“So how are we going to pay for it?” my father asked after congratulating me on being accepted to Columbia. It’s a question whose answer comes with a lot of hard truths, and one that the 50 percent of undergraduates on financial aid probably ask themselves every year.
Given that Columbia estimated the cost of attendance at $64,144 this year, the fact that students have a hard time figuring out ways to pay for a Columbia education isn’t a foreign concept for anyone, not even for those who can pay full price. The fact that half of the undergraduate population at Columbia receives some sort of financial aid is telling about its socioeconomic composition. Part of my decision to attend was based on the financial aid, which, though almost fully covering the $46,846 tuition, leaves some tuition, and all other expenses and fees, to be paid for by loans and student employment.
Though Columbia is doing as well as or better than other Ivy League schools in terms of the absolute number of students on financial aid, the number of first-generation college students it admits, and the number of undergraduates receiving Federal Pell Grants, all of these measures are only a first step toward enacting one of the goals of institutions of higher learning: acting as social equalizers.
“I think on the numbers, we do well in comparison to our peers, but we don’t do well enough,” says Roosevelt Montás, a 1995 graduate of Columbia College who also holds a Columbia master’s degree and Ph.D., and is the director of the Center for the Core Curriculum. “And I think that Columbia is caught in the same national trends that are transforming colleges from ladders of social ascent, from mechanisms of equalizing income and society, into mechanisms of reinforcing privilege and reinforcing inequality.”
Schools also face a challenge in deciding how to recruit students from low-income backgrounds. These students tend to face what Montás characterizes as a problem of access. “One could say that the main barrier is information—access to information,” Montás says. “That is, students don’t know what the schools are and how to go about applying to the schools in an effective way. So with information comes mentorship; it’s also college counseling, it’s also test preparation.”
Facing these issues, as well as the limitations of Columbia’s endowment—not insubstantial at $8.2 billion, but smaller than Harvard’s ($32.7 billion) or Yale’s ($20.8 billion), both of which saw returns above 10 percent this year—the offices of admissions and financial aid must choose carefully between accepting students from socioeconomic backgrounds on both ends of the spectrum.
“If colleges accept more students who can pay full price—whether they be international or domestic—then that means they can accept more people who can pay very little because one group subsidizes the other,” Montás says. “So it’s a really tricky balance that the admissions and financial aid people have to strike. Admitting people who can pay the whole thing isn’t necessarily bad for socioeconomic diversity, but it can be.”
Ensuring that its students are as socioeconomically diverse as possible will be one of Columbia’s most formidable challenges in the coming years. But with socioeconomic diversity comes a cost: the need to make certain that students from under-resourced backgrounds are folded into the student body.
A Solid Foundation
In an Oct. 16 ranking of American colleges and universities, U.S. News & World Report named Columbia the third-best university, and the top private institution, in terms of the percentage of undergraduates receiving Pell Grants, according to data from the 2011-2012 academic year. The grants are typically awarded to students whose family income is in the lowest economic quartile, and as such are used to measure the amount of low-income students at a school.
With 30 percent of its undergraduates—including the School of General Studies—receiving Pell Grants, Columbia also outstrips the rest of the Ivy League with regard to the number of undergraduates receiving federal funds to pay for college. Only Harvard (20 percent) and Cornell (18 percent) make the top 10 in the ranking, and Princeton ranks 23rd, with only 12 percent of its students benefitting from Pell Grants. Not including GS, 17 percent of undergraduates receive Pell Grants, which only provide about $5,500 per semester for up to 12 semesters. That’s where school-provided financial aid comes in. And because Columbia’s admissions and financial aid processes for students at the traditional undergraduate schools, including Columbia College and the School of Engineering and Applied Science, are separated from those of Barnard and GS, the remainder of this piece will focus on these issues within CC and SEAS.
For domestic students, the admissions process for Columbia’s undergraduate schools is need-blind. (Need is factored into the process for international students, who are not eligible for U.S. grants.)According to Jessica Marinaccio, dean of undergraduate admissions and financial aid for Columbia College and the School of Engineering and Applied Science, 50 percent of undergraduate students in Columbia College and SEAS receive some sort of financial aid, with the median income of recipients at $87,124.
