On Being a Poor Student at an Elite University

Teen Vogue has published an interesting article on what it's like to be poor and attend some of the most prestigious (and thus expensive and dominated-by-the-wealthy) schools in the country.

The students quoted in the article have a lot of specifics about experiencing "economic culture shock." Some of these anecdotes are as follows:

Eating Club Dues

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When 20-year-old sophomore Lea Trusty started at Princeton, she couldn't believe how much her friends went shopping. While she couldn't drop cash at off-campus boutiques, she made it a priority to find a way to pay her eating club's $800 dues.

Ambulance Costs

Sydney Farmer, a freshman at NYU, raised her eyebrows when a classmate got sick with alcohol poisoning: "An ambulance to take him to the hospital cost thousands of dollars, and he treated it like it would be no problem for his parents to cover that."

Affirmative Action Assumptions

Stanford sophomore Tracy Yang worried that her peers would be bitter about her status. "I knew people would be like, 'You got into college just because you're low-income. You get more help than I do,'" she says, noting that her defensive attitude made it hard for her to relate to her classmates.

The profile has other students expressing that they were reluctant to "admit" to being low income, especially on college campuses where it seems like everybody is displaying their wealth via material possessions or otherwise taking money for granted. In a November 2013 op-ed for the Duke Chronicle, student KellyNoel Waldorf spoke of the campus's lack of understanding about class, with examples like the following:

While writing my resume, I put McDonald's under work experience. A friend leaned over and said, "Do you think it's a good idea to put that on your resume?" In their eyes, it was better to list no work experience than to list this "lowly" position. I did not understand these mentalities and perceptions of my peers. Yet no one was talking about this discrepancy, this apparent class stratification that I was seeing all around me.

She also discusses a reality that's occurred at colleges like Duke for years, and will likely get worse as tuition continues to rise:

It is time to start acknowledging class at Duke. Duke is great because of its amazing financial aid packages. My ability to go here is truly incredible. Duke is not great because so many of the students fundamentally do not understand the necessity for a discussion of class identity and classism. Duke needs to look past its blind spot and start discussing class stratification on campus to create a more welcoming environment for poor students.

People have expressed the wish for this type of conversation since I started college, in 2006. Here's hoping that we finally get it. It's a start when aspirational (chock-full-of-designer-bags) fashion magazines like Teen Vogue are getting in on the conversation.

Image via Shutterstock.