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Being poor on rich U-M campus still a struggle as school broadens reach

Classes hadn’t even begun her freshman year when Lauren Schandevel learned her place in the economic pecking order at the University of Michigan.

“My orientation roommate was from New York City,” said Schandevel, of Warren. “And the first thing she said to me was ‘I lost my iPhone in a cab, and so my mom bought me this shitty phone on the way here.’ And she had my exact phone.”

The exchange was dispiriting, said Schandevel, who graduated this spring. “I used to like my phone.” 

The University of Michigan is a world-renowned institution nestled in a community often rated as one of the best places to live in America. Yet despite generous financial aid, the school has struggled for years to increase the percentage of students from low- and moderate-income families.

A new program that offers free tuition to in-state students with annual family incomes under $65,000 is the university’s most ambitious and promising effort to attract high-achieving, low-income students to Ann Arbor.

But what happens to poor students when they enter a campus with a median family income of $154,000, highest among 27 U.S. public colleges and universities classified as “highly selective”; a place where officials once famously spent $400,000 to move a tree?

Interviews with students and their advocates shed light on progress made by one of the world’s top universities to increase income diversity, and the challenges it still faces to ensure these students feel at home on campus alongside children of affluence. 

The university is making progress attracting lower-income students, but U-M President Mark Schlissel contends no school can completely eliminate the social and cultural chasms that can accompany class divides.  

Take Manali Desai, for example. Around campus, she’s a happy, outgoing presence with short green hair and a smile; an academically successful student at a prestigious university. But at a school dotted with gleaming high-rise student apartment buildings, Desai spends as little as $20 a week on food ‒ the equivalent of 95 cents a meal for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

“I’m really sparing,” said Desai, who will be a junior this fall in U-M’s School of Information. “Eating well here is honestly difficult.”

Fellow U-M student Casey Tin has three paid gigs outside of her classwork at the School of Information. Her main job is at The Michigan Daily, where she is a managing online editor for the daily campus paper and its website. On Thursday and Friday nights, she works in the Duderstadt media center on campus. From time to time, she does temp work at the information school.

“If I don’t have a job every semester, I’m kind of struggling here,” Tin said. “Some people can’t afford to do things that aren’t work-related.”

Where are the poor kids?

At Michigan’s 15 public universities, the average share of students eligible for federal Pell Grants, which are given to students from low-income families, is 38 percent. At the University of Michigan, it’s less than half that rate, 17.9 percent in its most recent freshman class. That’s an increase, but remains the lowest among the public universities.  

Some of that gap can be explained by the rigorous academic standards needed to gain acceptance to U-M. Mid-range ACT scores for incoming U-M freshmen in 2018 were 31-34 out of a possible 36 (the average for all Michigan high school grads in 2016, the last year the ACT was mandatory, was 20.5); the average U-M high school grade-point average was 3.88. 

Here too money plays a role, as standardized scores tend to be correlated with family income as well as race. At the same time though, some other elite universities enroll higher percentages of low-income students. At the University of California-Berkeley, for example, 27 percent of students are Pell recipients; at Northwestern, it’s 20 percent.

The university’s Go Blue Guarantee is meant to fix that by attracting more applications from low-income students in Michigan, many of whom may have assumed U-M was either too costly or not for students from rural or more modest backgrounds. In reality, U-M is the least expensive public university in the state for poor students.

The program guarantees free tuition to in-state students from families with an annual income of under $65,000. In essence, half of Michigan’s families can send their kids to U-M tuition-free if they are accepted.

The program covers tuition only, not room and board and fees. While those expenses are not typically free, they are heavily discounted through other grant programs for most students who qualify for Go Blue Guarantee.

There’s only one year of data so far, but the program has been successful in nudging upward the number of poor and middle-class students. In its first full year, the university saw a 24 percent increase in applications from Michigan teens from families earning less than $65,000, and a 6 percent increase in freshman enrollment. 

Related: Free tuition brings more low-income students to University of Michigan

Students receiving Pell Grants had hovered between 15 percent and 17 percent of U-M students; it reached 17.9 percent in the 2018-19 school year. 

In the university’s 2018 Annual Report, President Schlissel said U-M’s efforts show “we seek to welcome students from all communities and backgrounds who have the talent and desire to be Michigan Wolverines.”

In a recent interview, Schlissel told Bridge he empathized with low-income students who feel like a fish out of water at the wealthy school, but said his main goal is to give them the best academic opportunities possible. 

“I want them to be happy and feel equally valued,” Schlissel said. “But that's not the first goal. The first goal is to get them here and help them be academically successful, so they can launch into a great life. And if it means that, you know, they can't go to a ski weekend in February, well, that's OK.

