Class consciousness and the impact of Stanford policies on FLI students

May 20, 2020, 8:24 p.m.


At an institution like Stanford, where class privilege is a norm, where you can be considered first-generation and/or low-income (FLI) even while making more than the median income in the U.S., one would believe that a shared humanity would kick in during times when students, vital members of our community, are in need.

Some at-home students may be wondering about the lives of their peers who had to remain on campus. This wonder is no surprise, given the constant erasure of these students’ experiences in messaging from University administrators including Provost Persis Drell, Vice Provost Susie Brubaker-Cole and Shirley Everett, the senior associate vice provost for Residential and Dining Enterprises (R&DE). If one were to read their update letters, they might assume that all Stanford students are currently safe at home, with a loving family, plenty of food to eat and an adequate space to do schoolwork. 

About 600. That’s how many students remain on campus right now. These students have been approved to stay in on-campus housing because, in one way or another, they are at risk. They may have abusive families, crowded homes with no space to work  — no space to sleep — or parents who simply cannot afford to support them. They may be international students who risk being unable to return to the states if they go back to their home country; they may be housing insecure, even homeless; or they may have a disability that requires housing accommodations. 

Unlike many peer institutions, Stanford has decided to charge its most vulnerable students a high price for summer housing. The cost of living in a dorm from the end of spring quarter to the beginning of fall quarter is more than $6,500. This comes out to approximately $2,000/month to live in a dorm room and eat low-quality dining hall food. Worse, summer financial aid (which typically only consists of loans and job offerings) is only available to students who are enrolled more than half time.

If one were earning Palo Alto minimum wage ($15.40/hour) and working 40 hours/week, they would need to contribute 88% of their paycheck to room and board. If you need to earn money to pay your tuition or medical expenses, you’re out of luck. Even if this were acceptable, Stanford has canceled nearly all of the student employment opportunities that FLI students frequently rely on for housing, food and tuition money. This policy decision stands in stark contrast with Stanford’s constant self-congratulatory messaging regarding diversity; it shows that when it comes to supporting at-risk students, Stanford is all bark, no bite. 

So what are Stanford’s aforementioned peer institutions doing? MIT is covering summer housing and food costs for at-risk students who need aid, regardless of enrollment status. Harvard is only charging their at-risk students $200 to remain on campus for the entire summer. Stanford is the outlier here.

So what are these students going to do when, in less than 30 days, the quarter ends? Many of them are addressing the possibility of homelessness and impending food insecurity, all while dealing with the mental toll of a global pandemic. 

To find out how this stressful situation was affecting other on-campus students, Rachel interviewed an on-campus, at-risk undergraduate woman, who prefers to remain anonymous. What follows are some very telling excerpts from the conversation.



Rachel: So, what would have happened if you hadn’t gotten spring housing? 

Student: I legitimately don’t know. Um, my family doesn’t have a home? My dad has been moving and couch surfing and doesn’t have a place to live. Um, so … I truly don’t know where I would have gone.

R: So essentially, if you hadn’t gotten spring on campus housing, you were looking at being potentially homeless, is that right?

S: Yep.

R: If you don’t get summer housing, are you expecting to face the same kinds of difficulties that you were in the spring? 

S: Yeah.

R: What’s it like trying to do your schoolwork right now while worrying about [potential homelessness]? 

S: It’s been really stressful. Like, the day that they sent out the email saying they weren’t going to be covering any summer housing, I had my biggest midterm of the quarter and was very upset, and I don’t think I did well because I was really stressed about it.


R: How do you feel about the cost of housing this summer?

S: I’m pretty upset about it. I don’t know how I’m going to cover it. My internship … I have an internship that will pay, but it’s not a consistent payment schedule, and I don’t know how much it will be, and I won’t be able to pay upfront at the beginning of the summer. So I don’t know how I’ll come to the cost. 

R: A lot of students on financial aid are feeling misled because Stanford support isn’t as unconditional and generous as they may have made it seem on Admit Weekend.

S: I think it’s especially misleading, given, you know, that this is a common experience for a lot of people who, like me, applied to schools like Stanford and the Ivies, because I knew that was the only way I could get enough financial aid to go to college. It’s frustrating to see other schools, like the Ivies, who are still not doing the best job they could but are being way more transparent and helping [vulnerable] students way more than Stanford is, when Stanford is just as capable.

Tangible effects

R: Is it at all within your capabilities to enroll in classes for the summer to get aid? 

S: Theoretically … yes. But if I did, I’d have to drop my internship, which is very important for my plans far into the future. And also I’d be using a quarter of aid that I need for the rest of the year. So I’d have to take off a quarter somewhere else, which would be pretty awful. And I don’t know how I would afford to do that either. 

R: Are you considering living off campus in the summer? 

S: So I’ve thought about it. I’m obviously concerned about paying for it and being able to put in a deposit and stuff like that. I just don’t have the money for that. And then I’m very, very concerned that if I leave campus for the summer, I won’t be able to come back in the fall, and I can’t afford off campus housing for summer and fall and the foreseeable future. 

R: How do you feel about the fact that more privileged students are able to enjoy the summer at home, whereas the at-risk students who need to be on campus are being asked to enroll just to have a safe place to sleep? 

S: No, I think that’s not acceptable. And for a lot of people, the summer is a really important time. Even students who are living at home, I’m sure they would prefer to be able to do internships. So obviously this sucks for all of us, but it especially sucks to be coerced into a choice that you never would have made otherwise. 


R: Does it seem like Stanford has been forthcoming and transparent with information for on campus students? 

S: Oh, absolutely not. I am so sick of getting those vague emails saying that maybe they’ll give us information soon about something that’s kind of really important for our ability to have a place to live. 

R: Do you feel like Stanford administrators understand your struggle and respect what you’re going through right now? 

S: I think it’s pretty likely that they understand what I’m going through. I just don’t think they care. 

R: What does it seem like they care about? 

S: Making up the money for all of the housing nobody’s staying in for the summer. ‘Cause usually they’d be able to rent out housing to summer camps or other events that happen on campus, and they’re losing all that revenue, and this is the only way to make up any of it. 

R: Would you say that a lot of the students who remain are in a similar situation to you, facing potential homelessness?

S: Yeah, absolutely. And a lot of them are international students who literally had no option to go home, or students like me who are homeless, whose families are homeless as it is. So yeah. It’s definitely not easy for anyone. 

R: Does it seem like your Stanford peers who are not on campus have a grasp of that?

S: I think that the friends that I’ve talked to about it now get it, but especially because [the email announcing that there would not be support for summer housing] didn’t go to anyone except the students on campus, other people just aren’t aware of what’s going on. 

R: Does it seem like Stanford is being forthcoming with info about the students who remain on campus, the at-risk students, to the rest of the Stanford community? 

S: Absolutely not. And it’s also been a little bit frustrating that all of the articles that have come out, even in The Daily and things like that, have been about international students left on campus. There’s been almost nothing about homeless students on campus or other super low-income students on campus. 

R: Yeah. Would you say you feel invisible? 

S: Yeah, absolutely. 

Are you a FLI student, a student of color, a disabled student, or a member of another marginalized group and having particular struggles related to COVID-19? I am looking for interviewees for an upcoming podcast about the issues these students face. If you would be interested in sharing your story, contact Rachel at rdagui ‘at’

Contact Rachel D’Agui at rdagui ‘at’ and Maryam Khalil at mmkhalil ‘at’

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Rachel D'Agui is a member of the editorial board and a contributing writer in the Arts & Life section. Contact her at rdagui 'at'

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