In addition, parents with income and assets that amount to less than $60,000 a year aren’t expected to contribute money toward their child’s education, and the financial aid website says that students coming from these financial backgrounds “are expected to borrow $0 to attend Columbia.”
Taken at face value, these efforts to make a Columbia education affordable are substantial. But in a certain sense, they are semantic tricks that gloss over the debt that bedecks many students like their caps and gowns when they finally march onto Low Plaza at the end of their college career, and that hangs over their parents’ heads as they sit in the stands on South Lawn.
Even if a student doesn’t qualify for Pell Grants—as 70 percent of undergraduates don’t—the government is usually the first lender to which families turn to bridge the gap between grants and the cost of Columbia. This is also where the tricky semantics of not expecting students to borrow any money comes in. Federal Stafford Loans allow both students and parents to borrow money at low interest rates to pay for school. The catch? Students claimed as dependents by their parents can only borrow up to $5,500 their first year, $6,500 their second year, and $7,500 in subsequent years if their parents also qualify for loans. Qualified parents, however, can borrow up to the cost of their child’s tuition less any other financial aid from the government every year, putting a larger burden of debt on them, if they choose to accept it. And even if a family makes less than $60,000 a year, loans may still be necessary, even though Columbia does not expect that parents will contribute from their income.
At the end of 2011, Spectator reported that student indebtedness at Columbia has been decreasing for years; the average federal student debt was at almost $9,000 for the class of 2010. However, that number doesn’t take into account the debt that parents take on.
Eric Donahue, a Columbia College junior, receives financial aid that doesn’t cover the entire amount needed to fund a Columbia education. He applied to six Ivy League schools, was accepted to Cornell and Columbia, and decided that the financial aid offered to him by Columbia was a better deal.
“Cornell was the same offer as Columbia, except with about $20,000 more in loans per year, so that was never an option,” Donahue says. “I went to Columbia because I got waitlisted at all the other schools and the other ones I got into had really bad financial aid.”
For Donahue, choosing Columbia was about following the money, especially since his parents weren’t able to take out loans to help him pay for school.
“I was either going to go to Columbia or community college—I only knew I could come the week of NSOP because they took so long to give me an appeal,” he says. “I asked for an appeal for financial aid and got a bigger grant, because otherwise I would be taking out about 21 grand a year, and now it’s down to about 16 a year. So I’m going to graduate with 70 grand in loans, which is about $600 to $700 a month to pay back, but it’s doable and I think it’s worth it in the end.”
Along with most financial aid packages comes the expectation of either student employment or work-study—in which the government pays part of the student employee’s salary. In most cases, the money earned from either of these is used to cover day-to-day expenses and can sometimes limit extracurricular activities in which a student would otherwise participate.
Donahue, who was one of the writers of the 119th Varsity Show and will write this year’s as well, said that the time commitment for his involvement precluded him from getting an internship. As a solution, he was paid $60 a week to put up flyers for a writing tutor.
“I would spend $5 on the MetroCard—from my $60-a-week job from this guy—$55 on groceries at Trader Joe’s and have no money to go out.”
Though Donahue identifies himself as middle-class, his experience isn’t unique. The challenge of student employment—and its impact on students’ daily lives—is something with which many students who receive financial aid are familiar. Haylin Belay and Natalie Moore, both Columbia College juniors, work part-time to help cover daily expenses. Belay decided to spearhead an effort last spring to begin a Special Interest Community for students working through college, which was dubbed the Student Employee Community Space.
The idea behind SECS was to create a place for students such as Moore to “talk to each other” and to create “a space for students to learn from each other and help each other out,” Belay says.
It would also foster a community that Belay feels the University lacks. “There’s no support system in place that acknowledges that working 10 to 15 hours a week makes it harder to go to school,” Belay says. SECS was ultimately not awarded University housing.
Though Moore’s family makes less than $60,000 per year and there isn’t an expected contribution from her parents, she still works to cover her living expenses, the biggest of which is food.
