NEW YORK — To reach the Ivy League after growing up poor seems like hitting the jackpot. Students get a world-class education from schools that promise to meet full financial needs without making them take out loans. But the reality of a full ride isn’t always what they had dreamed it would be.
Here at Columbia University, money pressures lead many to cut corners on textbook purchases and skip city excursions routine for affluent classmates. Some borrow thousands of dollars a year to pay bills. Some feel obliged to send money home occasionally to help their families. Others spend less on university meal plans, slipping extra food into their backpacks when they leave a dining hall and hunting for free grub through a Facebook network called CU Meal Share.
“If you want to have some sort of social life, you have to pay for that, too,” said Lizzette Delgadillo, 20, a junior from Los Angeles. Her father is a trumpet player in a mariachi band, her mother a housekeeper. “New York’s very expensive. I’m happy. But financially, it’s pretty hard.”
Such challenges are widespread in higher education, and at many schools far more severe. But awareness of them has grown in recent years at top colleges seeking to diversify what were once bastions of exclusivity and privilege. The more they recruit from impoverished and working-class neighborhoods, the more these schools confront what it takes to help those students thrive after they arrive on campus.
Students have vented concerns about food insecurity and the stigma of poverty at several prominent schools through online forums called “Class Confessions.” Cornell University learned last year from an undergraduate survey that 22 percent said they had skipped meals or had not had enough to eat at least occasionally because of financial constraints. A movement of first-generation students called 1vyG, spanning the eight Ivy schools and beyond, drew hundreds in February to a conference at Harvard University calling for “an agenda for change.”
Too often, elite colleges fail to level with students from poor families about pressures they could face even when loans are not included in their financial aid, said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a sociologist and higher-education analyst at the University of Wisconsin.
“They purport to take money off the table by saying they have a no-loans policy,” Goldrick-Rab said. “That’s sort of whitewashing away the many ways in which money can still matter.” Among them, she said, are the cost of living during breaks and the cost of “keeping up with the Joneses” — students whose wealth is evident on the first day they move into dorms.
University officials acknowledge that some students wrestle with money worries even when their education costs are covered. “I don’t think it’s possible to eliminate it entirely, but it’s incumbent upon us to address it,” said James Valentini, vice president for undergraduate education at Columbia and dean of Columbia College. “We want to try to eliminate all of those things that prevent them from being successful once they are here.”
Anthony Abraham Jack, a Harvard graduate student, wrote his dissertation on the experiences of low-income students at elite schools. He can relate because he was one himself in the Class of 2007 at Amherst College — the son of a single mother in Miami who was a school security guard.
Jack recalled seeking help during spring break at Amherst when dining halls were closed, rich classmates were traveling and he was staying on campus because he couldn’t afford to leave. “It’s kind of gross to live off peanut butter and jelly for a week,” he said.
The college arranged for meals through a local cafe, Jack said. In 2014, he helped push Harvard to take steps to feed students on campus during vacations. Now Harvard distributes meal vouchers for those who need them during winter and spring breaks, according to a profile of Jack last month in the Harvard Gazette.
These actions show that even at one of the wealthiest universities in the world, with an endowment estimated at $36 billion, hunger is hardly unknown.
Disadvantaged students admitted to Harvard “don’t just get catapulted into the middle class,” said Ted White, 21, who is active in a first-generation-student union at the university. His dad is a bus driver in Boston. “There are still family hardships and things going on in their personal lives.”
Columbia has long prided itself on providing opportunity to strivers. Alexander Hamilton studied here in the 18th century at what was then known as King’s College as he climbed from humble immigrant origins to become one of the nation’s founders.
On the Morningside Heights campus in Upper Manhattan, half of the 6,000 students in Columbia’s undergraduate college and engineering school receive financial aid. Eighteen percent of freshmen have parents who did not earn bachelor’s degrees. That appears to be on par with, or a bit higher than, the first-generation share at other Ivy schools. Sixteen percent of Brown University undergraduates, for example, are first-generation students. Not all of these students come from poverty, but many do.
More than 700 Columbia students — 12 percent of undergraduates — have enough financial need that the university does not ask their parents to pay anything toward the cost of education.
Most of the nation’s private colleges and many public ones expect students in those circumstances to take out loans to help finance their education. That is not true for the Ivy League and a select group of other elite colleges and universities. Columbia dropped loans in 2008 from student aid packages.
“Diversity is really important to us,” Valentini said. Mixing students from varied backgrounds helps all of them — including the affluent — learn valuable interpersonal skills, he said. “Financial aid provides us a way to make this possible.”
No-loan packages are not without obligations. Generally, Columbia asks incoming freshmen to contribute $2,400 through summer jobs or other sources. That total can rise to more than $3,000 in subsequent years. In addition, students on financial aid are often asked to earn a few thousand dollars by working during the school year.
The university’s annual cost of attendance, more than $72,000, assumes $2,062 for personal expenses and $1,223 for books and supplies, in addition to $68,975 for tuition, fees, room and board. Travel costs also are included, depending on where a student lives.