“It's probably impossible to erase the effects of disparities that come from growing up in a household that's making $25,000 a year as compared to one that's making half a million dollars a year,” he said.  

It turns out, there are plenty of those students at U-M as well. The same family income study, found U-M’s Ann Arbor campus had the highest portion of students from households in the 1 percent (family income over $630,000) among elite public colleges, with 9.3 percent of students in that category. That far outpaced the next-highest school, the University of Texas at Austin (5.4 percent).  

“What's important to me is,” Schlissel added, “regardless of the demographic, particularly the first-generation students and the lower-socioeconomic students, they all get to take advantage of the richness of the academics here, and they get the support they need to progress from year to year and to graduate.”

As an out-of-state student from Chicago, Desai doesn’t qualify for the Go Blue Guarantee. Other need-based scholarship programs, though, have offset her tuition and housing costs in a fashion similar to that of the in-state grant program because Desai comes from modest financial circumstances. 

Still, she has had to make sacrifices. Desai says she can’t afford restaurants where other students gather and rarely spends money on entertainment. She tries to keep total monthly spending beyond housing to $250. Her grocery shopping rarely strays from basic ingredients that can be bought cheaply: bread, eggs, onions, hummus, cans of beans and ingredients for Indian food.

While Tin, the student working three jobs, has not had the same issues with food as Desai, she has noticed differences between her social life and her peers’. She avoids using Uber rides for transportation, opting for walking or taking buses during school hours. She skips eating out with friends except on special occasions, and doesn’t frequent the upscale shops surrounding campus. 

Tin grew up in Queens, New York, where the median household income of $64,000 is close to that in the state of Michigan ($54,000), but still about $100,000 less than that of the average U-M student. Neither of her parents went to college. Her father works as a chef, and her mother, is a night-shift janitor.

She came to U-M as a sophomore from the State University of New York Binghamton, where the student body was more economically diverse.   

Her New York City upbringing ‒ a middle-class kid attending high school with wealthy Manhattan teens at Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts ‒ was good practice for college life in Ann Arbor, Tin said. 

“I’ve kind of gotten used to that very high-class life where everyone around me has money so it’s become a very numb thing and I don’t think about it too much anymore,” Tin said.

When she works late at the Michigan Daily and her co-workers order food, Tin demures. She does the same when friends invite her on weekend trips. Having no car, Tin must live near campus, where rent for one-bedroom apartments can exceed $1,000 a month. Simple things like going to grocery stores ‒ located miles from campus ‒ are difficult without a car given Michigan’s unpredictable weather.

“Ann Arbor in itself is very gentrified, but people don’t really realize it because they’re like, ‘It’s a cute little college town, it’s a small place in Michigan,’” Tin said. But “it’s very oriented to college students who can afford to do these things, and if you’re a college student who can’t afford to do these things, it’s more difficult.”

Those accumulated difficulties can have an impact on academic success. The graduation rate for non-low-income students at U-M is 92 percent according to data from the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Higher Education Policy; for low-income students, it’s 85 percent. 

“There’s a gap,” said Mamie Voight, vice president of policy research at the nonprofit.  “Both Michigan and many institutions nationwide can be doing more to make sure that all students have a fair chance at graduating and graduating at the same rate.”

As part of a larger study of public flagships in the Great Lakes region, IHEP examined policies at U-M to understand how they may affect low-income and minority enrollment and graduation. The study found a 10-point gap in the share of minorities at U-M compared to the state’s high school graduates, and  a 23-point gap in the share of low-income students between U-M and other Michigan colleges and universities.

One way Voight said the university could be more equitable would be a shift even more financial aid to needy students. The university distributes 74 percent of aid based on need, while the other 26 percent is based on merit.

“We know from the research that need-based financial aid can help low-income students or working-class students access college and succeed in college once they get there because it helps them deal with the high cost,” Voight said. “Financial aid programs are certainly one piece of the puzzle.”

College costs, though, are a lower barrier for low-income students at U-M than most public and private universities in Michigan. The net cost of attendance, including food and housing, for students from families earning under $30,000 a year was $3,249 in 2016-17, and $9,895 for families earning $48,000 to $75,000. Both were the lowest net costs among Michigan public universities, a previous Bridge Magazine analysis showed.

But money isn’t the only piece of the puzzle, Voight said. Social status and its accompanying insecurities for many students of more modest background have been highlighted nationally in the past year following admission scandals on several elite campuses involving the rich and famous. 

“There really is a role to play here for institutions to both enroll low-income students and then make sure campus is a welcoming and inclusive environment for them that sets them up for success once they’re there,” Voight said. 

