Let me give you an example of a lower-income student at Rice University. This student has a high school diploma but no AP or IB credits, nor the background knowledge to comfortably excel in Rice’s introductory level classes. This student is also on financial aid, either on a full or partial tuition grant, has been offered student loans, and was given a federal work-study grant of about $2,500.
Lower-income students like the one I describe face barriers to success that stem from these circumstances. Federal financial aid covers only four years of college, which might pressure some students to graduate in that timeframe, leaving less time for them to explore diverse interests and extracurricular activities. Additionally, students in these circumstances may feel more pressure to pursue a major leading to direct entry into a high paying field. Without AP credits, students might need to take extra courses other students can forgo, or might need to study more due to insufficient background knowledge of a subject.
A lack of AP credit also limits students wanting a double major or dual degree. A student entering without AP credits must average 16.5 credits a semester over eight semesters to get a bachelor’s degree in chemical and biomolecular engineering (If this chemical and biomolecular engineering major also wanted a bachelor of arts degree, they would need to average 20.25 hours each semester, more hours than they can register). A 16.5-credit semester load might be feasible with some classes, but it might mean stacking extra hours atop difficult courses full of new material requiring substantial study time, which could compete with a 10-hour-a-week work-study job.
These hours seem flexible if you only spend work-study funds on luxury items, but this money can buy textbooks and study guides, pay cell phone bills, health insurance and Saturday dinner. Since work-study funds are often capped at around $2,500 and generally hover a few dollars above minimum wage, a student must work over 250 hours to pay for these basic amenities. This is a huge time commitment for a student for little profit.
Work-study sounds like a great idea on paper. It is a federal grant Rice allocates to provide a wage to students who qualify and work at university-associated jobs. It gives students who qualify for financial aid money to pay for personal expenses not covered by tuition and housing grants. Students choose the jobs they take on, often with flexible hours. However, work-study, in concert with the circumstances mentioned above, can deprive students of a good college experience. This “college experience” means more than getting an academic education and scraping by financially. As humans we need social interactions and relationships, and as students we try to build our resumes and networks as much as our transcripts. If a student needs a work-study job, it may interfere with their well-rounded education and keep them from using that time in ways that could pay off in the long run, but will not pay for more immediate necessities.
With the amount of money coming in from the annual fund every year, Rice could afford to scrap its work-study program and pay students who would otherwise qualify for work-study a living stipend or allowance. This would cost the university, but it would be a cost worth providing all students the same opportunity to explore the same options.
I have described some extreme circumstances, but high achievement extremes should be accessible to low socio-economic extremes. If college is supposed to be a great equalizer and Rice tries to welcome students of diverse backgrounds, we should focus on supporting success in all students as much as possible rather than setting expectations of excellence that exceed the capabilities of a lot of students. Requiring students disadvantaged financially or in their prior education to do extra work to keep up with other students does not allow these students to participate in as many of the Rice experiences as they should be able to. In a marathon, no one would think it fair to start some people miles ahead, set their times as standard, and expect the people starting at the beginning to finish within that time, so how can it go unquestioned here?