Economically Disadvantaged Students Need Advocates, Mentors, & Friends, Not Just Reform

Economically disadvantaged college students face challenges not just paying for colleges, but feeling like they belong. Class is an issue students often feel uncomfortable talking about, especially at elite institutions where the gap between the richest students and the poorest students is widest. Stories about the impact of this discomfort are everywhere.

KellyNoel Waldorf, a senior at Trinity College at Duke University, asks in a recent column in the Duke Chronicle, “Why has our culture made me so afraid or ashamed or embarrassed that I felt like I couldn’t tell my best friends ‘Hey, I just can’t afford to go out tonight’? I have always been afraid to discuss this with people, because they always seem to react with judgment or pity, and I want absolutely nothing to do with either of those.” KellyNoel faces the reality of her socioeconomic status every day. She shouldn’t have to feel shame because of it.

Last December, The New York Times printed an exposé on being poor in college. The piece follows three young women from Galveston, Texas as they apply to, attend, and drop out of college. Their stories are devastating.

These students and their families were new to the college world. They didn’t have help understanding financial aid, and they didn’t know how to—or even that they could—advocate for themselves to college officials. After they were accepted, these students didn’t have anyone to ask for advice or help. They were alone.

The Great Recession has increased the profile of problems like these, issues surrounding class and college. Yet too often we simply throw up our hands and wait for the storm to pass. If fixing the economy doesn’t also fix these problems, then when the economy is fixed, the country will finally have the time to address other concerns.

But these students can’t wait. Obviously colleges need to reform their practices to better meet the needs of poor students, but their students need something more. They need people who can advocate for them, who can help them feel at home in their community, and who have had the same experiences they are having. They need mentors, guardians—friends. And they need help finding them.