“Past freshman year, the regular financial aid package stopped giving me enough money to actually pay for food,” she says. “They gave me a good chunk of money as a grocery stipend sophomore year because I opted out of the meal plan process, but it wasn’t enough to buy a meal plan. ... It ended up being, like, $15 a week, which is not really manageable, especially when you consider the things you can get in bulk for that cheap involve a lot of cooking and I didn’t have a kitchen or time to cook.”
And though Moore isn’t graduating with more than $1,500 in loans (which she took out for a required dig for her archaeology major), Belay—whose parents don’t provide funding for her education—is taking out loans to bridge the gap.
“If I can haggle the same way I’ve been haggling for the past few semesters, I’ll probably graduate with $35,000 or less [in debt],” she says, “which, in the scheme of student loan debt sounds like nothing, but compared to what I thought I was going to have coming to Columbia, which is notoriously need-blind—I thought I was going to graduate with zero or very close to zero, and the peculiarities of my situation have made it not so.”
Which isn’t to say that financial aid hasn’t been helpful—Belay says that administrators “have done their best to work around my weird situation and increase my grant size in any way they can”—but there is more work to be done.
These are the problems that people coming from lower and middle socioeconomic groups face once they’ve been admitted to Columbia, to say nothing of what it takes to be admitted in the first place.
“What we look at with Pell Grants and college enrollments, that’s the end of the process,” says Roger Lehecka, a 1967 graduate of Columbia College, former dean of students, and co-founder of Columbia’s Double Discovery Center, which provides tutoring and college mentorship to first-generation college-bound students.
The bigger problem that confronts low-income students—especially those who are capable of excelling at a selective school—is understanding and completing the process of applying to college.
The Access Issue
For the past five summers, Montás has taught high school students involved with the Double Discovery Center. His course, Freedom and Citizenship, introduces students to Core texts and functions much like Contemporary Civilization and Literature Humanities. Columbia students (including this writer) who enroll in Montás’ fall seminar of the same name are assigned as college mentors to the students he taught over the summer. For many of these high school students, the mentorship they receive at DDC constitutes some of their only support when looking at possibilities after high school. Though not all of the students who go through DDC come from low-income backgrounds, those who do are in a tough position when it comes to applying for college.
“There’s a whole support structure that gets people into places like Columbia that these kids don’t have,” Montás says, citing a dearth of effective college counselors as a prime example.
Indeed, the issue of access is one that has been facing students for generations; Lehecka founded the Double Discovery Center at a time when he saw a great need for helping qualified students from low-income backgrounds learn about college—and how to go about applying to it. Almost 50 years after its founding, DDC is still around and “there’s as much of a need for it now as there was then,” Lehecka says.
One of the problems, he says, is that “a lower percentage of low-income students with high test scores apply to good colleges than high-income students with high test scores.” This issue, which originates from various sources, including the lack of good mentors that Montás discusses, culminates in a disparity between applications from high-income, high-achieving students and low-income, high achieving students. “It’s not that colleges are discriminating against those low-income kids, but they also don’t find them, the information isn’t there, they don’t apply,” Lehecka, who teaches a seminar on equity in higher education, says.
One of the most comprehensive studies done on this subject was released by the Brookings Institution in March. In the study, Caroline Hoxby, an economics professor at Stanford, and Christopher Avery, a professor of public policy and management at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, shed light on what keeps able students from low-income backgrounds from applying to competitive colleges. The study quantifies what experience suggests: While there isn’t a dearth of students who are qualified to attend schools like Columbia and who also come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, these students still don’t apply to selective schools in the same numbers that their equally capable, more well-off counterparts do. The study adds that for every low-income applicant, there are from eight to 15 high-achieving, high-income students who apply.
But the underrepresentation of capable low-income students is only a symptom of an underlying condition—namely that “the vast majority of high-achieving, low-income students do not apply to any selective college,” according to the study.
“Not only are we doing a terrible job in preparing those students to apply to competitive colleges,” Montás says, “but even the ones that break through … we’re not reaching them. … They are either not applying to college, or going to schools that are far lower on the selectivity scales than they could be admitted to, and that’s just tragic.”
