Low income students face many hidden costs that can threaten their college success.
The New York Times April 5, 2018 | Janet Morrissey
Michael Martinez still recalls the excitement he felt leaving his rural home in Wichita Falls, Tex., in 2000 to attend Princeton University. But the euphoria quickly turned to anxiety as he discovered that the scholarships and grants he had received didn’t cover many hidden costs, including school supplies and a winter coat.
His parents, both teachers, were tapped out; his mother was selling cookies to pass along whatever extra cash she could. Mr. Martinez worked part time, leaving little time to socialize with his wealthier classmates, who were enjoying the full college experience.
“I never really felt fully comfortable at Princeton, based on, frankly, the amount of money that my family had,” he said. “I felt like a fish out of water.”
Ultimately, he persevered and got a bachelor’s degree there in 2005 and a master’s from Babson College in 2015.
But when he became dean of student life at Haverford College last summer and started seeing low-income students going through the same challenges he had, he decided to do something about it.
He helped spearhead the Low-Income and First-In-Their-Family Assistance and Resources program, which offers low-income students financial assistance to cover unexpected expenses. They could include academic-related costs, such as art supplies, laptop repair fees and dance class shoes. It also includes nonacademic costs, like winter coats, emergency medical and dental treatment, and help with plane tickets for unexpected trips home because of a family emergency or even to get home over winter break.
Since the program began in September 2017, it has handled 115 requests from 78 students at a cost of about $25,000, Mr. Martinez said. (The school has 1,250 students).
Haverford is among a growing number of colleges that have set up programs to help low-income students with unexpected financial expenses. Among them are Brown University, the University of Chicago, Washington University, Swarthmore College, Syracuse University and Williams College.
“I’ve known students who contemplated dropping out — not because they couldn’t do the work, but because they felt they didn’t have enough money to buy new clothes or commute to school or a family member was sick and they couldn’t travel to see that family member,” said Ohiro Oni-Eseleh, a psychotherapist for 25 years and now director of the School of Social Work at Adelphi University’s Hudson Valley Center in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. He is proposing a similar program at Adelphi.
Michael Martinez, the dean of student life at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, helped spearhead the Low-Income and First-In-Their-Family Assistance and Resources program, which offers low-income students financial assistance.
The colleges are hoping that by removing financial stresses, students are better able to learn and flourish at college.
“A stressed brain cannot learn, and a stressed brain cannot retain knowledge,” said Erin Shannon, a psychologist in St. Louis.
There are also social benefits College is not only about learning skills for a career but about socializing and exchanging views with people from other races, cultures and economic classes, Dr. Shannon said.
If students are holding down three jobs or can’t afford to join students for social evenings off campus, they’ll miss a big part of the college experience.
Ricky Sanchez, a 21-year old economics major at Haverford, became depressed when he couldn’t afford the plane ticket to Houston to spend Christmas with his mother, even though he had three jobs on campus — in the mail room, dining center and campus information desk. The program helped him.
“This program definitely helps students like me,” he said. “It’s tough sometimes making ends meet.”
Another Haverford student, Mercedes Davis, 19, was raised by her great-aunt in Philadelphia and was the first in her family to go to college. When she discovered her financial aid package didn’t cover many everyday items, she turned to the program to buy a raincoat and boots.
“It definitely took the burden off having to worry about what I was going to do when it gets cold outside,” she said. She also liked that the program was confidential. “It’s nice that it’s not broadcast to everyone that I needed these things.”
Costs for low-income students can be horrific — even for those with scholarships, student loans and other financial aid. On GoFundMe, about 200,000 campaigns have raised $88 million for college tuition and related education expenses since 2014.
“It’s one of the top five categories and probably the fastest growing category,” said Rob Solomon, chairman and chief executive of GoFundMe. “Hidden costs is one of the big drivers of these campaigns — there’s a lot of kids who fall through the cracks.”
One of the pioneers in such efforts was Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., which started its program about eight years ago.
About half of Williams’ 2,200 students receive financial aid, and this year alone the program will provide $60 million in need-based financial support, said Elizabeth Creighton, dean of admission and financial aid at Williams.
“Our goal is to relieve students of the burden of having to constantly ask for help,” she said.
Richard Locke, provost at Brown University, helped prepare Brown’s E-Gap (Emergency, Curricular and Co-curricular Gap) Funds, and its FLi (First Generation Low-Income) Center in late 2015 after hearing stories from students who were struggling financially.
“I was struck by it,” he said, adding that it brought back memories from his student days at Wesleyan University decades earlier, when he needed assistance despite having financial aid grants and scholarships.
“I remember feeling both lost and ashamed,” never wanting to ask for help, he said. (Mr. Locke graduated from Wesleyan, received a master’s degree from the University of Chicago and a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.) When he saw Brown students facing similar troubles, he said, “I thought, wow, that still goes on!”
In its first year, E-Gap Funds received more than 775 applications for assistance, of which 90 percent were approved, Mr. Locke said.
Mr. Locke said he expected more colleges to offer similar programs.
“We can’t fix the structural inequalities of American society,” he said. “But we can make sure that the students who we bring to campus — these incredibly promising students — don’t have barriers to their success, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”