“Low-Income” is a point of pride for some students

By Jimmieka Mills

Growing up, I knew what low-income meant. For some of us it meant a piece of paper.

At the beginning of each school year, the teachers sent us home with a letter for our parents. Sign this form, they said, to declare your household “low-income” and become eligible for free breakfast and lunch.

I was grateful for the help, but I know some students felt shame. Everybody knew who was declared low-income and who wasn’t. Even if we didn’t talk about it, we were a community within a community.

I started college at 21 and I was still by every definition low-income — only now I also had a dependent of my own to take care of.

If this were just the story of me, maybe it wouldn’t mean much. But this is the story of many others, and of how labeling people “low-income” — despite what you might think — can help more than it hurts.

At a recent Lumina convening on the foundation’s Beyond Financial Aid program, University of Michigan student Lauren Schandevel shed light on her university’s use of the term.

“They have told me in meetings that they avoid using the term low-income to describe students,” she said.

Schandevel thinks they should, though: “It is an economic issue, and universities operate within this context of a vastly unequal society,” she said. “That is what students are coming from, and that’s the situation you’re dealing with.”

Besides the information submitted with my FAFSA, I was never asked or even heard the term low-income during orientation, counseling, advising or at any time during my collegiate career.

I can understand concerns over labeling and sensitivity. But I also see missed opportunities. There are so many programs that could stand as life-changing resources for students, such as housing support, SNAP, Medicaid and others designated for people of limited means.

I have no shame in telling people that as a low-income student, I have a Ph.D. in Poverty. As low-income students we have a lifetime worth of personal experience on the subject, a frame of reference only gained through the lived experience of struggle. When colleges and universities refrain from using terms like low-income to describe large sections of the student population, where does that leave the students who live that struggle? Where does that leave me?

At alarming rates, low-income students are being shut out from obtaining degrees or certificates because of lack of funds for basic needs such as food and housing. Schandevel says those students should have a greater say in the types of assistance offered.

“There are programs, but I don’t think its necessarily a collaborative process,” she says.

“It’s more like remediating students so they can ‘fit in’ on campus without really recognizing that first generation, low-income students, and students of color bring all sorts of amazing experiences and perspectives to campus. And those perspectives can help make the university better and more accommodating to more students.”

But that student input has been lacking in many cases, says Chad Ahren, a Lumina Foundation strategy officer.

“A lot of decisions historically in higher education are made in small rooms; big decisions that affect a lot of people,” he said.

“When we bring student voices and elevate those in really intentional ways, and really get into student’s stories — and not what we think we know about students — we start to change our minds on how we want to craft our interventions and go about our missions,” Ahren said.

Low-income students, first generation students, and students of color possess not only a wealth of knowledge around the subject of barriers to education, but also have a unique ability to provide solutions.

We’ve lived the life and we have ideas. There’s plenty more that can be done to bring down the barriers, and we stand ready to help. Let us into the conversation, and we can help find the solutions that work for all students.

Jimmieka Mills is a Lumina consultant.