And for those who get in, there’s a return to the issue of affordability. “A lot of them have a tremendous aversion to debt and this just generalizes across low-income people,” Montás says.
This struggle is especially evident among first-generation college students, a group that tends to overlap with low-income students.
First in the Family
According to Alex España, senior assistant dean of student advising and director of first-generation scholars, one of the biggest issues for first-generation college students is that their parents often do not understand the college process. On Oct. 24, in the first of several brunches hosted for first-generation students at the apartment of Monique Rinere, dean of advising, España says it was interesting to hear about first-generation students’ backgrounds and their experiences applying to college in a group setting.
“The stories from students varied from some parents who were very hands-off because they didn’t know what the college experience was like, so they just let their son or daughter figure things out on their own,” España says, “to other students whose parents were involved in the college process in that they wanted to make sure that their son or daughter went to college. But then cost was an issue.”
For many first-generation students, as for low-income students, the difficulty of figuring out the college application process is paramount—a maze that is, sans a DDC-like program, often left to students to navigate alone. In situations such as this one, having a mentor can be key.
“We’ve learned, with first-generation college students, those who have an adult mentor who’s been through the process tend to be a lot more successful,” España says. “So connecting these students with a mentor who has gone through the college experience does wonders for that student because now they have somebody to talk to who can help them.”
For Donahue, who is a first-generation college student, it was a lonely process.
“My college counselors were kind of like fairies, so they didn’t really exist in my life,” he says. “I was just Googling ‘How to get good financial aid’ … and then I started reading about it and I was really gung ho because I saw that the Ivy League had this need-based policy, and they didn’t have scholarships.”
Even once they’re on campus, first-generation students face other difficulties—both academic and social.
“I think any first-generation college student who comes from an under-resourced background would face the same issues that any student from an under-resourced background would face,” Rinere says. “So somebody who doesn’t have as much disposable income isn’t going clubbing.”
Rinere added that this was also brought up by attendees at the Oct. 24 brunch.
“I don’t want us to make too-broad generalizations, but there was some conversation about how if you’re working a lot and you don’t have a lot of disposable income, then your social life is necessarily different,” Rinere says.
This feeling was the impetus behind SECS, and is a reality that Moore, Belay, and Donahue are aware of.
“I could never go out with people, really,” Donahue says about working during the spring semester and writing the Varsity Show. “I would often go out and just get water or a Diet Coke or something. … It definitely affected my social life.”
Additionally, working to cover daily costs doesn’t amount to much in the way of saving.
“I have savings from my whole life, which amounts to less than a used Buick,” Donahue says, “so I really do have to work. Maybe by senior year I can have savings, but I’m definitely day-to-day right now.”
Moore, who is a first-generation student as well, is in a similar situation.
“Even if I’m able to eat for the next couple years, what I’m looking at ... is that I graduate with $0 to my name,” she says. “Because I’ll have used all the money I was earning during school to pay for school and pay for food, and so I don’t get a chance to try and save myself the tiniest starter pad to launch off of into the world after school ends.”
Along with financial difficulties, academic challenges are also a reality for some first-generation students, España says.
“If they came from under-resourced areas, they might not have ever read the Iliad, while some of their peers might have been at a boarding school where they read it their sophomore or junior year,” he says. “So there were some students who felt that there was a challenge in the classroom academically, just because of their own high school experiences.”
Montás—who teaches Contemporary Civilization in the spring—has noticed this trend.
“I find too often that in my own classes, the students who are the first-generation college students from low socioeconomic backgrounds—often minorities, often immigrants, but not always—often are isolated, are not part of the social center,” he says.
For Montás, it’s one thing to get students on campus, but “once they’re here, we have to find ways … to smooth that transition into the student body.”
At the first-generation students brunch, Rinere and España noticed that this was an issue students had thought about, and some put forth suggestions for a separate first-generation student orientation program during NSOP, or a mentorship program where upperclassmen help incoming first-generation first-years. But any programs of this nature are still in their nascent stages. For now, Montás stresses the Core’s ability to bring students into the fold.
