Even when students receive full scholarships, they sometimes face unforeseen costs and other obstacles that can prevent them from getting the full college experience.
Anthony Jack, a first-generation college student, was given full financial aid at Amherst College when he found himself unable to afford the trip home to Miami during spring break.
“There are some hidden costs to going to college, and the biggest one,” Jack said, laughing, “is the assumption that everyone can afford to leave campus during spring break.
“But, unfortunately, that image does not include students going hungry when that is actually the reality,” he continued, “because if you can’t leave campus during spring break, and your college assumes that you do and they shut down all dining services, what are you supposed to do for 10 days when you can’t even afford to go home?”
Jack brought his plight to the attention of Amherst and the college helped out by issuing a card that students can use for meals at a local cafe.
Jack is now an assistant professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. He is writing about the issues facing first-generation college students, whom he divides into those he calls the doubly disadvantaged, and those like himself, whom he calls the privileged poor.
In Miami, Jack’s mother was a school monitor at a middle school. Thanks to Head Start, he attended pre-kindergarten at Coconut Grove Elementary.
“And I was very, very fortunate, because that school was literally on the other side of the tracks,” Jack recalled. “The housing stock was different. The stores were different. The people were very different.”
At a magnet middle school, he enrolled in the international baccalaureate program. When his football coach at the public high school wanted him to emphasize sports over academics, he switched to a private school that offered full financial aid. There, he socialized with wealthy students, learned to navigate their world.
He compares being a first-generation college student to being an immigrant.
“A lot of lower-income students have to send money home,” Jack explained. “Sometimes that means paying the bill, whether it’s the light bill, the water bill or even the mortgage. Sometimes it’s paying medicine for your mother, for your father, for your grandfather, because there was ‘too much month at the end of the money,’ as we say.”
Jack said first-generation students often don’t take advantage of the help available to them in college. For example, he said they don’t take advantage of professors’ office hours because they don’t understand what they’re for.
“They feel guilty about asking for help,” Jack said.
Tufts University student Gregory Chin has felt this divide between low-income and wealthier students personally.
“I am on a lot of financial aid, a lot of grant-based financial aid. Although, I do have loans,” Chin said.
Chin recently attended a nationwide conference for first-generation college students hosted by Tufts. He pointed out that few colleges and universities can afford to meet all the needs of students like him, and he’s aware that he can’t take advantage of everything college offers in the same way wealthier students can.
“The thing with Tufts that’s interesting is we’re not like the Ivies, which have a ridiculous amount of endowments [and] who can afford to take on more financial-aid kids. So there’s a lot of economic disparity at Tufts,” Chin explained. “I definitely have to make the decision sometimes between: do I take on this work position and do an hour of work or do I study for this econ test?”
Colleges Pick Up Costs Linked To Student Success — And Survival
Colleges are beginning to address the concerns of first-generation students, especially colleges with large endowments.
Amherst College President Biddy Martin knows the challenges first-generation college students often face. She’s one herself. Under her leadership, Amherst adds aid for needs that students cannot cover once they arrive: medical costs not covered by insurance, bedding, winter coats and boots.
“Interview clothes in their senior year, and help with travel if they decide to go abroad,” Martin said. “We also cover for international and domestic students with the highest need trips home. So Amherst goes beyond what’s defined by our calculation of financial need for a family.”
Martin said Amherst officials continually ask themselves if they’re doing everything they can to cover students’ needs. Take internships, for example:
“For students from middle- or upper-middle-class or wealthy families, taking an unpaid internship is doable,” Martin said. “For students on aid, they’re not always doable.”
“The experience that a low-income student has on our campus should be a lot like the experience that more affluent students have,” said Katharine Fretwell, dean of admission and financial aid at Amherst.
“Our students on financial aid can transport that financial aid with them to a study abroad opportunity,” Fretwell said. “They are able to take music lessons that we will help fund.”
Some schools also pitch in for expenses related to searching for a job in students’ senior year.
Even though Tufts does not have as large of an endowment as other schools, Chin said the university also helps first-generation students who want to take unpaid internships.
“Tufts actually does a good job with that,” Chin said. “They have grants for students who wish to take unpaid internships. It’s about $3,500, and you have to work, I think, 350 hours. It’s about $10 a hour, so it’s not extravagant, but it’s better than nothing.”
The Tufts Career Center funds 40 to 50 undergraduates wanting to take unpaid internships each summer.
Even so, Chin points out that first-generation students may not be able to take advantage of their university’s efforts to pay them for unpaid summer internships.
“In the summer, a lot of first-gen students go home, decide to take care of their families, or work for their family businesses,” Chin said.
Tufts dining halls are closed during spring break, but the university provides first-generation students with meal money. Chin, who’ll be a senior this fall, says first-generation students at Tufts face a particular challenge paying for housing in their junior and senior years.
“Tufts isn’t guaranteed housing, so they guarantee housing for two years, and it’s not necessarily that you’ll get housing junior year or senior year, and the rent is extravagant around here,” Chin said. “It goes up a considerable amount every year.”
And off-campus rents within walking distance of Tufts, Chin says, run as much as $900 a month per student.