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How to ‘Not Be Rich’

After guide to affordable living at University of Michigan struck low-income students as tone-deaf, some created their own guide -- and it's gone viral.

April 16, 2018
 
Image of hands holding an empty wallet.
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Early this year, University of Michigan’s student government published on affordability guide that some on the campus found particularly tone-deaf -- there were suggestions like not buying the newest clothes, canceling a maid service, or cooking at home (when some students probably can’t even afford food).

It was panned and eventually no longer made public. It inspired, however, a different document -- a road map called Being Not-Rich at UM, tips written by students and alumni who had financial difficulty in college.

In contrast to the student government’s suggestions, these tips were much more practical and direct -- the crowdsourced guide told students where they could go to find day-old bagels and bread that could be purchased at a lower price than normal. It detailed the best campus jobs and why working in food service could be particularly beneficial because of the free meals students could get with every shift.

“Ours is focused specifically on lower- and middle-income students,” said Lauren Schandevel, a junior and creator of the guide. “It’s very honest in some of the struggles we face.”

Schandevel grew up in Warren, a working-class suburb of Detroit, and neither of her parents attended college. Though she went to school in a more affluent neighboring district and felt academically prepared entering the university, she struggled in some college basics because of her background -- she didn’t really take advantage of her professors’ office hours, for example, because she wasn’t quite sure what they were about.

“Culturally, it’s a thing for working-class people to not ask for help,” Schandevel said. “They’re stubborn and do things on their own. I didn’t know if it was a ‘get to know’ your professor or what, and it was something I missed out on.”

When the student government released its guide in January, Schandevel was among those critical of it. She said while the work the student government does on behalf of low-income students does go underappreciated, generally, its members are from a higher income bracket than most students at the university. And it’s “difficult” to get the attention of university administrators on these issues, Schandevel said.

So she posted to Facebook -- would anyone be interested in drafting a guide for poorer students with basic information about work-study, scholarships and unpaid internships?

“I mean, I’d read the shit out of it,” one of her friends responded.

It started out with bare-bones information. Schandevel wrote the introduction, in which she acknowledges some students might feel a little inferior not having been born and raised with a silver spoon.

“Why can’t you land that prestigious internship?” she wrote. “Why didn’t you spend your adolescence being classically trained in piano? Why does everyone seem so much more impressive than you? This guide is for anyone who has ever felt marginalized on campus.”

Though it started out basic, the guide grew quickly after Schandevel's Facebook post went viral around the campus and was written about in the student press there. About a month ago, interest was renewed when Schandevel helped form a new group, the Michigan Affordability and Advocacy Coalition, an extension of the guide that’s working with existing groups catering to low-income students.

Schandevel said the goal is by the end of the summer to clean the guide up as a Google document and publish it in a slicker, more official capacity. It’s already been noticed elsewhere around the country, too, with a version being replicated for students at the University of Texas at Austin.

The document is lengthy -- 70 pages -- and 24 authors were credited in helping create it. It touches on all aspects of college life, including textbooks, clothing, housing, mentorship, study abroad programs and student social dynamics.

For instance, the guide encourages students to have fun on a budget, listing the cheapest happy hours and pushing readers not to be intimidated by some of their more advantaged peers.

“Shitty as it may be, it’s probably best to be honest with your close friends about your financial situation to some degree. They then hopefully won’t overly pressure you to partake in expensive activities,” the guide states.

Kevin Kruger, president of NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, said in an interview he found the guide “super cool,” especially since it was written by students and alumni.

Student affairs work in the last several years has moved toward a more social services-oriented approach, dealing with individual students and cases, rather than just solutions for the entire student population, he said. Making sure these students are identified is important because research shows that financial difficulties most often lead to students dropping out of college and never returning, Kruger said.

While he said institutions are doing better at helping low-income students, some of them, such as elite colleges and universities, haven’t historically dealt with many impoverished students. He said he found the guide exciting because it bypassed the “bureaucratic challenges” some institutions deal with.

“One of the challenges of higher ed is that we sometimes make this a little unintelligible,” Kruger said.

Schandevel said that she thinks the guide succeeds in that respect -- it’s clearer than some of the language the university uses to describe low-income students and the problems they encounter.

“We’re trying to come together, acknowledge these situations, let the university know we exist and how we can be successful on campus,” she said.

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