Low-Income Students’ Experiences Marked by Alienation

When Elinton Park ’20 was first applying to college, he didn’t know about Amherst College. Hailing from rural Missouri, he remained oblivious to the liberal arts institution up until just before the regular decision application, and only heard about the college through QuestBridge, a non-profit organization that connects high-achieving low-income students to elite colleges.

“Amherst does take a more ‘I don’t come to you, you come to me’ approach. Me in Missouri only hearing about Amherst through QuestBridge, that’s a problem,” Park said about his college application process. “[The admissions office] have deans who go around and travel, but it’s not enough.”

Once enrolled at the college, navigating the ins and outs of an elite institution posed new difficulties unmet in his high school career. The transition into his science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) classes proved particularly challenging in his first year.

“I think especially in classrooms, maybe especially in STEM, there’s just a lack of understanding of like … what is intro level? And what does it mean to come from a public high school that did not have a strong STEM department? What does it feel like to come from there and then try to generalize the entire intro education?” Park said. “So it’s really hard to always have to keep up, but it’s triple the amount of work for everyone who are people of color and low-income, first-generation students.”

The barriers to entry in the classroom, Park added, contribute to feelings of exclusion on campus. “It’s hard to always struggle, and I feel like that just emphasizes the imposter syndrome of ‘I’m not supposed to be here, how can everyone else keep up and I can’t.’ It’s weird, because it’s not even ‘work harder.’ Working harder doesn’t make a difference,” he said.

Park’s experiences are not uncommon for low-income students on college campuses. Traditional narratives concerning students’ college experiences insist that entering college presents a plethora of new and exciting opportunities ranging from a blossoming social life to a rigorous yet enriching academic schedule. Though this narrative is often lauded as the universal college experience, a deeper investigation disputes such an assumption.

Over the past three weeks, The Student has investigated the college’s admissions practices in light of Operation Varsity Blues, the national college admissions scandal entangling celebrities like Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin. In the last installment of the series, we look at inclusion, both in the admissions office and for students on campus.

Challenges of Inclusion Work Elite colleges make up a small percentage of the institutions attended by low-income students across the country. According to a 2017 report in The New York Times tracking wealth distribution across American colleges, nearly 40 percent of students in the top 0.1 percent of the income bracket attend Ivy plus colleges, a consortium including all eight Ivy League universities along with Stanford, Duke, MIT and the University of Chicago. That same number — 40 percent — represents the number of students in the bottom 20 percent of the income bracket who attend any two- or four- year university at all. Of those low-income students who do attend college, most attend non-selective universities, community colleges and for-profit schools.

While most low-income students are not enrolled in college, those who are fall into the minority of students at an institution, especially if the school is considered elite. The same New York Times report indicates that only 4 percent of students from the bottom 20 percent attend elite colleges. Many experience feelings of exclusion beyond the admissions process.

At the University of Michigan in 2018, an alumna circulated a guide to “Being Not-Rich,” which gained traction across elite colleges nationwide. The guide, which included advice on subjects like housing and office hours, highlighted the ways in which low-income students “realize that your socioeconomic status (SES) puts you at a significant disadvantage. You struggle to compete with the children of lawyers, doctors, executives and politicians. You start to feel deficient, like there’s something wrong with you.”

Amherst is among a cohort of elite colleges which host more students from the top 1 percent than the bottom 60 percent, though the college regularly highlights the progress it has made.

According to data released by the admissions office, the class of 2023 boasts record-breaking statistics. Aside from the college’s increasing selectivity — the acceptance rate this year fell to just short of 11 percent — the class of 2023 also consists of 129 QuestBridge scholars, with 56 percent of admitted students identifying as students of color. Yet, even as the admissions office’s efforts to diversify the student body appear impressive statistically, students still struggle to feel welcome in campus life.

Once enrolled at the college, students are encouraged to take advantage of opportunities for inclusion on campus, ranging from affinity groups to resource centers. Diversity Intern Maya Hossain ’21 celebrated the progress made in the past couple of years of expanding the resources available to students: intensive advising for first-generation and low-income first-year students; expanded financial aid; and partnerships between the Counseling Center, the Multicultural Resource Center (MRC) and the Center for Diversity and Student Leadership (CDSL).

Putting these initiatives into action, however, is a different story. Limited resources often prevent substantive impact. Though valuable, the resource centers — the MRC, CDSL, Queer Resource Center (QRC) and Women’s and Gender Center (WGC) — are “bandaids,” Park said.

