From clothing to careers: How low-income students adapt to life on Grounds

Students from low-income backgrounds face a variety of mental health, social challenges when arriving at the University


Student Financial Services examines sources of aid from federal and Virginia state programs to create a financial aid package. 

Andrew Walsh | Cavalier Daily

For some students, springtime at the University means trading Bean Boots and Canada Goose jackets for Lilly Pulitzer sundresses and Ray-Ban sunglasses. But for Ellie Brasacchio, a third-year College student and Student Council president, the sartorial changes that accompany rising temperatures are merely another reminder of the socioeconomic divide at the University. Sixty-seven percent of students who attend the University are in the top 20 percent of the federal income bracket, and the median family income of a student at the University sits at $155,500. Meanwhile, 2.8 percent of students come from the bottom 20 percent of the federal income bracket. 

“Tangible displays of wealth, like Bean boots, Canada Goose jackets — these kinds of things that we joke about — to low-income students, just show the enormous divide between the regular U.Va. affluent student and the small population of low-income students that we have here,” Brasacchio said.

However, many reminders of the socioeconomic divide aren’t so tangible. According to Curry Dean Robert Pianta, attending an institution of higher education as a low-income student involves a myriad of structural hurdles in academic, social and professional life. This is because of the disadvantages posed by gaps between low and higher income families. 

“The gaps in [low-income] experiences relative to the peers in college who come from higher income families or communities are really pronounced,” Pianta said.

First days on Grounds

Third-year College students Brandon Thompson and Raven Earnest arrived on Grounds unaware of many of the opportunities available to low-income and first generation students. When they eventually found a sense of place at the University, it was largely self-motivated. Frustrated by the price tag that accompanies membership to many Contracted Independent Organizations and Greek organizations — the latter of which can cost up to $1,790 in dues per semester — Earnest and Thompson resorted to concentrating on academics “because that’s paid for.” 

Thompson said he spent his first semester at the University on the brink of transferring but decided to reach out to the Career Center. To Thompson, the Career Center was a place that might bring him the sense of belonging he had been searching for. 

“[The Career Center] was like a neutral environment for me to go to and figure out what I can do to get out of the situation I'm in,” Thompson said. “And that was sort of the catalyst to bring me to the point that I am at today, so it took it definitely took self-initiative.”

Now as the vice chair of communication at the Career Center and a resident advisor in Lambeth, Thompson uses his positions to reach out to other students who might also be at a disadvantage or lack motivation to reach out to University resources such as the Career Center. Thompson also works as the selections co-chair of Hoos First Look — a student-run program initiated in 2018 through which 20 low-income and/or first-generation high school juniors are provided with a three-day visit to the University. 

Thompson said his job at the Career Center has provided him with opportunities to engage a range of counselors, alumni and employers. Thompson noted that his employment at the University is unique, and that other employment opportunities on Grounds might lack the same opportunities for widespread engagement. 

Recently, student workers in Newcomb Hall have been protesting proposed changes to Newcomb Hall’s employment structure which many believe spur from the Office of the Dean of Students’ budget deficit — changes which they fear threaten their job security. Numerous student workers — many of whom are minority students from low-income backgrounds — rely on that income to help pay the cost of tuition at the University.

Earnest spent the summer of 2018 working as an Orientation Leader — a platform she used to mentor students by communicating concrete advice on how to navigate their first year at the University.

“You have to prepare for all these various situations that student may be coming from, including personal income, which is really cool to sort of see institutional training on that,” Earnest said. 

Earnest and Thompson both noted that while these involvements made the University feel like more of a home, the culture of student self-governance at the University — which esteems student independence — inhibits low-income students from finding institutionally-backed resources and support. 

“They’re describing a burden as a privilege,” Earnest said. “We’ve always had this burden to push initiatives ourselves.”

Pianta explained that such lack of explicit guidance in higher education proves particularly stressful for low-income students. 

“If what we're dependent upon are the students — who are already kind of stressed and scrambling to try to just keep up and adjust to a very, very different context — to have to go find those resources themselves, I think we've placed yet another burden on them,” Pianta said. 

Low-income students are often unable to engage with what Pianta calls the “hidden curriculum” — which, for wealthier students, often involves educational summer camps, professional training opportunities, tutoring and other educational opportunities. 

Meanwhile, Pianta noted the “hidden curriculum” for low-income students involves navigating the challenges associated with attending higher-education from a low-income household. 

