Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

Elite Colleges Constantly Tell Low-Income Students That They Do Not Belong

In mid-March, the Justice Department charged 50 people for their alleged involvement in a scheme to influence college-admissions decisions through bribery and deception. The scandal, Clint Smith argued shortly after, provides an opportunity to examine the systematic ways universities amplify and exacerbate class differences between their students:

“Students from low-income backgrounds receive daily reminders—interpersonal and institutional, symbolic and structural—that they are the ones who do not belong.”

Smith cited The Privileged Poor, a new book by the Harvard University professor Anthony Abraham Jack that documents and disaggregates the experience of low-income students at elite colleges. The book includes such examples as a program in which students serve as janitors in their peers’ dorm rooms for pay, and another“program Jack calls ‘Scholarship Plus,’ which allows students on financial aid to attend events on campus that they might not have otherwise been able to afford”—provided they wait in a separate line for tickets.

I’m currently a first year at the University of Chicago, and I have definitely felt my share of imposter syndrome. I come from a low-income family of Latin American immigrants, and at UChicago, it’s so easy to feel like I don’t belong, especially because most people here are white, rich, or both.

My imposter syndrome was the most prevalent in my humanities class. This discussion-based class was composed of 20 students, and we’d meet every Tuesday and Thursday to discuss the assigned readings. I quickly noticed that everyone in that class seemed much more insightful than I was. I did the readings, annotated, and took notes—so being able to understand the material wasn’t the problem. The problem was that I never contributed to discussion. It seemed as if my peers were pulling insightful things out of thin air, and all I could do was sit there and take notes, fearing I would be called on and have nothing to say.

I realized that my issue with not being as “smart” as my peers was not my fault, because they most likely came to this school more prepared than I did. I could tell from their Canada Goose jackets that they had money and almost certainly grew up with much better resources than I did. Being aware of this is reassuring to an extent because I know that I’m not unintelligent, but it can only do so much. Because I can’t contribute to discussions, I am not getting participation points, and because I am not as strong a writer as most, my papers are only barely meeting standards, and my grades are suffering.

This feeling was so great that I even started to go to therapy because of it, and it really helped. I was going through a time where I wanted to transfer to another school, because I hated the thought of not being good enough compared with everyone else at this school. I realized that even if I managed to transfer to another school, I’d always feel like I don’t belong, and by leaving, I’d essentially be running away.

It’s not fair that students like me feel like we don’t belong. It’s infuriating to know that people think that we only got to where we are because we used our trauma to gain the sympathy of admissions officers. It’s a horrible feeling to think that everything you’ve accomplished was only out of luck. I worked hard to get here and I know that I belong, but this feeling is still present in me every day.

Fortunately, I am now using my struggle with imposter syndrome to learn more about it. I started a research project to study the intensity of imposter syndrome in UChicago undergrads based on demographics such as year of study, gender, income status, etc. Though I still struggle with impostor syndrome today, it’s a good feeling to be using that pain for a good cause.

Thank you for this article. I hope people will educate themselves and will learn to be more mindful about the struggles that low-income students at top schools face on a daily basis.

Alex Jovel
Chicago, Ill.

Thank you for bringing to light the systematic shaming happening to low-income students and minority students at elite colleges. I ran a college- and career-counseling company for low-income and first-generation students. For these kids and their families, the whole process is one barrier after another—the financial aid forms, the applications and essays and associated fees, the price tags, the tests and access to tutors. And that’s all before a student steps foot on a college campus.

Reading about students cleaning their peers’ toilets and waiting in the Scholarship Plus line infuriates me. The privileged white students have no idea how hard it was for those low-income students of color to even dare to dream of attending those schools. I know because I was a clueless one of them: white, privileged, groomed at a rigorous and competitive private high school, attending elite universities.

Though I am grateful for the rigorous academic training that I received, I wish that the whole educational system, pre-K to grad school, would focus less on competition and individualism (grades, scores, GPA, essays, etc.) and more on being connected to oneself and others, being of use and service.

If colleges were truly interested in broadening minds, they would have the rich, white kids clean the toilets and stand in the side-door line. Low-income students and students of color have already taken those classes, learned that material.

Miranda Townes Hope
Washington, Va.

I have seen the type of discrimination and hurdles imposed on low-income students that is described in Clint Smith’s article, albeit in a state school. People—even in state schools—are separated into cliques that exclude others of lower means. Low-income students often work, while the more well-to-do get to spend more time on studying, more time with professors, more time at the library, more time on internships (because they don’t have to work a summer job). At any college in the U.S., the deck is heavily stacked against low-income students.

Thomas E LaBarge
Syracuse, N.Y.

It’s been more than 30 years since I graduated from UCLA with a master’s degree under an affirmative action fellowship program. As a Hispanic graduate student at UCLA, I experienced resentment from staff in the graduate division.This underlying discrimination continued when I was a graduate adviser.

