The invisible student

Do those who struggle to afford their education receive the same Drake experience as those who do not?

Drake University isn’t cheap. No one argues otherwise. But the value of a Drake education is also widely acknowledged, and the efforts of financial aid staff to help students get the assistance they need to pursue a Drake degree are nothing short of incredible.

Still, there are students who come to Drake and struggle to keep their heads above water — financially and academically — as they work to pay their bills and stay on top of coursework.

Melissa Sturm-Smith, assistant dean of students, understands this well. As a PhD student pursuing a degree in higher education with an emphasis on social justice, she has extensively studied the economics of education. But in her role working in the Office of Student Involvement and Leadership, Sturm-Smith admits that most students she comes in contact with are not those struggling to afford their education. They exist and are present at Drake, she says, but are not widely acknowledged.

“I would say diversity of social class is invisible at Drake,” she says. “You don’t hear much about it.”

These students have become largely anonymous to most of the campus community, she says. Once students have gone through the financial aid process, received the assistance they are eligible for and have enrolled in classes, little more can be done to ease the burden on students whose funds still fall short of meeting financial need. This can lead to educational inequality across campus based on the socio-economic situation of each student.

For example, an important component of a Drake education is engagement in the Drake community, through student life, leadership programs and extracurricular activities, among other things.

However, most of the students who participate in these programs are not those struggling to afford their education. Those students are busy working in their spare time and do not always have the luxury to engage in extracurricular activities. That privilege is more accessible for students who already have the benefit of their education costs being covered.

It’s a situation that exacerbates itself, explains Sturm-Smith. Those students already at an advantage have the opportunity to increase that advantage through greater engagement and participation, while those struggling financially find this more difficult.

“I think even we at Student Life are blind to students who have to work to make their education happen. It’s an issue here at Drake, but it’s an invisible issue. It’s been an issue we’ve not had to deal with — our enrollment numbers are good, our class profile is increasing. What would even lead us to ask who has access to opportunities?”

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