Being Not-Rich with Lauren Schandevel
by Lauren Schandevel
December 23, 2019
Tatti: Tell me a little bit about yourself.
Lauren: I am a 4th year public policy student at the University of Michigan. Most of my work has centered around college affordability in particular. About a year ago, I crowdsourced the Being Not-Rich at UM document, which was a great resource for low income students. It was also a place to come together and realize other people were experiencing the same things, and help each other out. That's the thing that launched my career doing housing and food insecurity work on campus. I've met a lot of students on other campuses that are doing similar work. It's been really exciting.
Why did you start the doc?
The document itself is just a Google document with the sharing settings tweaked so that anyone can make suggestions or leave comments. It was crowd sourced in response to an affordability guide that our Central Student Government put out about a year ago that has some pretty tone deaf advice about budgeting – low income students were put off or offended by it. This was a response to that with substantial advice that low income students could use without the stigma or added judgment of having that advice come from an institutional figure.
Initially it was just an outline. I put the introduction in first, setting the tone for what the document would be. And then I had headings – housing, employment, on campus resources, food – people just filled in the information as they came in. Now it's grown to about a hundred pages. Before it was just a couple pages, like a skeleton outline.
What was so tone deaf on an institutional level that prompted you to start this yourself?
I think it's important to start by talking about how students perceive Central Student Government at the University of Michigan. They release reports on their demographic information each year and they're usually wealthier and less racially diverse than the rest of the student body. People already have that perception of them. When they put out the guide, the first 10 pages or so were devoted to budgeting, a lot of the advice was like, “fire your maid”, or, "stop laundry service".
Students who have maids are not going to be cracking open an affordability guide for advice.
That was the main issue we took with it. It wasn't like we were spending our money frivolously and that's why we were struggling. It's that we don't have a lot of money to begin with, and it's hard to live on the University of Michigan's campus.
Did you send the doc to student government or to anybody on an institutional level?
The university administration knows that it exists and certain departments like the Office of New Student Programs have collaborated with me to turn it into a more institutional thing. I chaired the Central Student Government affordability task force this year and they're going to have an affordability commission permanently from now on. So that's great.
One thing I've noticed is a lot of the time it's students taking the initiative, particularly on our campus. Students are doing most of the housing and food security work. That should not be the case. The university should take responsibility, especially in the instance of housing. They're admitting more students than they have housing for, and it's on them to build housing and make sure students have a place to live when they get to campus.
Food insecurity is the same. We just got a permanent food pantry. But a lot of that was because of student activism over the years. We shouldn't be the ones pushing the university on basic needs, particularly because low income students have a million other things to worry about.
We can't be doing activism all the time. We have to work, and watch our grades, and be students.
Do you think the work is moving towards that goal?
I think it's moving in that direction, not just here but nationally. The Hope Center in Philadelphia has been at the forefront of these discussions about housing and food insecurity on college campuses. They've published a lot of reports, they hold an annual conference. People are becoming more attuned to these issues and the fact that they exist on college campuses.
How does the wealth gap you're recognizing affect students socially?
I feel like that is part of the conversation that's often ignored. Obviously there are financial barriers to being a low-income student on a college campus. But there's also, like you said, a social aspect. Students arrive on campus and feel alienated from their peers, and don't understand why. A lot of it is because of that socioeconomic disparity – but they don't realize it.
Students think they're inherently deficient, or that they weren't prepared enough in K-12, or that they don't have the same hobbies as their peers, so they must not belong on a university campus.
It happens frequently and it's a huge reason why those students end up dropping out – because of a lack of the sense of belonging. I myself have felt that way, and I know a lot of my peers have too. The important thing is letting those students know that it's completely out of their control. It's a structural problem, and any sort of alienation they feel from their peers as a result of those socioeconomic barriers are not because they're not good enough for a university.
How can you can mitigate the social part of the problem?
I think low income and first generation college students need more community building spaces. I know first-gen activism has taken off over the last 10 years. You have offices for first-gen programming and first-gen learning communities, which is really great. The same thing should be done for low-income students on college campus’ so they can talk to each other and share experiences and realize that they're not alone in this college experience. University administrations need to recognize they have low-income students on their campus because it's a very touchy subject for them right now.
I remember meeting with administrators after the guide came out and they said, "We don't use the term low income to describe students. We don't want to target them." That's a problem. If you're not using the terminology those students don't know that the issue exists, and that it’s economic.
Acknowledging that it is a socioeconomic thing is probably the first step. Particularly in America, we don't talk about class. And so when we gravitate towards certain people, we don't know that it's because they share our socioeconomic background. They don't know that diversity also includes socioeconomic diversity. I feel like naming that issue and making it clear that a lot of the decisions we make are the results of our socio economic backgrounds will make it easier for people to see the class disparities in higher education, and it will hopefully empower low income students to advocate for themselves and to feel confident enough to participate in the college experience so that they're meeting different people, people who might be wealthier than themselves.
Do you feel like this perpetuates itself into the post-collegiate professional world?
Yes. It's a combination of financial and cultural factors. Wealthy students coming in have parents who have probably gone to college, that have careers where they can get the students internships or fellowships, and pay for them to do unpaid internships. There's that aspect of it. But then there's also that cultural capital. Those students know what clubs to join, they know where to apply, and they have connections somewhere. That trajectory is already set for them. Whereas low-income students can't afford to do unpaid internships, don't know anyone in the industry, don't know how to navigate the process of applying to those internships, or even that they have to do internships in college.
When do we need to start preparing students for these realities of college campuses?
This is one of the issues I have with college affordability activism – it starts way before students enter college. The K-12 education system is so vastly unequal, that needs to be addressed in addition to how we're setting up low-income students to succeed in college. There's so many low-income students we're not capturing because our education system is so unequal. It's a rare phenomenon to even get low-income students in the door at these elite institutions.
That needs to be addressed. But that’s a combination of segregation and the way public schools are funded. There are a number of legal ways in which rich parents give their kids a leg up in the admissions process.
Does your academic focus cover these issues?
Yes, I try to make that really clear. I am also responsible for creating a minor and social class in equality studies at the university. It basically teaches about how social class influences outcomes and access to opportunity.
I want people to think about how from birth people are set up to succeed or fail depending on what class they were born into.
That's something I tried to bring into my activism around affordability because affordability is inherently political, and to talk about it you also have to talk about class and race and all that stuff.
Class is a very un-American conversation.
Exactly. People are starting to have that conversation.
Do you find it easy to explain?
Oh, it's so hard. Particularly if you're communicating it to wealthy people, which a lot of the times I'm doing because of the campus. But telling people that their success is the result of the combination of hard work and privilege is really hard, and people get defensive. You have to coddle them a little and say, "You worked really hard in high school, but have you considered that these factors may have helped you get to a place like the University of Michigan?" And then they get it, but sometimes they're still mad because the American dream tells us that if you work hard you can succeed – and it doesn't say anything about class privilege.
What do you think happens to the value of college when the reality of attendance is so tied to privilege? As an employer, what does it really mean to hire someone from Yale, if I have no context for how they got there?
First of all, I don't think people quite realize that a Yale degree isn't as meritocratic as we think it is.
People are still under the impression that if you went to one of these very elite schools, you must be very smart and that's how we maintain the system. But if people start to think that, hey, maybe this is the result of socioeconomic privilege and not necessarily merit, then the only solution to keeping people from losing faith in the education system is to admit students in a truly meritocratic way, which means admitting very smart, high performing low-income students. Hopefully the problem solves itself that way. But if not, then we're going to have this distrust of higher education.