Wealth of aid contradicts assumption

John Dony column

While working this summer at my lamentable job — Blockbuster Video, if you must know — I discovered that being a Northwestern student is not without its stigmas. And I don’t mean the stigma of having a giant, inflatable, robotic … thing … bouncing around at football games.

I mean the stigma of wealth.

Whenever I told someone that I went to NU, the conversation immediately turned to matters of money. “How do you deal with all the rich kids up there?” they’d ask me — knowing that I obviously wasn’t one of “them,” as I was looking like a tool for $8 an hour.

The more it came up, the more I thought about it. The majority of the people that I know at NU are receiving at least some financial aid, be it in the form of loans, grants or a work-study award. Sure, I’ve met and known some students who seem a little confused when you tell them that you don’t have a summer house. But I also know people who are on a full ride, people on the opposite end of the economic spectrum from the wine-and-brie folk. Not that I have anything against wine and brie. Mmm, brie.

Cheese fantasies aside, I checked out some figures provided by the Office of Financial Aid and learned that roughly 45 percent of all incoming freshmen are determined to need aid. The average amount for these incoming students is $22,515 — a serious amount of cash.

Additionally, those needy freshmen are joined by another 15 percent who receive aid regardless of having been judged financially secure; in other words, three out of every five students on this campus are getting some help from the university. Hardly the Hamptons that NU is portrayed as.

But the stigma remains, Associate Provost Rebecca Dixon told me in an e-mail. “Yes,” Dixon wrote, “we do encounter disbelief sometimes when we describe our robust financial-aid program and the economic status of our students.” At least I’m not the only one who has to hear about it all the time. But the “why” remains elusive.

“People just assume private institution students are ‘rich’ because they see all of the advantages a campus such as ours has: new buildings, outstanding faculty, well-maintained campus, technological advances (and) cutting-edge research,” Dixon added.

This is a valid argument, but I don’t think these are the only reasons. “The average income of our students and that of students at a major public (institutions) such as the University of Illinois may be nearly the same,” Dixon wrote. If so, it can’t just be the shiny new buildings and fast computer networks that are creating such a prejudice. Illinois has many of the same amenities as NU, in addition to many accomplishments in research.

Maybe the equating of private with snooty is still being held over from the earlier half of last century. Maybe people just hate purple. Whatever the reason, one thing is clear: People’s perspectives need to change. Because if I go back to Blockbuster for Winter Break and hear the same things over again, I’m liable to charge someone some wicked late fees.