UT Unspoken: Low-income students face disadvantages on road to success in higher education

Josue Moreno

Education has long been seen as society’s great equalizer. Holding a college degree dramatically increases a graduate’s job prospects and potential income, making higher education one of the most reliable catalysts of social mobility available. But low-income students — who arguably would benefit most from attaining a bachelor’s degree — increasingly have the most difficulty attaining them.   

Whether or not a student succeeds in college is not as well-predicted by his or her GPA, SAT score or class rank as people might assume. A far more important factor is family income. According to one widely cited analysis by the Century Foundation, the persistent gap in achievement between wealthy students and disadvantaged ones remains, even when accounting for academic ability — meaning two students with identical SAT scores can perform very differently in college based on how much money their parents make.

International relations senior Joseph Flores said he believes this is partly because low-income students like himself are at a disadvantage when it comes to access to campus resources. He said rising property values in Riverside, a traditional haven of affordability, has put a strain on many low-income students, forcing them to move further from campus in search of more affordable housing.

“We’re being pushed further away, yet the resources aren’t being allocated to bring us back to campus,”  Flores said.

Flores said this puts poorer students at a disadvantage relative to those who live in pricey West Campus, many of whom can simply walk to UT in a matter of minutes, allowing them easier access to libraries, professors and fellow classmates.

“Access to campus is access to resources,” Flores said. “If different students don’t have equal access to resources based on income, how can we expect the outcome to be fair?”

UT’s student body composition is indicative of a class divide. A 2013 profile of admitted UT students showed over half came from households with yearly incomes above $100,000, which is more than twice the U.S. median. One of these students, Plan II and biology senior Arushi Pandya, whose father is a computer engineer and mother is an IRS accountant, said her family’s position allowed her to reach her junior year without incurring a dime of student loan debt, giving her a significant advantage.

“College isn’t cheap. Even coming with the background that I do, I can feel uncomfortable with the amount of money I spend. So I think about other people who are less fortunate, and I wonder how they even get by,” Pandya said.

The U.S. Department of Education states that low-income students, particularly minorities, are the least likely to attain a degree after enrolling in a four-year institution. David Laude, senior vice president for enrollment and graduation management, said that at UT, many less affluent students underperform because of the everyday pressures that arise for those with limited financial resources.

“You have the practical side of this, which is that if you can’t pay your bills it’s difficult to focus on studying,” Laude said. “If you can’t afford textbooks or food or keep the lights on, it can be difficult to focus on your grades.”

But Laude said the problem extends to the mindset of students of certain backgrounds, who can often underperform because they feel as though they don’t belong.

“There’s also a class issue inserting itself here,” Laude said. “A low-income student will look at other, wealthier students who may have a nicer car, or nicer backpack or nicer clothes. They look at that student and think, ‘I’m not like him, so I must not belong here.’”

Joseph Flores said after being priced out of his apartment, he felt a similar sense of disconnect.

“For a lot of us in Riverside who have been priced out, it just feels like we’ve been forgotten,” Flores said. “It can be easy to wonder if the University has forgotten about us.”