Somewhere on the Columbia College/School of Engineering and Applied Sciences financial aid website, there’s a link to a financial aid calculator. You enter your financial data, and a bit later, you obtain a pretty accurate scholarship estimate. Along the way, you are assured that Columbia will meet 100 percent of your demonstrated need—but for the School of General Studies, alas, things are, as they often are, different.
If you try to find the GS financial aid calculator, you will end up on a blank webpage—and I’m not sure whether this is due to incompetence or deliberate opacity.
CC and SEAS undergraduates are eligible for enormous institutional scholarships—according to the calculator, they can get up to $68,000 per year ($62,000 for U.S. citizens and permanent residents), while GS students get next to nothing. The numbers do not lie: the average CC/SEAS scholarship is $52,000, while at GS, the average scholarship is $18,679.
Granted, we’re not the same as CC students, and we have different needs. I’m not suggesting that the scholarship criteria at GS must be exactly the same as at CC and SEAS, but it’s clear that the current allocation of money is unfair and does not meet our needs. Most GS students cannot take parental support for granted, and many of us work part- or full-time while studying. According to the College Board, GS meets only 28 percent of demonstrated need, and tellingly, most of my friends in GS have borrowed large amounts of money to fund their educations, in many cases upwards of $100,000. I doubt that the average CC or undergraduate SEAS student borrows even $20,000, and CC/SEAS administrators loudly proclaim that no Columbia student is expected to borrow even one dollar.
Everyone has a different way of explaining away this lack of support, but the core excuse is always the same: We can’t afford it. But the truth is that there is money, despite what you hear from the administration. And if you take a look at where they have decided to spend it, you start to get a sense of their priorities.
We see that there’s money to build a sparkling, brand-new campus in Manhattanville. There’s money to pay for bloated hordes of administrative staff in every division of the University. There’s money to fund 29 Division I sports teams, which have absolutely nothing to do with the academic mission of the University. And CC/SEAS undergraduate scholarships are so generous that the average annual award is $52,000. But somehow, suspiciously, there’s not enough money to make the crushing, $1750-per-credit, $75,000-per-year burden on us just a little bit lighter.
Bollinger attributes the generosity of the CC/SEAS financial aid office to superior fundraising and a larger pool of wealthy alumni. It’s true that there are more donations earmarked for CC/SEAS scholarships than for GS scholarships, but donations are not the only source of scholarship funds. More importantly, the mere fact that CC/SEAS and GS scholarship pools and fundraising efforts are kept separate speaks volumes about administrators’ priorities. There is no real barrier to changing this, and in fact, this kind of arbitrary division has been successfully eliminated before—in 1994, CC and SEAS merged their admissions offices, student services, scholarship pools, and fundraising efforts, while still maintaining the distinct character of each school. Since then, though, the administration has shot down several proposals to integrate GS into a similar framework, most recently in 2007.
If the administration truly considers us as equals to our counterparts in CC and SEAS, the policies they have created don’t show it. This difference manifests itself in many concrete ways: we have no guaranteed housing, we get penalized for taking too many classes—since we pay by the credit—and we pay more than the three other undergraduate schools for the same education.
Even measures billed as antidotes to stress culture actually end up hurting us—every year, more and more three-credit courses become four-credit courses in the name of discouraging excessive courseloads. But since we pay by the credit, our educations suffer for it—I will not take Literature Humanities or Contemporary Civilization, hallmarks of a Columbia education, because less expensive three-credit classes meet the requirement. I was forced to cut electives from my schedule because several classes in my major unexpectedly increased from three to four credits. This doesn’t really matter for CC and SEAS students, for whom an extra credit here and there has no financial consequences, but for us, it’s an unjustifiable price hike for courses that have not visibly changed.
But there’s also a lot of little things that demonstrate this, too. We are always listed second, behind CC, in official communications. We get sandwiches in a box at orientation, while CC and SEAS get lobster. We can’t use the blue moving bins from Hartley. And Columbia doesn’t even effectively correct U.S. News & World Report and their ilk when they incorrectly report the CC/SEAS enrollment figure of 6,113 as Columbia’s total undergraduate population, thereby completely disregarding our existence. The list goes on and on, but at the end of the day, money is by far the most painful thing.
The claim that there is not enough money for GS is at best disingenuous, and at worst, simply untrue. It’s true that every decision has trade-offs, but if Columbia wants to reduce the crushing burden of tuition on GS students, and for tuition-paying students in general, that goal is within easy reach. There’s no reason why there shouldn’t be a single undergraduate scholarship fund and a unified fundraising effort, and there’s no justification to continue this arbitrary division that leaves us out in the cold and hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. It’s been done before, with great success. All that’s needed now is a little bit of will from the administration to finish the job.
Robert Tang is a junior in the School of General Studies, joint majoring in economics-mathematics. If for some unfathomable reason you wish to contact him, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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