Low-income students don’t owe donors their stories (opinion)

The subject line gave the emails an air of objectivity: “A Message From the Dean of Financial Aid.”

Upon receiving the email the first time, I opened it, presuming there had been an update to my financial aid package. Because the issue of affordability was always one of concern, emails about financial aid were disquieting.

Fortunately, I was not met with an unforeseen financial aid update. Rather, I was met with a request: “Together we make up an incredibly diverse and talented community. I am inviting you to tell us about your journey at Brown to date.” My story would be shared with some of my institution’s donors and “members of [its] philanthropic community who are committed to supporting financial aid.” According to the dean of financial aid, our stories were quite a galvanizing force—learning about students’ journeys is what “inspires” [donors] to support the incredible work being done at Brown.” The dean of financial aid would go on to resend the invite several times in the following weeks.

With time, the subject lines attached to the emails came with less and less ambiguity—eg, “Scholarship Student Survey Request.” Equally as clear were the feelings of deep discomfort I felt at not only the request, but the persistence with which administrators reached out.

This sense of certainly mirrors the feelings of students at the institution Anthony Abraham Jack centers in The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students (Harvard University Press, 2019). The book unveils the struggles of low-income students at elite institutions.

The practice of reaching out to students who are on scholarship is not inherently harmful. The institution’s attempt at personalizing donors’ financial contributions to the institution attaches a degree of intentionality to an otherwise distant act. But it is marginalizing in that it assigns an additional (tacit) responsibility to a small subset of an elite institution’s population and creates a transactional relationship between low-income students and their universities.

The practice of reaching out to scholarship students inadvertently diminishes low-income students’ sense of belonging. Upon receiving the request to share my personal story, I could not help but think about my positionality relative to students who did not receive the email. Students who did not receive the email were not subject to the additional responsibility or pressure to share their personal experiences with donors. Students who did not receive the email were not reminded of their existence at their elite institution as an anomaly. Instead of minimizing differences between low-income students and our peers, the institution, through this practice, reifies these differences and, with them, our sense of estrangement.

Among the factors that shape the implications of this practice is timing. In the absence of conversations surrounding the stratification of elite campuses and the world beyond them, receiving a scholarship survey request a month into your time at an elite institution sends a discomfiting message: the one time we will engage with you about your class background is when we need something. This message ultimately concretizes a transactional relationship between low-income students and the institution early on.

The establishment of transactional relationships is antithetical to what should be the main goal of institutions wishing to embrace low-income students as full members of the community: gaining greater insight into our daily lives and experiences. Our stories could provide valuable insight that enables administrators to support us in our transition to uncharted social terrain, but instead, the institution places value on our stories’ ability to persuade donors and facilitate the institution’s pursuit of its own interests. If scholarship survey requests are among the institution’s earliest and few efforts at acknowledging class status, they will always have the effect of heightening low-income students’ feelings of alienation.

Undoing harm and preventing future harm does not have to involve the eradication of this practice. Rather, the institution should reconsider the aims of the practice. Rather than seeking information on low-income students’ backgrounds for the sole purpose of advancing the personal goals of the institution, elite universities should look to personal stories to heighten their understanding of students’ previous environments and personal circumstances.

While this is a start, the act of seeking out our personal stories is not enough if we wish to shift low-income students’ relationship with the institution. The institution must use this information to enhance the experiences of low-income students. Furthermore, administrators should routinely assess the needs of low-income students and consider where efforts are lacking. In taking a genuine interest in low-income students and our full induction into this space, the institution can ensure that it is the attempt at creating an unified community, and not a legacy of exclusion, that prevails.

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