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Home: The Toast

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Introductory Disclaimer the First: Low-income students who DON’T have the grades to get into a fancy school also deserve to be treated with dignity and not to be bankrupted by their educations.

Introductory Disclaimer the Second: These schools have massive endowments and SHOULD be doing all these things, and you don’t need to give them your money. We still feel personally grateful.

After Nicole mentioned having been on full financial aid at Harvard in an interview, she got an email from a current first-gen student on aid, and it caused her to tweet passionately on the subject for several hours. Nikki, also a former student on full financial aid at Johns Hopkins, chimed in, and it resulted in So Many Feelings that they decided to have a more formal conversation about it for the site.


Nicole: Let’s start off by telling our stories! My parents thought I was BANANAS for applying to Harvard, because we could never afford it in a billion years. I was in Canada, my guidance counselor didn’t know squat about American colleges, so I had to figure out all this application and standardized testing stuff out on my own. And what I found out, for starters, is that Harvard would waive my application fee if I was low-income (I literally just had to ask), and the College Board would waive my SAT costs (I think I had to do more than ask.) And then I got in.

Getting in was the second most exciting thing that had ever happened to me. Getting my financial aid letter? THAT was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to me.

The fact they offered financial aid to international students on the same basis as domestic students was already incredible, and very few schools did so at the time. Harvard looked at the ACTUAL cost of attending for four years: tuition, room and board, books, travel home, clothes, etc., and made their financial aid offer based on that. This meant that they gave those of us on full financial aid EXTRA money beyond what they would have charged us, recognizing that it’s often the little needling incidental costs that keep low-income people from being able to take advantage of “free” educations. They got me a laptop. If you were from a warm country or a warm state, they gave you a “winter coat allowance” so you could survive a winter in Boston.

And this is the smallest, silliest thing, but for me it’s come to represent why I remain so grateful to Harvard (despite not having really had a good time after freshman year or so): with your financial aid packet, you got a code you could input to the campus equivalent of Ticketmaster for any and all events and concerts that cost money. Once you inputted the code, tickets would be waiting for you at will-call, so literally no one had to know that you didn’t HAVE ten extra dollars to go see a cheesy a cappella concert.

All of my moments of class shock at Harvard, and all of my feelings about being low-income, came exclusively from watching rich students and their carelessness and the ease of their lives. None of that ever came from the administration.

I got surprisingly emotional, fourteen years later, having this conversation with you and other students, Nikki, because financial aid changed my entire life. I’m sure I would have been fine, but without Harvard’s financial aid office, nothing I’ve done since could have been possible. You would not be reading this goofy-ass website! I sobbed with joy when I found out that Harvard wanted me and other poor kids enough to put their money behind us. And it’s why sometimes I say yes when they call and ask for money, even though they don’t need it, and there are billions of more deserving places.

Nikki: Our family only ever just got by, and my parents had unreliable employment and various expensive health problems, so we always knew the money would have to come from somewhere else. I was extremely privileged in the sense that everyone who knew me said, oh, of course you’ll go to college somewhere, so I never questioned that was the goal. But they said that because they knew I had good grades and wanted to go, not because I came from a family that could obviously afford to send me. My parents couldn’t guide me through the application process or pay for anything.

So I had a lot of drive and a lot of ambition, but I didn’t really know what was possible. I didn’t know where I could realistically get in, or who would pay for me to go there. Most of the people I knew were looking to go to school in-state or stay on the west coast — it was like a rite of passage for smart kids at my school to apply to Stanford, which I never had any interest in because I knew too many people who wanted to go there. While I was not very brave, I was very, very over my small white hometown, and I knew I wanted to go far away for school and meet entirely new people and preferably live in a big city. Out of my graduating class of four or five hundred, only a handful ended up on the east coast. Most of my classmates didn’t want to go so far away (which makes sense, the west coast is pretty awesome!), but I really wanted and needed a drastic change.

My high school counselor (hi Mr. Burrelle!), who has since retired, was the greatest high school guidance counselor to ever play the game, and I breezed by his office once a week for the better part of two years, pestering him about scholarships and schools and borrowing all his college guides and SAT study materials. I loved combing through the course catalogues, even though I had no idea what 3/4 of the classes were about. I just felt so stuck, spinning my wheels while I waited to graduate and finally GO DO SOMETHING, so I threw myself into research. I probably made Rory Gilmore look pretty chill about the whole thing. I think it was sophomore or junior year when I returned his William & Mary catalogue and my guidance counselor remarked, “It’s a great school, but you should really be looking at private schools, not state universities.” I asked him why, and he said, essentially, “You could get in, and those schools have the deepest pockets.”