“In Core classes they end up having serious conversations and serious interaction with other students—we mix them all up,” he says. “In the Core … you’ve got people from everywhere—that is, people are not pigeonholed by socioeconomic class. … That is, I think, the most important mechanism of integration at Columbia—what happens in the Core classroom.”
Footing the Bill
As a result of families’ aversion to debt, it can be tough to stomach a more-than-$60,000 price tag, especially if it means either students, parents, or both will be taking out loans. According to Montás, “when you come from a family that earns $30,000 a year and you’re saying that’s what you’re going to have to borrow in one year or you’re going to come out with a $60,000 debt from four years of college, those families are unlikely to swallow that.”
More likely, he says, “They’ll say, ‘No, go to the community college and have a part-time job and come out debt-free with a college education.’”
Community college or state school might even be the best choice for students in the financial long run. The most prestigious colleges are known for being good, as Lehecka puts it, “in the sense of being the most selective, the most desirable, and the ones that, in effect, offer you the most opportunity later because of what the reputation of the college is and the people you meet there and the people who teach you.” For students capable of getting into these schools, part of the decison—or, at least, part of this writer’s decision—was weighing the long-term benefits against the costs.
Lehecka uses Amherst College as an example of the good an institution can do in terms of admitting a socioeconomically diverse student body. Under president Anthony Marx—who now runs the New York Public Library—the percentage of students on Pell Grants rose as a result of an increase in recruitment efforts and a commitment to financial aid.
“What Amherst has shown is that if a college makes a real effort, puts resources into finding more students like that … then a college can make a difference. But it’s hard and expensive,” Lehecka says.
“If you make this kind of effort, one of the things that happens to you as a college is your financial aid budget’s going to be higher,” Lehecka says. “It takes a real act of will and almost courage for a college to do this, because it isn’t just that you’re doing something right and it’s going to cost you a little more in recruiting, it’s then going to cost you a lot more in providing financial aid for students.”
Though Lehecka says this fact can sometimes be a disincentive to provide better financial aid, at Amherst and Columbia, taking the plunge was never a second thought. In Columbia’s case, the University has had to get creative with its methods of shaking the proverbial couch cushions for money by innovating an old process—asking alumni for money—and turning it into an event.
Giving Day, which took place on Oct. 23, raised over $3 million for Columbia College and the School of Engineering and Applied Science and relied on marketing efforts that painted the event as a one-day chance for alumni to “change lives that change the world.” While the exact division of this year’s earnings has yet to be decided, and though there is always a need for immediate-use funds for the schools, financial aid is the implicit goal of Giving Day, which is in the second year of a three-year pilot program.
In addition to financial aid, there are student services that need funding, and Montás points out that the Core Curriculum needs to attract more tenure-track professors and senior faculty to teach and to better integrate those low-income students who do make it to Columbia classrooms. But, like most things, achieving these goals is all about the money.
“There are serious needs … and there’s a limited amount of resources. But I still believe that we need to do better in our mission of creating a socioeconomically diverse student body—we can’t let up on that.” he says.
In terms of increasing socioeconomic diversity, it comes down to persistence.
“We need to do better and we can’t just say, ‘Oh, we’re doing better than our peers,’ because the whole pack is doing terribly,” Montás says. “We are in a position where by our doing better we can put pressure on our peers to do better themselves, which is creating a kind of virtuous circle.”
Looking Back & Looking Forward
Looking back on my decision to attend Columbia—and looking at my latest e-bill—it’s difficult to know if the costs will pay off. But the promise of schools such as Columbia, for those who are on financial aid and who must also work and take out loans, has been weighed against these costs.
Columbia is, literally and metaphorically, a campus upon a hill. Its potential to be a leader in socioeconomic diversity exists, as does that diversity’s ability to enrich the experiences of every student.
Likewise, the framework for these dual goals exists. But Columbia faces the competing values of improving recruitment, enhancing the experiences of low-income and first-generation students, and increasing financial aid. Administrators can’t do it all—or at least, not all at once—and the future socioeconomic landscape for Columbia students will depend on what they choose to emphasize. As Lehecka points out, it’s not easy for a university to prioritize financial aid, but if this step is taken, colleges such as Columbia might still be the ladders of ascent that they’re purported to be.