To Lizbeth Peña, Columbia’s offer three years ago “was like a dream come true.”
Valedictorian at her high school in Gwinnett County, Ga., outside Atlanta, Peña is the third of four siblings in an immigrant family. She was born in Mexico, came to the United States at age 7 and is now a permanent U.S. resident. Her father is a landscaper.
Peña, 20, a civil-engineering major, is finishing her junior year. Money has been on her mind since she arrived. She never buys new textbooks if she can avoid it. She never goes to Starbucks. She has gone to the movies twice in three years, once when a friend treated her and the second time with a free ticket from the student government. She goes to museums for free with her student ID, but not to Broadway shows. She once spent a long weekend in New York getting by on little more than Nutella and a loaf of bread when dining halls were closed. On her first Thanksgiving break, she surprised her parents with a visit home — not flying but taking a 16-hour bus ride to Georgia with a round-trip ticket that she recalls cost $120. “Compared to $400, it was a deal,” she said.
Leery of debt, Peña had assumed at first that she would not have to borrow. But she took out $2,200 in loans because finances got too tight. She also has been whittling costs where she can.
The easiest solution is to cut back on meal spending. All first-year students are required to buy a plan that provides breakfast, lunch and dinner at one of Columbia’s bountiful dining halls. But in subsequent years they can choose less-costly plans, with fewer dining-hall visits, and cook for themselves the rest of the time. Or forage.
This spring Peña bought a plan that effectively allows one dining-hall entry a day. That saved her $700 compared with a plan she bought last fall permitting an average of nearly two entries per day. When she leaves a dining hall, she often takes an apple, a pear or a couple of bananas with her. The fruit becomes a starting point for a future meal. She always thinks ahead about food. “It never leaves my mind,” she said.
Peña said she is accustomed to “the small burdens” she goes through every day. “There’s a lot that struggle more than I do,” she said. “I can’t be ungrateful.”
Rafael Ramirez, 21, a junior in economics and political science from the Bronx, said he frequently makes trade-offs unknown to affluent classmates.
“I’ve sometimes had to choose — all right, am I buying a textbook or getting something to eat?” Ramirez said. “I always choose food.”
Recently, Ramirez took screen shots of a textbook with more than 500 pages so that he could avoid buying it, a mind-numbing maneuver that can take hours on a computer. He has done it more than once. “It’s not bad,” he said. “You get into a rhythm.”
Ramirez, whose mother works as a home health aide, said he sometimes helps her with rent or other expenses. In his time at school he has worked at campus libraries and other jobs 10 or more hours a week.
When he decided to come to Columbia, Ramirez said, he didn’t realize all the things he might need to pay for out of pocket. Playing rugby cost about $100 per semester, but fortunately he got financial aid from the team. There was a Latin dance team with dues of $30 to $40 a semester. “Not huge,” Ramirez said. “But it starts adding up.” An expense he deemed most worthwhile was joining a fraternity, which cost $1,300.
As of April, Ramirez said he was carrying about $600 in credit card debt and had taken out nearly $15,000 in loans. “It’s a significant amount,” he said. “I’m sure I’ll figure it out.”
Christia Mercer, a veteran philosophy professor, said she worries about the financial stress borne by students at Columbia. Mercer said she has heard numerous troubling anecdotes, including cases in which students sought sexual relationships with older men through “sugar daddy” websites to earn money to pay their bills. The Washington Post contacted one of these students, but she declined to be interviewed.
Another student told Mercer of the shame he felt riding a crosstown bus to fill out paperwork for government food-stamp assistance — an account he confirmed in an interview with The Post. As of mid-April, he said, he had exhausted his meal plan for the semester. The 19-year-old, who declined to be named, is finishing his sophomore year.
For months, Mercer said, she has pushed university officials to do more to relieve such pressures.
“Columbia should not bring these people to campus and treat them this way,” Mercer said. “These low-income students do not feel attended to.”
Valentini said Mercer’s account of students engaged in sex work to pay bills was “deeply troubling.” The university urges those in difficult straits to reach out for help from deans, advisers or other campus resources, he said.
The dean said Columbia has taken several steps in recent years to ease financial pressures, including an emergency fund enabling students to get vouchers for six free meals a semester, an open dining hall during spring break and Thanksgiving holiday, and, starting next school year, the elimination of course fees for those on financial aid. He said Columbia also has raised travel allocations, given students more flexibility in the use of outside scholarships and limited the rate of growth of the expected student contribution.
“If even a single student is having a problem at Columbia, then we feel bad about that,” Valentini said. “We try to address it.”
Among Delgadillo’s challenges this spring was a broken laptop, a significant hurdle for an engineering student heading into finals. She planned to wait until she was home for the summer to find a low-cost repair shop. Delgadillo has managed to stay debt-free. But she wishes she had known more about finances before coming to Columbia.
“Things that you don’t think about are extremely expensive,” she said. “It’s not a full ride.”