Universities can do more to support lower-income students

by Jessica Octavio, Staff Writer

From in-class performance to access to high-impact practices like research and study abroad experiences, having money often opens doors and provides a fastpass to success. This unavoidable hurdle for college undergraduates must be compensated for by academic institutions, companies and governments alike to make sure that students enter graduate school and the workforce on a level playing field. 

Unlike UC’s and private schools, San Diego State, like the rest of the universities in the CSU system, does not allow us to use essays to demonstrate our character, nor expand on formative extracurricular experiences like clubs or jobs. For the vast majority of majors, SDSU only makes undergraduate admissions decisions based on GPA and standardized test scores. 

This puts low-income high school students at a disadvantage in many ways. Since each attempt at the SAT and ACT respectively costs $49.50 and $46, low-income students may not have the luxury to take these tests two or three times to try to improve their scores like other students can. However, even though students with less resources can try to make the most out of their opportunity to take these tests, they are still competing with thousands of applicants who may have been able to afford private tutoring or extra coursework in preparation for the SAT and ACT (which can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars). 

Even after being admitted into SDSU, I realized this disparity continues in college classrooms as well. As a first-year, it was hard for me to ignore the presence of private tutors. On their website, A+ Review touts their ability to “dumb down and spoon-feed” exam material for students who are willing to pay for their “super-reviews”, which cost around $90 per session. Kris Bunce, a well-known chemistry tutor and San Diego State alumnus, charges $40 to $50 per review session, and $75 per hour for private tutoring. 

The market for private tutoring extends to students who hope to pursue a graduate education and need to take tests like the GRE, LSAT and MCAT. The numbers game of standardized testing for graduate-level admissions is very similar to the one at undergraduate level — students with more have more access to prepare for these exams, and in turn have a better chance at getting into top programs. 

Outside of classes and exams, money also dictates one’s ability to find an in-group and network while in college. Social and professional Greek life and other student organizations come with membership fees and other associated costs. According to USA Today, a vast majority of Fortune 500 executives were involved in Greek life, along with groundbreaking women leaders like the first female astronaut and the first female senator. However, these benefits come at a price. At SDSU, someone in a fraternity or sorority can expect to pay $1,200 to $1,500 a semester.

The most valuable commodity of all in college seems to be time. Many students from low-income households are responsible for working a job or taking care of a family member while in school. This takes away valuable time to study and to participate in extracurricular activities that help build one’s network and transferable skill set through unpaid opportunities like participation in internships, community service, clubs and undergraduate research. Especially for those pursuing health professions, low-income students may not have the means to invest the time and money required to get certified for related entry-level jobs like pharmacy technician, medical assistant or EMT positions. 

What can our Aztec community do to promote success for our low-income students?

There are several systems in place at San Diego State to promote diversity for low-income students and underrepresented groups like the Office of Educational Opportunity Programs and Ethnic Affairs, the Aztec Mentor Program and the Center for the Advancement of Students in Academia. Through programs like these, students are offered mentorship, counseling and internship experiences. There are also free services offered to the student body as a whole to provide support like the Love Library’s Math Learning Center and Writing Center, as well as workshops, events, online resources and advising provided by Career Services.

Universities and companies need to do more to offer paid opportunities and development programs for underrepresented, low-income students. SDSU and its supporters can start by further funding, publicizing and expanding existing free development programs and paid opportunities for low-income students.

Companies and academic institutions that employ and train undergraduates can increase diversity and inclusion by taking a chance on students who may only have food or retail on their resume. Often, self-supporting students who only have the time to pay their way through school and go to class have a work ethic that is hard to illustrate on a resume or CV.

These socioeconomic disparities in education are cyclical. Those who couldn’t afford AP exams in high school start their college journey two steps behind their peers. Those who couldn’t afford private tutoring are failing classes and must pay the price by taking longer to graduate and paying more in course materials and tuition. Those who could not get related job experience or didn’t have a professional contact from a student organization are at a disadvantage in an already competitive job market.

It is not fair that students with more income can pay the same amount as their low-income peers, but have access to a more well-rounded, multifaceted experience from the university. Even more so, students from families with a higher income are less likely to leave college with the debilitating amounts of debt that their classmates will leave with. It takes leadership and empathy to open the door for low-income students. San Diego State should be intentional in becoming an institution that levels out inequality, not perpetuate it. 

Jessica Octavio is a sophomore studying microbiology.