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Tuesday, November 15, 2016
Being Poor at an Elite University
It's been nearly three years to the day since I first read (former) Duke University student Kelly Noel Waldorf's article about being a poor student at an elite institution. And on the heels of a U.S. election that has pushed issues of economics and class division to the surface, her story is more relevant than ever.
Her letter, which appeared in Duke's own newspaper on November 11, 2013 went viral at the time. In it, she talks about the practical realities of being poor. She can't afford to go out to eat with her friends. She has to check her textbooks out of the library. Her mom calls her crying because she can't afford the gas money to come pick her up for Thanksgiving break.
But the more troubling aspect of the article involves her anecdote about putting her McDonald's job on her résumé: a Duke classmate asks her if she thinks that's wise. And there it is-the embarrassing culture clash. That painful juncture where one person's reality becomes the object of elite pity. Waldorf got it, and she had the courage to write about it.
Today, things are no better. The majority of students at elite universities come from families with six-figure incomes. Legacy admissions and the exorbitant price tag on private universities means that poorer students either can't or don't even try to attend. The efforts by many institutions to offer services to low-income students may be worthy, but it's a mere ripple in the ocean.
The class divide in our country has never been greater or more apparent. College has long been considered the gateway to success, but it is not always an easy threshold for students to cross. Getting in and getting it financed is the practical battle; moving into a new social class is an entirely different exercise.
To read Ms. Waldorf's 2013 article, click here: Duke Chronicle
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