“You’ll have the resource centers, for example, that are technically for the students, but they’re understaffed, underfunded, and those spaces don’t always feel inclusive. That’s not to say that they’re not trying necessarily,” he said.

Hossain added that the number of people actually investing in the work of access and equity for low-income students is low.

“If you look at who’s propelling all of these things, you could identify them on one hand. It’s [Dean of New Students Rick] Lopez, [Director of the CDSL] Tenzin Kunor, a couple faculty members who feel specifically engaged with this stuff. You can find the source of any positive thing for a first-gen low-income student on this campus because of them,” Hossain said. “It’s really disappointing because they have to do so much. Every bit of progress we have, I have to hold myself back from fully embracing it because of how much labor is capitalized off of seven people who are doing this.”

Students also carry the heavy-lifting. But students, Park said, “aren’t here to fix [administrative] problems. I’m here to get my degree.”

“The workload of Amherst, on top of extracurriculars … In this environment, it’s very much like ‘do your best, fill your resume’ — you gotta think about your jobs, your internships,” he added. “We’re at 100 percent all the time, but if I’m at 100 percent all the time, then what space is left for me to fix administrative problems?”

Former Financial Aid Peer Ambassador Lesley Martinez ’21E described similar pressures. Though she worked hard in high school to get accepted into a school like Amherst, observing the burden of work and advocacy remains frustrating. “It doesn’t get any easier. You just get angrier,” she said.

Improving Inclusion Practices on Campus In light of Operation Varsity Blues, which for many illuminated the growing wealth disparities in the college admissions process, conversations around improving the admissions process, particularly for first-generation and low-income students, have heightened. For Hossain, Amherst’s admissions office needs to begin by thinking of applicants beyond what is written on their application.

“Admissions has this conceptual idea that we need to do a better job at admitting more first-generation, low-income students … I don’t think they know what that means in practice, like who those students really are,” she said. “I do think the culture of the actual office needs some work in terms of treating students better. We’re really complex people. They do a good job of reading the applications, but you still feel like the master status of some students is that they’re first-gen, low-income.”

Training admissions deans on how to better engage with diversity could improve the application process for prospective students, Hossain said.

“The supervisors of the admissions department need to be more transparent with some of the lower-tiered deans. Especially because some deans aren’t necessarily expected to engage with work on diversity or social justice, and it’s not a barrier to entry if you don’t know how to engage with that. Anyone can learn it. But the fact is that it needs to be learned,” Hossain added.

The financial aid office could also benefit from training, said Martinez. Diversifying the office could benefit students seeking advice from professionals with their same backgrounds.

“I think financial aid should do empathy training. For students who are going to come in there with very difficult situations, all I’ve heard is that they’re super condescending,” Martinez said. “A lot of those people in there don’t seem like they come from [low-income] backgrounds.” People of color are also underrepresented.

Hossain noted that increased “communication between students” could help bridge differences. Though she said that discussions with other students were enlightening for her, the college should more actively facilitate these conversations.

“I think those conversations, if we expect them to happen organically, it’s never going to happen. There’s a balance between institutional top-down and this grassroots idea of privilege. There has to be more dialogue-based events, or even classrooms,” Hossain said.

Classrooms in particular can provide students a baseline for discussion. Park found that his academic experience at Amherst offered him a platform to better understand concepts like privilege.

“I never heard the term ‘person of color’ ever until I came to college. It’s not that I was stupid — that just wasn’t the vocabulary I was exposed to [at home]. To come here and to understand everything I was feeling, or to define specific concepts where I was like ‘it seems like something, but I don’t know what it is,’” he said. “To have that, it was really great to have that experience, and it only started because in my first semester I took my first SWAGS [sexuality, women’s and gender studies] class.”

Leah Gordon, visiting professor of education, added that such classes can be a starting point for thinking about privilege within an Amherst context.

“I think that the kinds of classes that a lot of the students I know are taking with people like [Professors of Sociology] Leah Schmalzbauer and Ron Lembo … really allow them to see how different an Amherst College educational experience can be from the kind of … higher educational experience students are getting at many other places. So that Amherst students have a sense of the privilege they have by virtue of just being here,” she said.

This is the last of a four-part series examining admissions at Amherst.

Part one — “Admissions Scandal Highlights Wealth Disparities at Amherst”

Part two — “College Admissions Scandal Provokes Questions About Athletics”

Part three — “Legacy Admissions Scrutinized in Wake of Varsity Blues”

Correction: An earlier version of the article incorrectly published the name Elinton Lee ’20. The student’s name is Elinton Park ’20. This article was updated at 1:36 p.m. on Saturday, April 27.