Special Topic: Issues of SES in Higher Education
Sniffles, Sacrifices, and Socioeconomic Status
By Connie L. Blizzard, PsyD
It began with a sniffle. When the flu made its appearance for what became the semester-long party in my immune system, my advisor insisted that I see a physician. I needed her to insist because, without health insurance, seeking medical care meant driving over an hour into the next state to stand on an ice-covered sidewalk outside of the area’s only free medical clinic. It also meant justifying my presence there to the staff who sometimes assumed that, as a student, I should not use resources that were meant for the “needy.”
Many fall into the trap of assuming that graduate students, by definition, are privileged economically, but this is not and should not be universally true. Despite working throughout my graduate education and maxing out my student loans, I received public assistance for my electric and heating bills, arranged wooden crates to make a table, and prayed that my used car from my high school days would run until I could start earning a better salary with my degree. (It didn’t.)
For many students, higher education requires significant sacrifices that both the faculty and more privileged students may not recognize or understand. As tuition and other academic expenses increased each year while the federal student loan limits remained the same, I was continually faced with deciding whether or not I could remain in school and still find ways to meet my basic needs on less money. I managed to complete my degree, but not before amassing debt almost double the worth of my childhood home.
I knew that obtaining my degree would require sacrifices—sacrifices in my interpersonal relationships, my personal interests, my credit score, and even in sleep during busy academic weeks, and I knowingly accepted those sacrifices to achieve my career goals. However, I did not know that I would need to make decisions about other types of sacrifices, such as my physical health. Such choice-points nearly ended my pursuit of higher education. Professional psychology programs need to examine their erroneous assumptions that students have economic resources—they don’t—and that student loans, while not ideal, can adequately provide for the financial needs of their students—they can‘t. These assumptions persist in part because students are adept at molding their appearances to shape to the expectations of faculty, and will not volunteer their economic hardships with faculty in an atmosphere that assumes economic privilege. Faculty need to be knowledgeable about how socioeconomic status impacts the lives of the students seated before them, and advocate for corresponding institutional shifts.
For me, my physical symptoms encouraged my advisor to open a window—and not just to air out the germs rapidly accumulating in her office. Our conversations about the layers of social privilege led to a mutually growth-fostering relationship. If such interactions were encouraged more often, the interrelated nature of faculty and student well-being might lead to institutional improvement, helping more individuals to start and continue their journey towards their professional dreams.