Low-Income Students Shouldn’t Be a Low Priority

Despite efforts from the administration to level the playing field between low-income, first-generation students at Swarthmore and their more privileged peers, the administration struggles to see the real issue at hand — that this institution was built for the wealthy, by the wealthy. The administration attempts to counteract this with info sessions about imposter syndrome saying, “You belong here!”, and panels that talk about finding “community” with other low-income students once you get here, but these efforts don’t seem to be able to identify the root of the problem. The administration needs to make a more concerted effort to support low-income students during their time here.

In terms of getting first-generation and low-income students in the door, the college has made significant progress. 27% of the admitted students from the Class of 2023 are first-generation, and 36% of admitted students are affiliated with local, national, and international community based organizations such as QuestBridge.

Of course, the real work begins once these students arrive here. In many ways, the college has made progress when it comes to addressing issues of equity on campus. The fact that we live on a cash-free campus is something to celebrate, as no one wants to carry around quarters for laundry or printing or have to worry about breaking the bank for whoever the school decides to bring for Worthstock. The school isn’t not trying, but their endeavors aren’t robust enough. These efforts do not take into account other types of capital that aren’t simply dollars, such as educational capital or being able to exist comfortably in certain institutional spaces.

Yes, during breaks the FLI program will send emails to students who might still be on campus to let them know about ways to get meals with Sharples being closed, such as food being provided at the identity centers. We do want to acknowledge the vast improvements to food access during breaks. Spring break marked the first time where students had multiple meal swipes at Essie’s — something that allows for more students to get food. These measures are important and should be expanded on wherever possible. Baseline-necessities, such as meals, should not be only given to those who can afford them.

Yes, the college does have an emergency fund, but as it stands the emergency fund is capped and often runs out before the end of the semester. Although this is not heavily advertised, the webpage on the emergency fund does briefly allude to the limited funds, stating that, “the Dean’s office may not be able to fulfill all requests.” The very fact that the emergency fund is somewhat vague in its wording makes it so that students are unaware of what funds they have access to, and how it is that they can appeal in cases where the emergency fund does not work out for them.

Yes, the school is making efforts to have first-generation and low-income students take interviewing skills classes, but these efforts are often housed only in S.T.E.M. departments. Not only that, but Swarthmore fails to realize the fact that much of these resources need to be actively requested and sought out, not addressing the fact that low-income students are often discouraged from reaching out in the first place.

While Swarthmore does have a very comprehensive financial aid system compared to a majority of schools, and many students come to Swarthmore for that very reason, the school often drops the ball once students arrive. Yes, Swarthmore is helping students pay for schooling, and yes, Swarthmore is a cash-free campus, but what about addressing the emotional and social aspects involved in being low-income in a sea of students that populate the 1% and have parents with Ivy League educations who helped them get to where they are now and continue to help them succeed.

Swarthmore attempts to shove these differences under the rug, seemingly arguing that because we are all here, we are all equal. While there is, of course, a privilege that comes with getting a Swarthmore College degree, that does not erase the fact that hierarchies exist during the four years that students are on this campus, and will continue to exist once students are off this campus.

Students in various low-income groups and who are affiliated with the First Generation/Low-Income office have been working on developing a guide and website for students that clearly lays out all the resources available on campus — some of which is not known to the majority of students. This is unacceptable and is a task that the administration itself should be pursuing actively. Why is the burden being put on first-generation and low-income students to ask what they may not even know they don’t have access to?

Knowing what to wear, how to network, and who to reach out to are all implicit skills that the administration conveniently forgets that half of their student body will be aware of, while the other half lies completely in the dark. It is not enough to accept these students for optics. The school needs to actually promote equity once these students get to campus, to ensure that their initiatives are not all for naught.

The administration needs to make it clear that first-generation and low-income students are a priority to them. Simply telling students that they belong doesn’t make that happen — tangible action does. Expanding and dispersing resources to low-income and first-generation students is something that is well within the capacity of this college, and must be done. In contrast to what some may believe, just attending Swarthmore doesn’t completely level the playing field.

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