“Over many years, those differences add up tremendously and place the kids from better income families at a distinct advantage when they move into employment opportunities,” Pianta said. “They've just been kind of schooled in how to engage employers, what are the best work habits, to engage in how to begin to take risks and be somewhat entrepreneurial.”

Financial literacy challenges

While many CIOs on Grounds fall short of being accessible to low-income students, Brasacchio and Thompson agree that the financial aid they have received from the University meets their needs. The U.Va. and the University of North Carolina are the only two public schools in the country which meet 100 percent of demonstrated need. 

“U.Va. actually gives a lot of financial aid,” Brasacchio said. “AccessUVA is a really great financial aid option, because it's grants not loans, so I don't have to pay it back, which is great.” 

AccessUVA, a program housed in the Office of the Dean of Students, provides financial aid recipients and first-generation college students with grant-based financial aid and mentorship. The program, launched in 2004, provides institutional support for students through online newsletters, one-on-one meetings, financial literacy programs and other resources for emotional and academic support. 

The Office of the Dean of Students did not respond to request for comment. 

Scott Miller, director of Student Financial Services, explained that SFS uses a student’s Free Application for Federal Student Aid form — used to determine federal eligibility for financial aid — in combination with their College Scholarship Service Profile, which enumerates expected family contribution. Then, SFS examines sources of aid from federal and Virginia state programs to create a financial aid package. Packages include loans, grants and work study in order to meet 100 percent of need demonstrated in the prior financial assessments. 

While this process allows students to graduate with low levels of debt, Thompson and Brasacchio said that difficulties arise when navigating the financial aid process itself. Both students fill out the financial aid forms on their own, which required them to independently develop a high level of financial literacy. 

“You're dealing with family, that isn't going to help you ... whether that's literally just because they won’t help you, which is a travesty, or because they want to but they don't have the capability to do it because they don't have the educational background that is required to understand these documents in their full capacity,” Thompson said. “It's an all-around issue for these extreme students that are in massive financial need, and need tens of thousands of dollars to come here and trying to basically do this independently.”

Brasacchio explained that the process has recently become even more difficult for many students, as the office now requires noncustodial parents to submit a CSS Profile for dependent students applying for financial aid. If the noncustodial parent refuses to submit their financial information, students can be denied financial aid. The subsequent process to appeal the decision can prove distressing for students who have upsetting histories with the noncustodial parent. 

“[If denied financial aid], then you have to basically tell your life story to financial services to show them that you grew up in a single parent household and the other parent hasn't contributed to anything,” Brasacchio said. “Which has been a very traumatizing for a lot of students having to relive all the experiences of their childhood, that led up to this point where they have to appeal to Student Financial Services.”

According to Pianta, the undue stress that accompanies the financial aid process, along with challenges at home, can take a toll on a student’s mental health and physical health. 

Moving Forward

Issues of accessibility for low-income and first generation students at the University has risen to particular salience since President Jim Ryan has publicly affirmed his mission to make the University a more welcoming place for first generation and low- and middle-income students. In October 2018, Ryan announced that students from Virginia families earning less than $80,000 a year and have “typical assets” will be able to attend the University tuition-free. Students whose families earn less than $30,000 a year with typical assets will be eligible for free room and board on top of the free tuition.

“That's a great starting initiative,” Thompson said. “You won't find a lot of — especially incoming — presidents with his background and he just went after that first thing, and I really appreciate it … But it's just like, ‘OK, great. You made the initiative for in state kids. You covered Virginia kids. What about the rest of us?’”

Moreover, Brasacchio’s successful campaign for Student Council President focused heavily on accessibility and inclusion for this same group of students. Brasacchio explained that these goals mean providing current students with a sense of belonging while creating the groundwork necessary for future low-income and first-generation students to feel the same.

Thompson said he has been pleased with the rising discourse in regard to the inclusivity of low-income and first generation students, but he noted that institutional mentality — particularly at the University, where student self-governance has dominated since the institution’s conception — will take generations to progress. 

“It's a really tough task because you're trying to change an entire perspective of a school that was meant for a certain demographic for 150 years,” Thompson said. “We have to somehow make this place a place where we belong, where all those years prior we weren't. So changing that mentality, it takes generations.”

While many challenges accompany attending the University from a low-income background, Brasacchio said that overcoming those hurdles leaves students with valuable knowledge and experiences to bring to the post-graduate world. 

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