a one-child family earning and adjusted gross income of $52,500 a year is expected to contribute $4,228 to their education each year. Contrarily, a family earning $30,000 is expected to contribute only $556. While the difference in these incomes is about $20,000, a student coming from the first family is expected to contribute almost eight times more to their education. For instance, while a higher family income could indicate more funds dedicated to college, it’s also possible that the parents of the $52,500 family have higher expenses, like a more expensive mortgage. Since the student has no control over parents’ expenses, he or she may incur more loans than a $30,000 income family despite having an equivalent need. The situation would be slightly different if the student’s family earned incomes in higher ranges, but incomes around $52,500 are approximately half of the average family income at the University. A student in this situation should be covered more adequately.
We must also help low-SES students after they’ve received financial aid packages and are searching for on-campus jobs. The University currently offers 4,000 on-campus jobs for University Housing, University Unions and Recreational Sports. While these jobs can be great opportunities for students, in some circumstances they can fail to provide relevant work experiences for a desired field. Programs and aid should be allocated to allow for more options for students with established need to receive at least minimum wage at all jobs — like at student publications or required volunteering for pre-med programs. This way, low-SES students earn money from work that also furthers their career.
Socioeconomic issues are complex, harsh and oftentimes result in narratives left unheard. But we can make a difference by spotlighting these pains and standing in support of change.
Michael Schramm can be reached at email@example.com.