Last academic year The New York Times published an article showing that 77 percent of students at Tufts come from the top 20 percent. That means that most students come from families making at least $100,000 per year, which is $40,000 more than the median national household. Though the economic disparity at Tufts is stark, those from the wealthier 77 percent often don’t even realize how vastly their Tufts experiences differ from students who rely on financial aid. Overworking, stressing about monthly payments, running up against closed doors, sacrificing meals, sleep and social life to make their education work for their family are just a few of the roadblocks that low income students at Tufts experience as a part of daily life.
Bethany Kirby, a junior on the First Generation Student Council and a QuestBridge scholar, lives this reality every day. Though her QuestBridge status means she is supposedly on full financial aid, even with the scholarship she is still required to pay an annual sum towards tuition. These “family contribution” payments come straight from Kirby’s own earnings. She works as a program assistant for Jumpstart, works night shifts at Tower Café and lives in a first-year residence hall where she’s on the clock as a community development assistant.
Kirby holds these three jobs on campus in order to pay for her education, but she still remains uncertain of her future throughout each year, as she has no way of knowing the amount of money Tufts will charge her for the next semester. So far, throughout her three years as a student, the amount she is expected to pay has increased every year.
“I have three jobs on campus,” Kirby said. “Still I’m always in a limbo wondering if I can come back and, if so, how many loans I’ll have.”
Tufts sophomore Michelle Delk echoed similar experiences. Delk comes from a lower class Virginia family and relies on financial aid. Like Kirby, she has had to overcome hurdle after hurdle in order to remain enrolled as a student on this campus. Delk’s mother, a single parent supporting three children, suffered a brain tumor during Michelle’s senior year of high school, leaving her out of work for months, while balancing additional health costs due to a previous hip replacement surgery.
When Delk received her acceptance letter from Tufts, the university offered her a decent financial aid package compared to the other schools she applied to, so she seized her opportunity to attain an elite education at a leading liberal arts university and enrolled. Matriculating as a first-year, Delk would have to pay $8,225 to Tufts by the end of the year, and with her mom working to support a younger brother at home, the burden was hers alone to bear.
The first week of her first year, Delk got a job working at J.P. Licks. She spent 35 hours a week behind the counter and often worked long closing shifts, having to clean sometimes until 1 in the morning. She reflected on her struggle, saying, “I remember, not being depressed but, not being in the best mental state because I took all that responsibility on myself.” Having to keep up with a monthly tuition bill weighed on her constantly. Getting home late at night to Tilton, Delk spent nights after her J.P. Licks shifts scrambling to keep up with her academic workload, losing sleep and often sacrificing opportunities to see friends and socialize on the weekends.
With her mental health taking a back seat, Delk’s grades suffered. “A professor once told me I should quit my job because it was taking away from school,” Delk said. “I told her I can’t do that. I can’t stay at Tufts if I quit. So if I have to work harder then tell me I have to work harder but I can’t stop working — I can’t pay to be here if I don’t do this job.”
Delk’s experiences of feeling alienated, overworked and defeated by an institution working against her are not uncommon for students on financial aid at Tufts. Sophomore Daniela Sanchez is facing a similar struggle with her aspirations to study abroad, yet another experience that differs greatly for low income students compared to those with class privilege. Hoping to continue her studies in Russian and theater, Sanchez attained a scholarship for a prestigious program at the National Theater Institute in Moscow. Financial aid doesn’t transfer to non-Tufts programs, but with the absence of Tufts programs offered in Russia, for Sanchez this is the only option. As with many scholarships, there remains a cost that the student must cover.
For Sanchez, that cost amounts to $16,000, which is three times her Tufts annual tuition bill. Reflecting on how she’ll come up with money her family does not have, Sanchez said, “It’s hard to be at an elite institution where everyone can take advantage of the opportunities around them, but you are told to just be content that you’re here. It’s like, even when we get let in we are still falling behind everyone else.”
Kirby hopes to study abroad in the spring, too. She has been accepted to the Tufts program in London, but even with her financial aid transferring, expensive travel costs and emergency funds must come out of pocket. “This year I’ve had to pick up more hours to be able to pay for the hidden costs of abroad,” she said. Kirby must work over 20 hours on top of classes to make sure she has enough to pay for her flight home and other expenses while she’s away. Because she is having to save for next spring, fall semester tuition has taken over her budget, leaving little room to send funds home to her family, where Kirby’s income goes towards rent and supporting her two younger sisters.
On top of saving up for tuition, students on financial aid can encounter constant financial barriers when it comes to class supplies, extracurriculars or other opportunities designed for Tufts undergraduates to take advantage of. Kirby expressed her frustration: “I wanted to take the EMT class, but that’s a lot of money. And music lessons are a lot of money so I am not able to pay for them either. None of the classes with extra costs are accessible to me as far as I know and if there are funds available to us, I haven’t found them.” According to the class description on SIS, students who sign up for the Emergency class must pay an additional $1,000 lab fee for the semester.
This is the frustrating reality for most low income students at Tufts and across elite universities in the United States. The promise of equal opportunity, need-meeting aid and a college experience comparable to that of wealthy classmates is often an empty one. Universities prioritize prestige, corporate connection and endowments over accessibility while students on financial aid face the physical, emotional, financial and academic consequences of our broken system every day.