Opinion: In the Ritz and Glitz of Ole Miss, Low-income students are left behind

Posted on Apr 22 2019 - 5:00am by Olivia Hawkins

At a university marred by a history of racial struggles and discrimination, students, faculty and alumni alike are not strangers to the effects of division on the basis of race. While steps are being taken to mitigate this harmful history and shift the campus culture, an unseen class division lurks.

A mere 6.8% of students at the University of Mississippi come from families that make less than $20,000 per year, putting the university at No. 28 out of the 30 ranked colleges in Mississippi. In stark contrast, at least 53% of students at the University of Mississippi come from families that earn within the top 20% of incomes, on par with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and far above the national average. Compared to the percentage of people in Mississippi and across the nation living beneath the poverty line, the median incomes of students and their families at the University of Mississippi reveal a troubling disparity.

The demographic data demonstrates that the university is not a school that aims to empower those from impoverished backgrounds, nor is it equipped to handle the ugly realities associated with coming from a low-income family. The University of Mississippi is dead last compared to other Mississippi colleges in the likelihood that a low-income student would move up two or more income quintiles. This indicates a system that is broken, or more accurately, a system that was never meant to work for the impoverished in the first place.

Basic infrastructure to support disadvantaged students is in place. The Oxford-University Transit system provides transportation across the area free of charge, and the Ole Miss Food Bank provides free, anonymous access to provisions for students who otherwise would not be able to obtain them. However, these measures alone are not comprehensive enough to ensure that impoverished students are successful. The university has not worked hard enough to address the struggles associated with poverty, including housing insecurity and exorbitant and inequitable fees, among others.

For many students, living in the dorms is the only respite they have from worrying about where they will sleep, but even that doesn’t solve the problem. The absence of affordable housing during breaks and mandatory dorm closures leaves many students with no place to go and nowhere to turn. This is not just a Mississippi problem, but a national issue. At least 36% of college students have reported some manner of housing insecurity, and 9% have reported being homeless. Cost-wise, scholarships at face value seem to solve many of the issues surrounding paying for college. However, unreasonably priced books and unforeseen parking tickets can take a student who is treading water financially and drown them.

This hardly takes into account the cultural separation and shock often experienced by students who were not afforded the opportunities that a majority of the student body has had access to. This division of access and experience builds invisible barriers. While the sons and daughters of legislators, doctors and lawyers spend their summers and breaks globe-trotting and sunning next to their in-ground pools in their swanky subdivisions, impoverished students face unfathomable and unconscionable struggles of identity and shoestring budgets.

The University of Mississippi cannot move forward until it is a university for all students.

Olivia Hawkins is junior political science and biology major from Fountain Run, Kentucky.