One of the Biggest Problems on College Campuses Is One We Never Talk About

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The time for quietly enduring discrimination on college campuses is over. 

From the University of Missouri to Yale University to Claremont McKenna College in California and beyond, students of minority groups which were only relatively recently permitted access to higher education are protesting the unacceptable ways they're treated in their "elite" communities. 

But while protests against racism on campus are perhaps the loudest — or at least the most visible — there's another damaging force against which students are pushing back: classism.

Low-income students' concerns often intersect with issues of race: Almost two-thirds of African-American undergraduate students and 51% of Latino undergraduate students receive Pell Grants, or federal funds allocated to low-income students, according to the Washington Post. But confrontations over class-based issues on campus often emerge in ways that are different than debates over race. While many low-income students certainly encounter blatantly classist attitudes, their socio-economic backgrounds frequently disadvantage them in more subtle — though equally detrimental — ways.

Is higher education really an equalizing force? For centuries, "college was reserved for elite, mostly white men," Anne Phillips, executive director of Class Action, an organization that seeks to end classism, told Mic

That is changing. Affirmative-action policies and other inclusive measures have increased the number of low-income students on campuses across the country. The Pew Research Center reported in 2014 that enrollment rates of low-income students have increased over the past few decades. But these students still generally lack visibility, cohesion and necessary support.

"There is very little conversation about class," Caroline Liu, founder of First Class, a coalition of first-generation and low-income students at Wesleyan University, told Mic. "Talking about class is uncomfortable for people, and that makes it difficult to address the disparities that are born of not acknowledging fundamental differences in background."

Source: Mic/Wikimedia
Source: Mic/Wikimedia

That discomfort is found on the most basic level of social interactions, like being unable pay for a meal or a night out with friends. But class anxiety can manifest itself in the academic setting as well. 

Liu's low-income background has forced her to work as many as four jobs in addition to being a full-time student. Ironically, the jobs that have enabled her to pursue her education at Wesleyan have "heavily impacted" her ability to fully engage in her education. Liu said this challenge was magnified by the incorrect assumption on the part of faculty, staff, the administration and other students that she has "all the time in the world to devote to my studies or my student groups," a luxury enjoyed by her classmates from high-income backgrounds.

Darializa Avila-Chevalier, a senior and low-income student at Columbia University, has had a similar experience. While some on-campus jobs may be useful in that they "can go on your resume and help you gain transferable skills" for a future career, most low-income students' jobs "lack these opportunities" and pay only minimum wage — meager funds that ultimately "go right back to Columbia," she told Mic. Full-time students must ultimately choose between "working more hours to pay for groceries or spending that time studying for an exam," she said.

"Low-income students end up working more and have more anxiety about their financial situation and that creates a tremendous amount of instability for them that's not conducive to their best possible learning," Gillian Mason, coordinator of development and education at Massachusetts Jobs With Justice, told Mic.

Source: Mic/Pixabay
Source: Mic/Pixabay

In addition to concrete financial struggles, many low-income students also feel a unique sense of shame about their background, which can be exacerbated by administrators. Rather than celebrate the achievement of attending college despite financial obstacles, many administrators purposely don't address low-income students' specific needs because they think doing so "perpetuates shame," Phillips said. This can lead to "a really strong feeling like they don't belong there — like an imposter syndrome," she said.

And yet, once immersed in these elite environments, low-income students can feel equally isolated outside of them. Many low-income students achieve a "coveted middle-class status" based not only on their economic status post-graduation, but also on the "cultural and educational capital" they gained at college, Phillips said. Family and friends at home are often unable to identify with the "new knowledge and capital" that low-income students gain while at school, and may even come to resent it.

"The world that they grew up in doesn't necessarily fit in with the new world of academia," Phillips said, and students can end up feeling as if they are straddling two worlds, incapable of fully existing in either.

It's also a cyclical problem: In 2013, 51% of public high school students across the country came from low-income backgrounds and at least half of students in 21 states qualified for free or reduced-cost lunches, according to U.S. News & World Report. It's perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that many low-income students are more impoverished than ever when they get to college: Nearly three-quarters of the 8.6 million students who received Pell Grants last year have no access to funds beyond their grant while on campus, the Washington Post reported in June.

Source: Mic/Wikimedia
Source: Mic/Wikimedia

Low-income students are even worse off after graduation, thanks to student loan debt: 88% of Pell recipients who graduate from four-year colleges owe an average of $4,750 more than their peers, according to the Institute for College Access and Success

Mason said higher-income students may "have the freedom to pick and choose financial aid packages or advocate for a better package," while low-income students "don't have the luxury of picking and choosing." Low-income students often lack the knowledge needed to advocate for themselves more effectively, and must "pick the financial aid package that will get [them on campus], even if it's a private loan that will leave you with tremendous debt with few options about reducing your payment," Mason said.

An ironic result: Low-income students overwhelmingly face a depressing, ironic, catch-22: The debt they incur and extra work needed to attend college in the first place means they don't get the most out of their social and academic college experience — let alone actually enjoy it. This also frequently results in graduating in worse financial standing, if they graduate at all: There is a significant gap between the graduation rates of low-income students who receive federal Pell Grants and their peers, according to a 2015 study by the Education Trust.

"In the American dream ethic we always say that education equalizes things," Phillips said. But a "good" education, she continued, is "not necessarily working for people from low-income backgrounds."