Photo by Morgan Winston
Cardinal View: ‘Traditional’ college experience not financially accessible to all students
Students decked in red and white gear across UW-Madison’s campus can tell you what it means to have the “College Experience”: it includes going to games in the Kohl Center and at Camp Randall, experiencing Madison’s nightlife on State Street or partying in the high rises around campus, grabbing food from one of the unions and absorbing the views The Terrace has to offer.
But harder to pinpoint for many is its cost — and the even heftier price tag of lower-income students’ inability to afford this seemingly universal experience.
Financial aid, scholarships and grants provide an incredible sense of accomplishment and relief to students from economically-disadvantaged backgrounds; it provides an abundance of new opportunities that wouldn’t otherwise be possible.
Once they arrive on campus and attempt to get acclimated, however, the cost of living in Madison, on and off-campus, can chip away at that well-deserved sense of pride.
Many first-year students begin their time in college with moving into the residence halls, and it is here when their financial strifes outside of tuition first emerge.
Starting this academic year, University Housing has rolled out a new meal plan, requiring all who live in the dorms to put a minimum of $1400 on their Wiscard for solely for spending in the dining halls.
In the months following the announcement of the plan, multiple protests broke out in the two biggest dining halls on campus. Many students spoke out about how the plan would especially impact low-income students, as well as those with dietary restrictions.
Even for students living outside the dorms and instead now live in rented houses or apartments, it remains difficult to avoid the rising costs of eating or drinking out with friends.
“Higher end” coffee shops and restaurants have booted out less expensive places over the years, and they leave students with fewer options for grabbing a cup of coffee or a substantial meal at a decent cost.
It can also be difficult for low-income students to become friends with people who love going to the bars every weekend when they can’t afford to have the same $7 drinks.
The cost of tickets to many of the major sporting events on campus are yet another a barrier to low-income students to building relationships with the friends and peers. A $30 ticket may be insignificant to many of the students that buy and sell on the Ticket Exchange Facebook page, but for some that is their week of groceries or the money for their electric bill.
While the tangible costs of securing the college experience are significant, even more consequential are the costs and drains on relationships with friends, peers and university faculty.
Many students, and to a lesser extent staff members, assume those attending UW-Madison have similar college experiences and similar socioeconomic backgrounds, but these assumptions are inaccurate and can be harmful to low-income students.
Opinions from peers can leave others feeling targeted in classroom discussions with comments promoting the idea that “those who work hard won’t be poor.”
Innocent comments from higher-income students, often in classes covering the very issues students in the class grapple with, like “I can’t imagine that kind of life” or “I wonder what it must be like to go without food/shelter” could cause the students sitting next to them discomfort or feelings of isolation.
Academic staff on campus aren’t exempt from unintentionally excluding students either. When professors make comments like, “you all can afford the reader for this course, it’s only $40,” or “you need this lab book for the class, but it’s not that expensive,” they disconnect and exclude select students from the rest of the class.
Even well-meaning friends can perpetuate feelings of marginalization without even realizing it.
They do it when they decide their friend group should make photo albums together, leaving their low-income friend calculating how they’re going to scrape together the money to print off photos.
They do it when they plan on going to a concert together while one friend dreads admitting the admission costs are too high.
They do it when they have a “Friendsgiving” dinner together and one of the friends worries about how they’re going to pay for the food they are supposed to bring.
Though these issues exist on every campus to some extent, it is particularly pervasive at UW-Madison. For a university that strives to be as diverse in as many ways possible, it still has a way to go in making campus and its culture welcoming to those of poor economic backgrounds.
According to a study published by The New York Times, about 40 percent of students in the UW System in 2013 came from families in the top income quintile, with their households making at least $110,000 a year. Meanwhile, only 4.4 percent of students came from families with an annual income at or below $20,000.
To make campus more inclusive of students from every socioeconomic background and status, the university needs to provide more support to the students they already list among its ranks through things like scholarships and work study, and it needs better inform high school students in poorly funded schools across the state of what resources are available.
Many people fondly remember college as the “best four years” of their lives. While this is not to say that low-income students do not enjoy college, they are at a disadvantage that does not allow them to embrace the full extent of this traditional experience.
No administrative decision will completely absolve students from these financial burdens, but surely more can be done. The university could start by improving the meal plan policy, offering cheaper textbooks to those with demonstrated need, and potentially mandating an economic sensitivity class.
The last idea would expose affluent students to the struggles faced by their less fortunate peers — providing people with a more holistic understanding of economic variations across the campus and allowing them to constructively analyze personal privileges, and make campus more welcoming for everyone.
Regardless of administrative decisions going forward, we can all improve our college experience by removing the stigma against financial insecurity and understanding that not everyone is at liberty to enjoy things one might take for granted at Madison.