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courtesy of / Kristian Anfinn Tonnessen

Admittedly, I was not very good at keeping track of numbers before I came to Columbia, but I got better at it quickly. As much as I would love to credit my improvement to my one (1) Introduction to Statistical Reasoning course, it was Columbia’s student contribution and the Federal Work-Study Grant calculations that really made me work for it. The question I had to answer was “How does a senior at Columbia live on $240 a year?”

Let’s do a little math together (sorry, everyone!). Let’s say a family makes less than $60,000 every year. Columbia University in the City of New York promises to meet full demonstrated financial need to first-year students who fit this criterion and continue to meet 100 percent of financial need every year thereafter. My family and I were over the moon. Never did I dream that I’d be attending such a prestigious university, let alone with such a generous financial aid package. Then, I glanced at the financial aid form.

Columbia Grant, check. Pell grant, check. The Tuition Assistance Program since I’m a New York state resident, check. The work-study grant and student contribution are the last two numbers on the financial aid sheet after Columbia has listed all the expensive things you aren’t paying for (dining, housing, etc.). First-years are expected to pay a minimum of $2,400 by way of the student contribution; this increases every year.

Columbia, by the way, presupposes that you are paying for the student contribution with money you’ve made over the summer, outside scholarships, savings, parental assistance, or other financing options. How does Columbia expect you to save enough money for the student contribution and a new computer, books, travel, moving expenses, everything you might need for your new room, and an independent life if you come from a low-income family? It would be absurd, almost to the point of cruelty, if the University just assumed everyone could pay for both the student contribution and everything else they needed using earnings from a summer job or other, sometimes unattainable self-financing options, wouldn’t it?

Indeed, it would be absurd and cruel. But, when I looked up an online forum where people had posted questions about the student contribution, the top comment suggested getting your parents to pay for it. Why didn’t I think of that? Oh, wait. That first payment of $2,400 was much more than my family could afford. Forget about the $3,487 I paid in my senior year. Thus, I looked to my work-study grant, which was only slightly larger than my student contribution ($3,640 that year).

I had to pay the student contribution off over time using the work-study grant so every paycheck I received went straight to Columbia. It took me about 14 weeks, working 15 to 20 hours a week, to use up the entire grant with two work-study jobs. Why would anyone want to do that? Excellent question.

Since my work-study grant was about $240 more than my student contribution senior year, I had about $120 per semester ($30 a month) left over for the necessities. MTA cards. Self-esteem. Cold medicine. Shampoo. Socks. Any meal not provided by Columbia’s dining halls. A bus trip home. Movie tickets. Dignity. The answer to my question: It’s impossible to live on $240 a year, especially in New York.

Therefore, I had four jobs, and two of them were not funded by work-study. But then I didn’t really have that much time to do anything else, and the stress of also being a double major was immense. There were some days at Columbia that I never saw daylight because I was working so many hours. Low-income students can be forced to choose between their studies and their lives and often suffer. For some of us, our fantasies of what we can accomplish at Columbia dissipate quickly when we are surprised by a bill in our first weeks at the University.

The need to work more hours every year, as academic and career-related pressures rise, takes a toll that cannot be quantified. I know that for myself, work, not academics, became my focus for the last two years I was at Columbia. It had to be if I wanted a financial safety net or the capacity to live a life outside of campus. Abolishing the student contribution would free lower-income students to volunteer, socialize, participate in clubs, focus on their academics, and even enjoy themselves in one of the most expensive cities in the world. As it stands, the student contribution can be punitive for low-income students, and we have to keep writing about this issue because we haven’t yet seen any changes.

Maybe next year, dear alma mater, forego the purchase of yet another new building (or campus extension), and put some money into the well-being of some of your hardest-working students. I promise none of us will become parasites if we’re able to live with dignity, sleep a little easier, and spend time not just working but living.

Kristian Anfinn Tonnessen graduated from Columbia College in 2019. Currently, he studies within the Slavic literature Ph.D. program at the University of Michigan, writing poetry and op-eds (apparently?) about class at Columbia.

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work-study low income student contribution class wealth
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