University of Michigan students compile 'not-rich' guide

The two juniors behind the University of Michigan guide 'Being Not-Rich at UM' see it as a way for students from lower- and middle-income families to encourage and support each other. Now, students on several other campuses are looking to write their own guides.

Ryan Garza/Detroit Free Press
University of Michigan students Griffin St. Onge (l.) and Lauren Schandevel pose for a photo at Angel Hall on the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor, Mich., on April 18. The juniors created an online affordability guide for students, which has gained traction online and inspired similar guides at other colleges.

When University of Michigan juniors Lauren Schandevel and Griffin St. Onge read a campus affordability guide earlier this year that suggested, among other things, that firing the maid could help save them money, they decided to write their own.

Who in college, they asked themselves, has a cleaning service?

Their online publication, "Being Not-Rich at UM," is now taking off on social media, with students on other campuses – including the University of Texas, Michigan State University, and Harvard University – writing, or thinking about writing, similar guides for their schools, the Detroit Free Press reported.

"My idea was, initially, to get a group of people to write our own guide and publish it," said Ms. Schandevel, who came up with the concept. "But that turned into a document that pulled from a lot of different perspectives, and it ended up being bigger and more comprehensive."

The online Wikipedia-style guide has drawn attention, the students said, because college costs are on the rise and some public universities have become such elite institutions that poor students struggle to make ends meet.

The guide also represents what appears to be a rising tide of student activism.

"It's a form of activism that has run in the vein of what has traditionally happened on this campus, maybe not in the same way," Schandevel said. "Traditionally, at the University of Michigan, activism looks like protesting and picketing. It still happens, but this is activism in the digital age."

Ms. St. Onge added: "It's showing the real power that young people have."

In addition to the original guide – which is now more than 70-pages long and updated almost daily as University of Michigan faculty and other students comment and offer suggestions – the two students also wrote a second, single-page document, "Being Not-Rich DIY," to tell fellow students how to write their own guides.

And they formed a campus group, the Michigan Affordability & Advocacy Coalition.

Schandevel grew up in Warren, Mich., and went to Berkley High School. St. Onge grew up in Clawson, Mich., and attended Royal Oak High. They each have a younger sibling and they both said they are paying for school with a combination of work income, scholarships, financial aid, and loans. When they graduate, they each estimated, they will be in debt $10,000 to $15,000.

They also are both the first in their families to attend a four-year university.

The online affordability guide that Schandevel and St. Onge objected to was released in January and initially touted as a "guide to cost-effective living at the University," according to an article in the Michigan Daily, the university's independent newspaper. The link to the original guide is no longer active.

The Michigan Daily article quoted student government officials saying that the guide, which was a serious effort, had been in the works for a for a while and was based, in part, on several meetings with local government and university officials. It was, they said, intended to make campus life more affordable and be a "first proactive step" that initiated change.

In fairness, that guide also never actually used the word "maid."

"Do you have someone that does your laundry for you, what about gardening or other chores?" it said. "Taking up some of these tasks may take time and will certainly be a hassle, but if you need to save money, insourcing these chores can be a good way to minimize daily expenses."

But, Schandevel and St. Onge said, while the suggestions seemed to be well-researched, they were either insultingly obvious (use public transportation, shop for the cheapest gas) or out of touch with campus living (grow your own food, do your own nails instead of getting a weekly manicure).

One student, the Michigan Daily reported, went so far as to call the guide "a slap in the face."

More than that, St. Onge added, the guide highlighted what she sees as a bigger problem at Michigan: Why first-generation students from middle- and lower-income families may feel unwelcome on campus – and even struggle to make it to graduation.

During orientation, St. Onge said, she remembers sitting in a presentation on financial aid feeling worried when another student turned to her, looking bored, and said: "You know, my mom's going to pay for this. I don't really need to be here."

A higher percentage of first-generation college students (54 percent) said they did not graduate because they could not afford to continue going to school compared with students with at least one parent with at least a bachelor's degree (45 percent), according to a US Department of Education report from 2017.

A national survey, "Still Hungry and Homeless in College," published this month, shows 36 percent of university students and 42 percent of community college students were hungry and uncertain about whether they could get a nutritionally adequate meal in the month before taking the survey.

The survey, published by researchers at Temple University and the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, compiled results from 43,000 students at 66 institutions – universities and community colleges – in 20 states and the District of Columbia.

And 36 percent of university students and 51 percent of community college students struggled with housing because they weren't able to pay the rent or utilities and needed to move frequently within a year of taking the survey.

Nine percent of university students and 12 percent of community college students were homeless.

The Not-Rich guide, which was created as a Google document so many authors could edit and add to it, was compiled by about 25 named contributors and nearly 50 more who are not named.

"This is finally the light at end of the tunnel – a vehicle for upward mobility and financial security. You never have to worry about money again," the guide's introduction says of a student's admission to the university. "And then you get here, and you realize that your socioeconomic status 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."

It offers tips on various aspects, including housing, textbooks, clothing, finances, and even social life.

The guide tells students where to find campus jobs, including which jobs offer the best pay and most flexible schedules; where to get $1 burgers and the code for free pizza delivery, and which professors are willing to give struggling students extra help.

"Being a lower-income student at the University of Michigan is not easy – financially, socially, culturally, and psychologically," the guide says. "However, with the right combination of resources, you can power through and actually enjoy your time here."

It also is filled with words of reassurance, concluding with a list of contributors with their emails and a final bit of encouragement: "Just know that you are not alone, you are not inadequate in any way, and you deserve to be here."

This article was reported by the Detroit Free Press.

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