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When I received my financial aid package after my acceptance to transfer to Columbia, I was overjoyed at the enormous number totaling almost $80,000. Seeing a number like that, I figured I would be set for the year, and I was so grateful that an institution would invest so much money in me. I saw this number as Columbia breaking down a barrier for me, allowing me access to the elite institution I had always dreamed of.

So, I was surprised when I got a bill. How could I owe anything, with an unimaginable number being allocated toward financing my education? The answer has to do with the student contribution, which determines how much cost an individual student is responsible for.

There are two parts to the student contribution: summer earnings and term earnings. Both amounts go up as your class standing increases at Columbia. As a junior, my summer contribution is $3,200 and my term contribution will be $3,440. This is a hell of a lot of money for somebody that reports about $8,000 in annual earnings on my income tax. Luckily, I was able to reduce the amount I actually needed to pay by choosing a less expensive meal plan, and thus the scholarship allocated to housing and meal plan was able to cover much of this cost. Clearly, this means I have less access to food.

In community college, I received payouts to help combat living expenses in the form of the Pell Grant. Here, my Pell Grant is subsumed into a blanket scholarship even though I receive no financial aid refund, which would assist me with the inane expense of living in New York City and attending this institution. Instead of getting a bulk scholarship at Santa Barbara City College, I was exempted from payments, which kept me from having to report a large amount of income on my taxes. Refund payouts are somewhat common in state schools, and are standard practice at all schools under the University of California umbrella.

The ideology behind the student contribution is that “there is not such a thing as a free ride at Columbia” (a quote I was told in an email from a financial aid officer). I have many problems with the mind-set behind this statement. First, there definitely is such a thing as a free ride at college in general, such as if you are on a scholarship as an athlete, or if your parents pay for your education. Secondly, if you are low-income, sustaining yourself is not a cheap endeavor.

From the tone of the email I received from that financial aid officer, I felt as if I was being called entitled for asking why I had a bill when my estimated family contribution was zero; as if receiving free education is immoral in some way. Additionally, Columbia does not offer merit-based aid, like many institutions do, in the name of “[making] it possible for everyone to afford a Columbia education.” Yet, here I am. Not affording it.

My move to Columbia, along with paying for the food that the meal plan doesn’t provide, in addition to hygiene and dorm items, winter clothing, and textbooks, as well as other mandatory class expenses, has caused me to max out my credit card, exhaust my savings, and drain my paychecks. I owe over $800 in taxes, because the portion of my scholarship covering housing and my meal plan is counted as income. Furthermore, I am ineligible for loans because my “cost of attendance” is supposedly covered.

And my student contribution is going to go up next year. Where am I supposed to manifest this money from? I am not going to get paid more, just because I am a year older, so why am I responsible for more of my tuition?

This ideology disproportionally affects low-income students. I can’t pay for this and I have no resources to help me pay for this, so I need to work more hours, while balancing the extracurriculars that are expected of me alongside 21 credits of coursework. (As a transfer, I need to take this many credits in order to graduate). Clearly, this is a strain on my performance here, both academically and mentally. Anybody whose tuition is paid for by their parents is probably unaware that this even exists, and yet it determines my ability to buy groceries.

When I applied to Columbia, I envisioned my presence on this campus as a testament to the growing inclusivity of these institutions that were built for and by the elite. Unfortunately, every month I am faced with a new barrier that makes me question if coming here only threatened my prospects of mobility.

Community college tailored its financial aid and financial practices on campus with the idea in mind that many students coming to the school were nontraditional, and often low-income. From my experience here, students like myself are not in the minds of those making these financial aid decisions. The trend in admissions shows that elite schools are recognizing the importance of admitting transfers, particularly from community college, due to our incredible performance statistics.

But how am I supposed to go here and survive at the same time?

Melissa Cook is a junior in Columbia College who is looking forward to starving next semester because her student contribution is increasing. Financial aid questions and lamentations can be directed toward or @Makeshiftmelissa on Instagram. Pity money is encouraged and can be sent to @cookmelissa98 on Venmo.

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