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University of Michigan juniors Griffin St. Onge, right, and Lauren Schandevel pose for a photo at Angel Hall on the U-M Ann Arbor campus on Wednesday April 19, 2018. They wrote the online publication, "Being Not-Rich at UM."
Ryan Garza, Detroit Free Press

When University of Michigan juniors Lauren Schandevel and Griffin St. Onge read a campus affordability guide earlier this year that suggested, among other things, that firing the maid could help save them money, they decided to write their own.

Who in college, they asked themselves, has a cleaning service?

Their online publication, "Being Not-Rich at UM," is now taking off on social media, with students on other campuses — including the University of Texas, Michigan State, and Harvard — writing, or thinking about writing, similar guides for their schools.

"My idea was, initially, to get a group of people to write our own guide and publish it," said Schandevel, 21, who came up with the concept. "But that turned into a document that pulled from a lot of different perspectives, and it ended up being bigger and more comprehensive."

The online Wikipedia-style guide has drawn attention, the students said, because college costs are on the rise and some public universities have become such elite institutions that poor students struggle to make ends meet.

More: College graduates: Here's how to set yourself up for a life of financial success on Day 1

The guide also represents what appears to be a rising tide of student activism.

"It's a form of activism that has run in the vein of what has traditionally happened on this campus, maybe not in the same way," Schandevel said. "Traditionally, at the University of Michigan, activism looks like protesting and picketing. It still happens, but this is activism in the digital age."

St. Onge, 20, added: "It's showing the real power that young people have." 

In addition to the original guide — which is now more than 70-pages long and updated almost daily as U-M faculty and other students comment and offer suggestions — the two students also wrote a second, single-page document, "Being Not-Rich DIY," to tell fellow students how to write their own Not-Rich guides.

And they formed a campus group, the Michigan Affordability & Advocacy Coalition.

First-generation students

Schandevel grew up in Warren and went to Berkley High School. St. Onge grew up in Clawson and attended Royal Oak High. They became friends at U-M.

They each have a younger sibling, and they both said they are paying for school with a combination of work income, scholarships, financial aid and loans. When they graduate, they each estimated, they will be in debt $10,000 to $15,000.

They also are both the first generation of their families to attend a four-year university.

The online affordability guide that Schandevel and St. Onge objected to was released in January and initially touted as a “guide to cost-effective living at the University,” according to the Michigan Daily, the university's independent newspaper. The link to the original guide is no longer active.

The article quoted student government officials saying that the guide, which was a serious effort, had been in the works for a for a while and was based, in part, on several meetings with local government and university officials. It was, they said, intended to make campus life more affordable and be a "first proactive step" that initiated change.

In fairness, that guide also never actually used the word "maid."

“Do you have someone that does your laundry for you, what about gardening or other chores?" it said. "Taking up some of these tasks may take time and will certainly be a hassle, but if you need to save money, insourcing these chores can be a good way to minimize daily expenses.”

But, Schandevel and St. Onge said, while the suggestions seemed to be well-researched, they were either insultingly obvious (use public transportation, shop for the cheapest gas) or out of touch with campus living (grow your own food, do your own nails instead of getting a weekly manicure).

One student, the Michigan Daily reported, went so far as to call the guide "a slap in the face."

More than that, St. Onge added, the guide highlighted what she sees as a bigger problem at Michigan: Why first-generation students from middle- and lower-income families may feel unwelcome on campus — and even struggle to make it to graduation. 

During orientation, St. Onge said, she remembers sitting in a presentation on financial aid feeling worried when another student turned to her, looking bored, and said: "You know, my mom's going to pay for this. I don't really need to be here."  

A higher percentage of first-generation college students (54%) said they did not graduate because they could not afford to continue going to school compared with students with at least one parent with at least a bachelor's degree (45%), according to a U.S. Department of Education report from 2017. 

A national survey, "Still Hungry and Homeless in College," published this month, shows 36% of university students and 42% of community college students were hungry and uncertain about whether they could get a nutritionally adequate meal in the month before taking the survey.

The survey, published by researchers at Temple University and the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, compiled results from 43,000 students at 66 institutions — universities and community colleges — in 20 states and the District of Columbia.

And 36% of university students and 51% of community college students struggled with housing because they weren't able to pay the rent or utilities and needed to move frequently within a year of taking the survey. 

Nine percent of university students and 12% of community college students were homeless.

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University of Michigan juniors Griffin St. Onge, left, and Lauren Schandevel pose for a photo at Angel Hall on the U-M Ann Arbor campus on Wednesday April 19, 2018. They wrote the online publication, "Being Not-Rich at UM."
Ryan Garza, Detroit Free Press

The guide tells students where to find campus jobs, including which jobs offer the best pay and most flexible schedules; where to get $1 burgers and the code for free pizza delivery, and which professors are willing to give struggling students extra help.

"Being a lower-income student at the University of Michigan is not easy — financially, socially, culturally, and psychologically," the guide says. "However, with the right combination of resources, you can power through and actually enjoy your time here."

It also is filled with words of reassurance, concluding with a list of contributors with their e-mails and a final bit of encouragement: "Just know that you are not alone, you are not inadequate in any way, and you deserve to be here."

Follow Frank Witsil on Twitter @fwitsil