Low-income students are one of the largest and least visible minorities at Bates College. Approximately 13% of enrolled Bates students qualify for a Federal Pell Grant, a cognate the Federal Government uses for low-income status. I urge the Bates community to address the specific needs of this student population.
A preface: As a student who received a generous financial aid package for Bates, friends told me they were jealous, that “I was lucky.” I have often been made to feel like my aid is an unfair advantage and my merit-based fellowships result from my financial need.
Bates, we desperately need to clarify some confusion about class.
Financial Aid awards such as the Pell Grant allow for low-income students to attend Bates. However, these students must work to equalize themselves. That often means twenty hours of weekly work-study, wages that do not go toward dinner or online shopping, but rather to “staying afloat”, paying tuition, affording prescription co-pays and doctors’ visits or adequate winter outerwear. Yes, of course working to support ourselves is “the real world”, but tension occurs when this real world hits us all at different times. Financially secure students often unknowingly reap the benefits of invisible networks and safety nets such as unpaid internships, a semester off from working, and knowing (or not knowing) that their tuition bill is being paid.
Most people worry about money, but I speculate that low-income students endure a tremendous burden marked by vicious cycles of guilt; upset at the amount of schoolwork they have because they cannot work enough, and then upset at the amount of hours they have to work because they cannot do schoolwork enough. This instability and emotional stress can be an intensely isolating experience, both at Bates and moreover in home communities. With family members just trying to survive while they are studying at an elite college; low income students start to ask “is it even fair that I’m here?”
Through the process of equalizing themselves with an at-large elite population, it can be more complicated for low-income students to make things happen. They get creative, whether by ordering all their books from libraries, constantly scouring work opportunities or penny pinching for adequate winter footwear, it takes a lot of effort and energy to access resources, many of which are just a simple phone call away for the majority of Bates students.
Bates works hard to foster an equalized student body, but we need to make sure equality is not just an image. Students are living in different realities on this campus, a disparity partly constructed by privilege. I argue that discussions about class, whether privilege or poverty, are suppressed here in favor of the prevailing belief that we all belong to an (imagined) average, a phenomenon I’ll call the “middle-class myth.”
For example, in 2011, color-coded work-authorization cards were issued to students that indicated whether or not a student qualified for work-study. Immediately, these cards were called back and redistributed in a single color. The administration had realized its goof; accidentally highlighting income-inequality among students.
Should we acknowledge the fact that income-inequalities affect students? I for one will admit; attending one of the “most expensive schools in the nation” has been an intense social shock. In one traumatic experience, my conjoined AESOP groups went around in an introductory circle and “said what our parents did for work.” I was embarrassed, and mostly horrified that my peers cared.
We need to give the low-income minority more voice and more support. I would love to hear your thoughts on this situation, but for now here are a few ideas:
An open discussion about class at Bates, and I mean class at Bates, working towards tangible outcomes such as:
(2) Financial advisors for students who might be struggling:
Low-income students are often paying significant parts of their tuition and living expenses themselves. This can be stressful, and often hard to manage. Many of them have nowhere to go or call when things get stretched thin, and for most, home is the last place to get help.
(3) Additional need-based programs for students, such as sharing and spreading resources in a clothing/supply basement for struggling students.