So on my next pass through the Big Book O’ Colleges and Universities, in addition to my other general criteria (not in the middle of nowhere, great history and English departments, under 5,000 undergraduates, in a big city but with a real campus, extended fam not too far away, etc.), I kept an eye out for the magical phrases need-blind admission and guarantees to meet your full demonstrated need. I wasn’t able to visit most of the schools I applied to, but Hopkins was one of the few schools I actually did get to see even before I sent in my application, because my aunt lived not too far away and she very generously paid for my plane ticket. It was pouring the day I saw it, a cold wet March afternoon, and I loved it. I had three “favorite” schools that I thought I’d be equally happy with, and of the three, JHU offered the most money.

I don’t think I really believed it was possible until the moment when I opened the letter and saw all those zeroes. I had already gotten into some other great schools, and some had offered me pretty good money, but not THIS MUCH. Not a full ride. Like you, getting that offer — that was the real life-changer, not the email telling me I’d gotten in. That was the moment I knew I’d be going to college. I jumped up and screamed and knocked a chair over and yelled for my mom. And I can draw a direct line from that letter to every opportunity that has followed.

As an alum, I interview several prospective students a year for admission. Some do ask me about financial aid, usually towards the end of the conversation, and I always tell them, very frankly, that financial aid is the sole reason I went there — or to any college at all. Last year I interviewed a great applicant, and towards the end of our conversation he asked, “Should I even bother applying to elite schools? My family doesn’t have much money and everyone is telling me I should just focus on state schools.” And I was like, YES, APPLY, GET THE MONEY AND GO. There are many amazing public universities, and if they want you enough, they might offer you a great package. But I know in my case I would have paid more for four years at the University of Oregon than I did at Hopkins.

Nicole: I was a first-generation student as well! My parents loved me and wanted me to be happy and are SUPER well-read and smart, but they also didn’t think college was important or necessary, had not gone themselves, and had no idea how any of these things worked. We’ve had great conversations about it since, but it was a tricky and tense time: it was hard to explain why college (and THIS college in particular) was so important to me without making it seem like a rejection of them, in some way. And they felt both guilty and defensive that they couldn’t pay for anything, which in hindsight is obviously why they tried to discourage me from applying in the first place.

Let’s talk a little about how we coped with being surrounded by much richer kids once we got there! I thought the Boston Globe covered it really well, by the way.

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Nikki: Where I grew up, a lot of people seemed pretty relaxed about money even if they had buckets of it. I was sometimes embarrassed — mostly just worried — about my family’s situation, but I was not really conditioned to either notice enormous wealth or have super strong feelings about it growing up in a far-from-cosmopolitan town in Oregon. At first, when I got to campus, I was just trying to settle in and adjust like all freshmen have to. I did notice how many people had cell phones, and some would mention belonging to the country club in their hometown or whatever. Some friends and I organized a Secret Santa gift exchange my freshman year, and one of them said, “We don’t want to spend too much, what’s a good amount — like $50 per person?” I almost had a heart attack. I had never spent $50 on a single gift before.

So I mostly felt the class difference in moments like that, when I heard people talking about their parents’ jobs and trips or saw them spending money in a way I’d never dreamed of spending it — often while complaining about the fact that they didn’t get any financial aid and telling me how lucky I was that I got so much. (I mean, true, but I always wanted to ask them if they knew why they didn’t get financial aid and people like me did!) I was aware when they took spring break trips or bought apartment furniture that I couldn’t afford. When I started dating someone from a different socioeconomic class, that was an adjustment. I just had zero interest in listening to rich people say they weren’t rich or complain about writing big tuition checks. When I heard that, I always thought about my parents and how much they would have loved to be able to do that for me.

But I also had plenty of friends at school who weren’t wealthy and had some amount of aid, even if it was small and most of their families didn’t have to worry like mine did. Hopkins always made sure I had enough, and paid my rent and living expenses even after I moved off-campus junior year. I worked at a store the summer after freshman year so I could buy “nice” clothes with my employee discount, and then I took good care of those clothes so they’d last through college. I had the opportunity to do research as part of my work-study, and the professor I worked for was amazing and actually paid me a decent wage. I was able to get the books and things I needed, even if some were secondhand. I often had about $8 in my checking account by the end of the semester, but I loved my major, my department, my friends, the groups I joined, and the school itself, and the more it felt like home, the less I felt like an interloper.

I think the differences in background/means really hit home when everybody else’s parents came for Homecoming, or Parents’ Weekend, or just whenever they felt like it. The distance from home felt so much greater than it would have if I’d been able to go back or my parents had been able to visit me more often. I’m not sure a lot of my friends understood that. Having me so far away was a much bigger sacrifice for my parents than it would have been for wealthy parents. I went home twice a year for a couple of weeks at a time, but then I’d go back to campus and work all summer, or work over winter break. My parents only came out to visit me once between Freshman Orientation and my Commencement. We just didn’t see one another very often; I had to grow up and be independent from them the day I left for college.

How was the class shock for you? Did anything help or did you just get over it?

