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Charlotte Force / Staff Illustrator

At Columbia, there is a price to pay for your poverty.

During my first few months at Columbia, maneuvering the system of financial aid was nothing less than daunting. Between dissecting the cryptic language used in my award letter and understanding what I would actually owe the school, the anxieties surrounding financing college hardly ever left my mind. While one would assume that students with “full scholarships” wouldn’t have to worry about these ins and outs, even financial aid for Columbia’s highest-need students comes with a price tag—namely, the student contribution.

Columbia’s student contribution mandates that for each academic year, each student receiving aid will pay a portion of their tuition out of their own pockets, that is, “the expectation is that the student will earn this amount in the summer preceding the academic year.” On paper, I had no qualms with the policy. It seemed reasonable that students be taught the value of earning one’s education. However, my ultimate acceptance of the policy did not negate the anxiety I felt about it.

I vented to friends about my fear of not coming up with the expected amount before the following academic year. I struggled with the idea of taking time off to come up with the money. In response to my worries, a friend of mine turned to me and questioned: “What’s the student contribution? Is that, like, part of your scholarship or something?” Through this conversation, I came to a greater realization about the student contribution.

Time and time again, the more financially secure students I spoke with about the student contribution had no idea what I was referring to. I wondered how these students could bypass even acknowledging the payment if it had been billed to them. I realized soon after that this payment wouldn’t be billed directly to the student; rather, the additional few thousands of dollars had merely been tacked on to the payment of their parents.

The only people being directly billed for the student contribution were those students with no parental contribution, those students with the highest need. For others, the price tag could be ignored altogether when lumped into the sum paid by mom and dad.

The student contribution seems, then, to be little more than a policy that targets the underprivileged. The morale behind the fee is itself flawed: A few thousand dollars for a low-income student is significantly more substantial than a few thousand dollars for a student living in a household earning Columbia’s median family income of $167,692. For the financially insecure student, there is no safety net available to pay off those few thousand dollars aside from taking out loans. The underprivileged student must pass up unpaid internships or the opportunity to take summer classes to ensure that they will not fall just short of fulfilling their “full ride.” Should they fail to come up with the money, class registration may be delayed, loans become unavoidable, or the student must withdraw for some time to earn the amount.

What’s worse yet is that the only part of a financial aid package which a low-income student has autonomy over is their meal plan. This means that sometimes, in order to balance their budget to pay money to a university which supposedly promises to meet their full need, students must opt for a smaller and cheaper meal plan which cannot sustain them.. This misleading dialogue is parallel to the issue of food insecurity on our campus.

To be blunt, the student contribution is inherently classist within the context of a university like Columbia. There cannot be any “equalizing” sum payment at a university with students from such widespread financial backgrounds, especially when the majority of the student body leans heavily in the direction of wealth. While the premise behind the student contribution may be noble, in that every student earns at least some portion of their education, I question how many of our low-income students on campus still need a lesson in having to earn anything.

After all, they have made it from a place of poverty all the way to the Ivy League. They have already learned twice over how to earn their own.

Alexa Roman is a sophomore in Columbia College. She works with the First-Generation Student Advisory Board to address prominent issues in the low-income community on campus. You’re Not Middle Class runs alternate Mondays.

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