A breaking point

In 2018, the University of Michigan Central Student Government published an affordability guide that unintentionally demonstrated how out of touch some were to life as a poor student on a rich campus. Among suggestions in the guide for saving money: cutting back on housekeeping or laundry services

Schandevel, the student with the modest cellphone, was one of its most outspoken critics.

“To hear things like ‘just stop spending money’ as advice being given by student government to low-income students was really frustrating because a lot of times we don’t have money to spend at all,” said Schandevel, who comes from a family that had a yearly income of about $30,000 while she was growing up. 

“It’s not that we’re spending without thinking about it,” she said. “It’s just that we're coming here with not a lot. I think that was ... a breaking point for a lot of people.”

The controversy led Schandevel to start her own affordability guide, called “Being Not-Rich at UM,” which allowed low-income students to speak to their experiences. The guide proved to be immensely popular, prompting students at other schools including the University of Texas at Austin to start “being not-rich” guides of their own. 

“Somehow,” Schandevel noted, “I became the campus poor person.” 

That was not her only contribution to changes on campus. By the end of her freshman year, Schandevel had begun to advocate with friend Meghan Wheat to launch a social class and inequalities studies minor. It’s now offered in the Women’s Studies department.

Such activism is not uncommon among students like Schandevel.  

“They are risk takers and they are boundary crossers,” said Dwight Lang, a U-M sociology lecturer, and a faculty adviser to the student group First-Generation College Students @ Michigan, which includes many low-income families. 

“It takes a lot of guts for a first-gen to come to a campus where 10 percent or less of the students are first-gens, and they immediately recognize they are different in multiple ways.”

Part of the university’s challenge, according to Lang, is changing outside perceptions about the kinds of students it’s seeking. In the past, the university has been seen as unattainable and unaffordable and, while these stereotypes are still discussed in communities across the state, the university’s active recruitment of low-income and first-generation students is helping to alter those beliefs. 

The Go Blue Guarantee and HAIL Scholarship are two examples of programs to actively recruit low-income students that would have been unheard of a decade ago.

A new program within the College of Literature, Science and the Arts provides a laptop for every student who cannot afford one, shows U-M is moving in the right direction, Lang said.

Other programs at the school and involving student organizations, like the Maize and Blue Cupboard, a grocery store-style food pantry open to students, also help alleviate obstacles.  

A well-funded campus

Students also acknowledge the benefits that come with attending a university with an $11 billion endowment. Tin, for example, was able to go to Italy last summer with the help of her financial aid package and a scholarship through the College of Literature, Science and the Arts. Combining these two financial sources, she was left paying only for flights and daily needs.

Schandevel received U-M funding for summer opportunities in the past, which allowed her to pursue unpaid work in her field of study she would have had to pass on otherwise. And she received housing assistance while interning in Washington, D.C. last summer through another U-M program.

Such supports help equalize opportunities for U-M students of lesser means, who would otherwise have to pass on, say, unpaid internships that build resumes and lead to future job offers. Ten years after enrollment, former U-M students from low-income families earn just $3,300 less per year than students from higher-income families ‒ virtually eliminating the wealth gap with which they entered Ann Arbor. 

“The job market is just like a completely different place if you’re a high-income student or a low-income student, and the internships and fellowships and jobs that you have in college really do matter,” Schandevel said. “If you’re not able to have an unpaid internship ‒ and most [internships] are unpaid ‒ that's an opportunity for a job that you're not getting.”

She said she cut corners every way she could so her parents ‒ a father with a high school diploma and a mother with an associate’s degree ‒ wouldn’t have to find money in their tight budget for her education. Still, they’d occasionally drive from Warren to Ann Arbor to bring her homemade lo mein and spanish rice when money was low.

By the time Schandevel ended her senior year this spring and started a full-time job as a community organizer, she had learned to overcome her initial insecurities and had taken pride in her identity as “the campus poor girl.”

“There were moments where I was like, ‘Maybe this isn’t for me, maybe I don’t really belong here,’” Schandevel said. “But the more I realized that those feelings came from socioeconomic differences ... the more secure I felt in myself, and in my background, to navigate college. Now I feel really proud of where I’m from, and how much work I put into coming to a university like this.

“That’s why I’m fighting so hard,” Schandevel said, “so that other low-income students can do the same.

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated how the University of Michigan distributes student financial aid. It has been updated to reflect that 74 percent of aid is awarded based on financial need and 26 percent based on merit. 

Alex Harring and Sammy Sussman are students at the University of Michigan. This story originated as part of a journalism class project overseen by Bridge senior writer Ron French.

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