March 21, 2016

Does College Alienate Low Income Students?

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

I teach at a pricey research university. Friends and family—some of whom are alumni— occasionally ask me how much it costs to attend these days. I usually tell them that I don't know; it's easy to forget about the price of tuition when you're not paying it.

So when the Los Angeles Times recently reported that a tuition increase will push the bill for students at my university to over $50,000 for the first time next fall, costing an estimated $70,000 including housing, food, books, and other expenses, I was surprised. A majority of the student body receives some form of financial aid, so not every student must come up with a whopping $280,000 to pay for their degree. When was an undergraduate (at a different expensive private university), I had a scholarship that covered half of my tuition. Coming up with half of the current tuition sounds like an impossible task for most families.

But what about students who do manage to attend a university through financial aid, work study, and scholarships?

As NPR recently reported, these students can still struggle in ways that might be invisible to administrators, staff, and faculty. They asked sophomores what might have made their first year of college easier, and several students focused on financial issues: stress about financial aid documents, paperwork for student loans, and interacting with students and faculty who might not understand the challenges that they are facing.

It might be difficult to have roommates or friends who can afford to eat out at restaurants regularly or take trips together over spring break and be unable to join them. Students who are first generation college students might struggle to feel like they really belong there. They might face pressure from family members nearby to help care for siblings and neglect their own coursework. Professors might interpret them as lacking commitment or a work ethic or having limited academic abilities.

I had several students facing this dilemma: when an exam is coming or a paper is due, but a parent is ill or a sibling is struggling with school, they might have to sacrifice their work in order to help their family. Parents who did not attend college might not understand the time commitment necessary to succeed at that level and might be accustomed to their child performing well in school while helping the family when they were in high school.

Students have told me of the great sacrifices their (often single) parents undertook cleaning houses or other backbreaking labor to help them get to college, and felt that they could not turn their backs on their family during a time of need. For these students, college might mean never attending a party, joining a club, partaking in extracurricular activities or even making friends with many classmates. They might even have difficulty fully participating in group projects, service learning assignments, or volunteering in the local community—things that might help them develop networks and discover passions that might lead to a future career.

Many sociology students at our university are first generation college students and/or transfer students who might be experiencing these issues regularly. Because I know some cannot afford to buy books for class, I make a point to put the books on reserve at a campus library. But this still leaves those who can't afford the books at a disadvantage, because they have to read them at the library and can't make notes in the text or refer easily to them when writing papers.

These students might need to work during spring and summer break, instead of taking a break or doing an internship or volunteering (our university has a great program called "Alternative Spring Break" where students can travel to volunteer, like providing disaster relief or building homes with Habitat for Humanity). Studying abroad might be out of the question as well, an experience that transforms many students. I saw one quiet and reserved student gain confidence and poise after a semester abroad, where she mastered another language and was able to navigate a new environment where she knew no one for the first time.

What do you think might make the first year of college better? If you are struggling to pay for college, how do you think that might affect your experiences as a student? What do you wish faculty, staff, and administrators knew about your experience?


I chose to write about this article because I am a first generation college student myself.
I agree very strongly with its content on how there are two kinds of students throughout life, those who have and the have not through almost their entire school career not only college and it can lead students to feel alienated and out of place compared to the lifestyles of the other half and how they live.
This article is relevant to my social world because I grew up in lower income status with only a single mother to try her hardest to raise and provide for me and my sister during school years and working long hard hours, while to other students at my school this lifestyle seemed very foreign especially due to the area I attended school it was the norm it seemed amongst other students to have parents with money and that can afford anything to help send their kids to expensive colleges, it had me feel a little out of place growing up. I believe this article is very real and true to students all over the world, it can feel very different being a student based on your family’s economic class and background.

This is a great read! I can relate completely to this article.

It's a big problem for students being lack of money to buy books and other useful things needed while in the time of study. Students should be provided with internship opportunities at or around the institution with reasonable pay so that it will help them to spend some budget for learning purpose. Since the tuition fee has been increased up to an extent today, it is a little bit tough to pay such an amount. So, an internship opportunity or a part time job opportunity will be a great relief to students.

Are you a sports fan? Here I invite you to for buying tickets for entertainment events and sports. Students may want to enjoy watching college sports live with huge crowd. This is an opportunity to get tickets for a cheap or minimum price.

I agree with Karen Sternheimer article about student from low income facing the hard situation on dealing with the high cost of education. Many students avoid filling out scholarship due to the amount of paperwork they need to fill out. Mainly it is the amount of time they need to have to do so and to do so correctly. If not then its a constant back and forth of going to the financial aid office and waiting in the long lines to get a simple question answered.