Nicole: It helped that none of my roommates were particularly well-off, I think. They had more money than me, but none of us were remotely loaded, and we all had on-campus jobs all four years. One of the best paid jobs on campus was Dorm Crew, where you literally cleaned other students’ bathrooms, which is something that could have resulted in tremendous weirdness, I think, but I did a few rounds of vacation Dorm Crew (which is actually when you discover that wealthy kids leave EVERYTHING in their rooms for other people to throw out at the end of the year, like, discarded electronics and purses and stuff) and people were usually like “oh, yeah, you can make good money doing that” as opposed to “ew, like a servant?”

The weirdness, for me, usually came in the form of tiny uncomfortable situations (and the stuff like spring break trips and parent jobs, like you mentioned.) There was this thing called Crimson Cash, which came on a debit card thingie and you could use it to do laundry or for vending machines and at a variety of on-campus restaurants, etc., and people would LOSE THEIR MINDS with joy when a new place would take Crimson Cash, and my best friend and I literally could not figure out for the life of us why it was so exciting. Then we realized that other people’s parents would dump $500, $1000 onto those cards for their kids each semester, whereas we just put $20 bucks in so we didn’t have to find quarters to use the washing machine.

Or kids had “emergency credit cards,” which their parents just accepted would involve “emergency Thai food situations” or “emergency Ugg buying” a handful of times a semester. Not having a safety net, I guess, makes an emotional impact on you. And on one hand, I like that it made me scrappy and resourceful, but on the other hand, I’m pretty glad my kids won’t ignore their wisdom teeth because their college health plan will pay to have impacted ones removed, but nothing prior to that.

Or, and this always drove me nuts, going out to dinner and very carefully ordering something small and cheap, and then having someone carelessly say “let’s just split everything evenly” when the check came. I’m now a check-grabber OH YOU HAVE TO LET ME TREAT and I worry that my friends think I’m being showy, when in fact I am just exorcising the memories of having to say “oh actually I just got a single samosa so here is cash for my samosa and the tax on the samosa and my share of the tip.”

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Nikki: AUGH CHECK SPLITTING IS THE WORST.

One thing I tried to do was be very open about being on financial aid, especially when I was giving tours or talking with prospectives in the admissions office. I didn’t find it embarrassing, I was just very grateful and I wanted people to know that people like me (and people whose circumstances were way more dire!) were there, and part of the community, and adding a lot to the school.

I have this really vivid memory from freshman year — I went in to see my financial aid adviser to talk about money, what else. He was in charge of a section of the alphabet, which was how I’d been assigned to him, and so he was the person who actually made the decision to offer me more money than my family had ever made in a year so I could go there. I remember sitting in his office and telling him “thank you so much!” and he didn’t even really seem to register what I was thanking him for; I think he literally said “oh” and “well that’s what we do” or something. I kind of put him on the spot without intending to, and he was trying to tell me that it was his job. Which is so true! He wasn’t trying to be kind or charitable or change anyone’s life or help me, personally, achieve upward mobility. He was making sure the school could get the students it wanted. Students it needed. Students who would make the school better and richer in so many ways, if not necessarily richer financially.

That was the day I really stopped thinking of need-based financial aid as a handout, and also the day I decided to never ever be embarrassed about needing so much of it. It helps a lot of kids, yes. But it’s not charity. It benefits the schools most of all, and if it didn’t, they wouldn’t offer it.

Nicole: Being open about being on aid, yes! I used to do campus tours when I worked at the admissions office, and I always did a little spiel about how financial aid is amazing, and how it allowed me to attend. However, on more than three occasions (usually with smaller groups) rich parents cut me off (literally interrupted me) to say that they didn’t care about financial aid, because their kid wouldn’t need it. Drove me nuts. How do you not understand that a vigorous and generous financial aid system is relevant for ALL students, because it ensures your kid will be going to school with people from vastly different class and income backgrounds?

I guess that did not necessarily seem like a plus to some people.

ADVICE

Now, let’s get servicey! You’re a low-income high school student, and you think you’ve got the grades and the scores to make it to a really rich and fancy school. How does all of this work?

Well, first of all, those SAT sample books are expensive as SHIT, go to your library and see if they have them! And, guys, if you do buy them, don’t write in them, and then DONATE them when you’re done!

Go here to find out if you’re eligible for College Board testing waivers, and also if you’re eligible to have your application fees waived!

Apply for free to all the fancy schools. Only apply to need-blind schools.

Fill out and submit your FAFSA.

[Edited to add: Here’s the link to fill out your CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE, required by many schools.]

When you get your financial aid offers (regrettably, if you have a douchey parent who refuses to fill out the forms, you’ll have to have these conversations sooner), ask for more. Explain why. Ask nicely. Be very up-front about what you need and see what they can do. Your first-choice school won’t necessarily pony up if you tell them they’re your first choice and you have higher offers — but then again, they might. Nicole renegotiated her package every year (at the time, Harvard still asked even low-income students to take out some minimal loans as a “gesture of commitment,” but they do not do that anymore.) Tuition at these schools always rises every single year, so your offer should increase accordingly.

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Nicole Cliffe is an editor of The Toast and Nicole Chung is the managing editor. Together they are the Nicollective.

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