During this time, there was no career advising for minority students nor any orientation programs to help minority, low-income students adjust to such a large, competitive university as UCLA. There were also very few minority administrators, staff, and professors. The only support I received was from the special minority fellowship program. Despite this, I managed to receive a master’s degree in international and comparative education.

I received better support and education from California State University at Northridge. I loved college, but the experience at UCLA almost drowned my love of education.

There is no excuse to continue this form of white elitism at a public university or any educational institution, because it is contrary to basic American values of equality and acceptance.

Albert Arriola
Honolulu, Hawaii

I come from a low-income family. My mother only had an elementary-school education, and my father just a high-school education.

Years ago I was admitted to Stanford University, and never once did I experience the negative treatment outlined in your story. My friends at Stanford ranged from quite rich to pretty much middle class, and they were all quite good to me; many remain friends to this date.

As for the recent outrage over parents and kids bribing and cheating to get into top colleges, I agree that strong, swift punishment is called for. However, it is only natural for parents to want their kids to be successful, and anything they do, within the law, that gives them an advantage is perfectly fine with me. Extra tutoring, or sending them to top-notch private schools or evening schools like Kumon, is reasonable. I currently work as a substitute teacher in some top-notch schools and some that are not quite so good. While parents go out of their way to get their kids into the top-notch schools, what I see is that the teachers and facilities are not that different between the schools. The main difference is the home environment; the kids with parents who care do better, even though they do not necessarily have greater ability. This crap about poor kids being sent to schools with poor teachers, etc. does a terrible disservice to the many fine teachers who work in those schools and do their best despite student and parent apathy.

David Welch
San Jose, Calif.

I came from a low-income family and attended a mediocre public school, though not one that was overcrowded. Because my SAT scores were high—without hiring a tutor or taking any SAT prep courses—I received a full scholarship to a Seven Sisters college, where I was never made to feel out of place. My work-study job, typing for a professor, was not one that shamed me, and all college events were free. I had the money to take the bus home for breaks, but not a lot of money to spend otherwise. Many students were similar to me, who benefited from receiving scholarships from more affluent families. I guess I’m saying that there’s an upside to wealth in that wealthy people do subsidize a lot of scholarships for people such as me.

Ruth A. Rouff
Collingswood, N.J.

I am the child of immigrant parents and went to an underperforming public high school in Ohio before college at Yale. Some of what Clint Smith describes was true of my experience—I worked during the summers instead of going on holiday, I didn’t know that investment banking was a real job, and I didn’t know how to network at the right sort of parties. Maybe I didn’t get as much out of Yale as students who went to elite prep schools.

On the other hand, after graduation, there is no question that a Yale diploma opens doors. I am far better off now than if I had gone to a lesser university. Mr. Smith writes that 14 percent of undergraduates at elite colleges come from the bottom 50 percent of the income distribution—to me, that’s a number to be celebrated. It demonstrates that elite universities are achieving their mission of democratizing access to the halls of power. It’s not perfect, but it’s certainly good.

Ashish Ranpura
Brunswick, Ohio

Clint Smith replies:

Thank you, Miranda, for your thoughtful response. I think it’s incredibly important for all of us to become cognizant of the blind spots we have had and might continue to have when it comes to how other people are navigating these spaces. I’m fascinated by your comment in the final paragraph, and don’t know that I necessarily agree with it. So often we think that inequality or suffering has to be zero-sum: This group of people had a negative experience with X, so the only way to make it fair is for the other group of people to have a negative experience with X also. While I understand the impulse, and recognize that it might be coming from a place intended to build empathy rather than from a place of punitiveness, I just don’t know if that’s the answer. I would prefer that no students are cleaning each other’s toilets rather than simply switching the roles. Again, I understand the impulse, and it’s one I often have as well, but I do my best to check myself on that feeling when it arises, because I don’t think it actually reflects the sort of world I want to live in.

Thanks, David, for sharing your experience, and I’m glad to hear that you look back on your time at Stanford fondly. That’s what I would want for any student, regardless of his or her background. To your second point, I don’t think most people would disagree with the idea that parents will do what they think is best for their child. The commentary around extra tutoring is largely about a recognition and an acknowledgment that such things exist for some students and not others. It’s helpful in an effort to disabuse people of the idea that each student’s success or lack thereof is simply a result of his or her own hard work and no other factors. Two students can work equally hard but experience different outcomes based on the opportunities and resources that they are afforded. Additionally, this idea that students who don’t do well fail to succeed because of the “apathy” of their parents flies in the face of decades of sociological evidence that demonstrates the primary reason some parents are more involved than others (in the normative way we have come to define “involvement,” which is another post itself) often has to do with the time, resources, social capital, and wherewithal that some parents have and some don’t. Before graduate school, I worked at a low-income public high school in Maryland, and I saw firsthand how so many parents gave everything they had to their children as they worked multiple jobs and raised their families in hyper-segregated communities with limited opportunities for upward mobility.

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