The Crusader Newspaper Group

For the poor in the Ivy League, a full ride isn’t always what they imagined

By Nick Anderson,

To reach the Ivy League after growing up poor seems like hitting the jackpot. Students get a world-class education from schools that promise to meet full financial needs without making them take out loans. But the reality of a full ride isn’t always what they had dreamed it would be.

Here at Columbia University, money pressures lead many to cut corners on textbook purchases and skip city excursions routine for affluent classmates. Some borrow thousands of dollars a year to pay bills. Some feel obliged to send money home occasionally to help their families. Others spend less on university meal plans, slipping extra food into their backpacks when they leave a dining hall and hunting for free grub through a Facebook network called CU Meal Share.

“If you want to have some sort of social life, you have to pay for that, too,” said Lizzette Delgadillo, 20, a junior from Los Angeles. Her father is a trumpet player in a mariachi band, her mother a housekeeper. “New York’s very expensive. I’m happy. But financially, it’s pretty hard.”

Such challenges are widespread in higher education, and at many schools far more severe. But awareness of them has grown in recent years at top colleges seeking to diversify what were once bastions of exclusivity and privilege. The more they recruit from impoverished and working-class neighborhoods, the more these schools confront what it takes to help those students thrive after they arrive on campus.

Students have vented concerns about food insecurity and the stigma of poverty at several prominent schools through online forums called “Class Confessions.” Cornell University learned last year from an undergraduate survey that 22 percent said they had skipped meals or had not had enough to eat at least occasionally because of financial constraints. A movement of first-generation students called 1vyG, spanning the eight Ivy schools and beyond, drew hundreds in February to a conference at Harvard University calling for “an agenda for change.”

Too often, elite colleges fail to level with students from poor families about pressures they could face even when loans are not included in their financial aid, said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a sociologist and higher-education analyst at the University of Wisconsin.

“They purport to take money off the table by saying they have a no-loans policy,” Goldrick-Rab said. “That’s sort of whitewashing away the many ways in which money can still matter.” Among them, she said, are the cost of living during breaks and the cost of “keeping up with the Joneses” — students whose wealth is evident on the first day they move into dorms.

University officials acknowledge that some students wrestle with money worries even when their education costs are covered. “I don’t think it’s possible to eliminate it entirely, but it’s incumbent upon us to address it,” said James Valentini, vice president for undergraduate education at Columbia and dean of Columbia College. “We want to try to eliminate all of those things that prevent them from being successful once they are here.”

Anthony Abraham Jack, a Harvard graduate student, wrote his dissertation on the experiences of low-income students at elite schools. He can relate because he was one himself in the Class of 2007 at Amherst College — the son of a single mother in Miami who was a school security guard.

Jack recalled seeking help during spring break at Amherst when dining halls were closed, rich classmates were traveling and he was staying on campus because he couldn’t afford to leave. “It’s kind of gross to live off peanut butter and jelly for a week,” he said.

The college arranged for meals through a local cafe, Jack said. In 2014, he helped push Harvard to take steps to feed students on campus during vacations. Now Harvard distributes meal vouchers for those who need them during winter and spring breaks, according to a profile of Jack last month in the Harvard Gazette.


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