The holiday season would be incomplete without re-filing for financial aid and paying Spring semester tuition. It’s a time that wracks me with anxiety about whether college will even pay off. On one hand, I know the degree I’ll receive next Fall will be imbued with prestige. On the other, I get to watch my bank account slowly bleed out while my student debt piles up.
So when I pay the bills, I know what I owe Emory: money and gratitude. But the University gets my money immediately, leaving me to eyeball average salaries of graduates to gauge if gambling on myself will work out. This stress is only compounded by the social isolation of being lower-income on Emory’s privileged campus, so it should be no wonder that mounting debt and a fear of asking for help almost scared me into transferring. While Emory does an excellent job of recruiting lower-income students to its undergraduate divisions, quality of life is just as important to the college experience as admission and affordability.
To retain lower-income and minority students and improve their experience, schools like Emory should bolster the support networks for them. Lower-income and minority students are disproportionately likely to exit college without a degree, and even those who do graduate still struggle with the adjustment to new class environments.
Fortunately, it seems the University is aware of this need: last Spring, Emory joined the American Talent Initiative (ATI), a program that seeks to expand educational access for low and mid-income students. In its 2018 Impact Report, ATI identified boosting retention rates as an important step in this process. Additionally, in Fall 2013, the University launched the 1915 Scholars Program to connect first-generation college students with their peers and faculty mentors. More can be done to augment this program, however, as not all first-generation students are automatically enrolled, and not all lower-income and minority students are first-generation.
Because I’m only able to attend Emory due to its generous financial aid policies, I’m reticent to ask for more support. But over the past three years, I’ve realized that even though Emory wants to help people like me, administrators won’t know that students are struggling unless they air their grievances. And while I can’t hope to speak for all lower-income students at the University, I know I’m not alone in looking for assistance.
Though I have been fortunate to obtain paid summer internships, many of my peers have not had that privilege. Emory’s Career Center offers some scholarships for lower-income students to take unpaid internships in nonprofits, non-governmental organizations or the public sector through the Emory Civic Scholars program, but the University could redirect funding toward the program so that they could offer more than 15 each summer. Alternatively, Emory could pilot a program for funding internships unrelated to civic service.
Even if creating more programs or increasing funding for existing ones would prove difficult, providing more communications about what already exists could still be beneficial. For example, the University could create an email list-serv to distribute more information about opportunities for Pell grant recipients, or it could use the Pre-major Advising Connections at Emory Program (PACE) to distribute useful information about programs for lower-income students.
That said, there are steps beyond basic communication that Emory should take to aid low-income students. The University could hire more employees from diverse socioeconomic and racial backgrounds. Research of minorities’ mentorship experiences suggests that similar identities and values were correlated with better outcomes. While less has been written about this phenomenon, I know the reassurance that comes from seeing someone in power from a similar socioeconomic background firsthand. The support I’ve received from those individuals, especially those from Emory, has influenced my decision to major in history, to pursue law school and to keep writing for the Wheel. For instance, I almost quit the Wheel entirely until a New York Magazine writer whom I had reached out to encouraged me to stick with it despite classist tension. Even though American culture tempts us to create images of ourselves as self-made, I know that I’ve only accomplished what I have because I’ve seen people like me achieve much more while overcoming larger obstacles than my own.
This isn’t to say that the University should export the workload of supporting students onto this already limited set of individuals. Instead, Emory should correct the problems isolated by its Class and Labor Reports completed in 2013 and 2018, which found disparities in tenure and salary along lines of race, class and gender. The 2018 report’s executive summary, dated from 2016, urged Emory’s deans to review hiring practices to address these issues in hiring and pay. Aside from improving the University’s work environment, a resolution to these problems would be a boon for lower-income and minority student mentorship. While the ongoing cluster hire of three faculty members to diversify the History Department’s course offerings is a step toward this end, it must be accompanied by broader hiring reforms and alleviation of pay disparity.
Emory already does a lot to make college accessible for lower-income and minority students, and for those efforts it should be praised. But loans, social exclusion and poor faculty representation demonstrate that there’s more to be done, and I hope future students are afforded a smoother transition throughout college.
Isaiah Sirois (19C) is from Nashua, N.H.