I found this article highly sociological and I think it focused really well on the social inequality and alienation brought out in colleges and how low income students are affected by it. There are plenty of students struggling with paying for books or classes, balancing work and school, and feeling rejected because they can’t afford extracurricular activities. I think the social inequality between low income students and high income students is highlighted in college more than anywhere else. There are constant ways for low income students to be judged, excluded, and be characterized as a poor student. College is so oriented around finances, it makes it hard for low income students to not be immediately distinguished as a low income student. I think that college could be made a friendlier environment for those who are not as privileged financially by creating ways for students to still work hard to support themselves, their families, and enjoy outside of school activities while still succeeding in school.

This article perfectly describes what most college students go thru. Mainly because a lot of students aren’t wealthy enough to have the same advantages a wealthy student may have. Of course that shouldn't be an excuse but it stresses students out. Whether is loans, work or money all these things add up and prevent a student from dedicating themselves to school.

I chose this article because I am attending college myself, and I rely on getting financial aid to pay for most of my expenses. I might be luckier than some, belonging to the upper-middle class, and I have support from my family to pay for most of my expenses when it come to the school, while I can use my financial aid for other expenses. Since my parents have a higher degree education, I have also inherited a cultural capital that helps me. My parents believe that education is very important, and they gladly help me out so that I can have a better chance of attaining their, or an even higher, status. However, I know that some other students come from even wealthier and higher status families, as well as a lot of students come from a lower social class.
I have seen and met with students who are trying to climb the “social class ladder”, but find it hard to fit in in the college environment. The one thing that many of these students seem to prioritize is the partying. They want the “fun” part of college experience, without putting in work to it. There are, of course, those who come from a lower social class and work harder than most students. They are motivated, and willing to put in the work necessary to rise above their inherited social class. Meanwhile, I think that a lot of students from higher social classes tend to take things for granted. They may not realize the significance of getting a good education since they grew up without having to deal with the same issues that comes with poverty. In the end, people are different, no matter what social class you’re from, but coming from a lower social class makes it more difficult to “climb the social ladder”, and that might hurt the motivation to do it.

In a personal level, this article was chosen because I can relate to the situation described by the author, I am that exact student with two differences: First, I don’t have any kind of financial aid and second I am an international student. I am going through that struggle, I am from Brazil a country with an economy that is struggling at the moment with so much corruption, and that makes my family struggle as well. I came to the United States in pursuit of a better education and a better life in other words in pursuit of the American Dream. However, I am not given any kind of financial help from my country or the United States, and since scholarships are very competitive my parents have been struggling to keep me here, I am the first person of my entire family to go to college so no one understands how hard it is to get good grades in a language that isn’t even my native language. I was ‘obligated’ due to my financial situation to get a job outside of school, in order to support myself here and help my parents, that affects my grades because I don’t have as much time to study as other students, I have to constantly be responsible for my choices to keep all the ‘bureaucracy’ happy (visa requirements, class requirements, college requirements, job requirements) and consequently I have a different lifestyle from other local students who pay ($100 dollars to get an education at SBCC, while I pay $5,000 dollars to be able to attend the same classes). The amount of pressure I put on myself to have a good academic standing is very high, because I know what I go through to pay and be able to have this kind of education, but most important what my family does to be able to give me that is what deeply motivates me to do my best. Unfortunately sometimes, my best isn’t enough and while my teachers might assume I didn’t turn in my assignment on time because I was partying in Isla Vista, I was working a full-time job and keeping up with my other classes and wasn’t able to make the deadline. I struggle to feel I belong to this expensive lifestyle of Santa Barbara where most students are locals or as society assumes that all international students are ‘rich international students’ that have help from their governments or come from wealthy families and are here to ‘have fun.’ I feel alienated being part of the minority who is here to get a better education and don’t have the financial means to do so. Instead of going home on breaks, or taking a fun trip as the rest of my friends I have to stay and work on a blue collar job, as a waitress on my ‘free’ time to earn more money to be able to afford the expensive life of Santa Barbara. I wish that SBCC knew what I go through as saw my reality and not as just as ID number K00525213. After all of that said, I agree with the author Karen Sternheimer college does alienate low-income students, because is clearly ‘unfair’ they do not have the same life chances to move up the social ladder, compared with students who don't have financial problems. I still believe that it might be possible to achieve the American dream even in all those conditions but is certainly not fair for everyone due to different life chances.

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