Dollars and sense: The cost of university life

Safiya Merchant

When McCormick sophomore Aleisha Matlock needed a new slip for an outfit, she headed to Urban Outfitters. But even in the clearance section, a slip at Urban Outfitters still cost $30. Even though she thought the price was “crazy,” she purchased the slip anyway. A few days later, she returned it because she didn’t have enough money in the bank.

“I don’t think a lot of people [at Northwestern] go flat broke like I do,” Matlock said.

According to surveys filled out by incoming freshmen from 2002 to 2007, the percent of Northwestern freshmen whose parents make an annual income of $250,000 or more has increased from 19.8 to 26 percent. On the other hand, only 3.3 percent of freshmen came from household incomes of $40,000 to $49,999. For both low-income and wealthy students, this income gap is difficult to both navigate and overcome.

Matlock lives with her mother in Gary, Indiana. Her mother, who is an auditor for an insurance company earned a pre-tax income $18,000 in 2009. To help her afford her education, Northwestern gave Matlock a full-ride scholarship.

Despite the advantages of having free tuition, Matlock admits that her financial status prevents her from experiencing some of the activities that other Northwestern students are able to afford.

“I can’t get up and go shopping with my friends. I have to plan how I’m going to budget my money,” she said. “On spring break, I can’t take a road trip.”

Matlock says she “uses her work-study to live.” Her only source of money for personal expenses comes from her job at the Norris Student Center. Unlike many students, she wishes she worked more hours.

“I’m used to working 30 to 35 hours, bringing home $300 checks. Now, I work 7 hours,” she said.

When she first arrived at Northwestern, Matlock felt misled by people who considered themselves broke because they actually had a considerable amount of money. According to Matlock, one of her Mexican friends always said that all minorities, including himself, are broke. However, she remembers how every time she saw him, he was dressed in something new from designer brands like Lacoste, Gucci or Louis Vuitton. He also liked to surf the Internet for Armani shirts.

Matlock also notices students who are given work-study but don’t find any jobs. When it was the first day of school or at least Wildcat Welcome Week, she said, she went to Norris, stating that she needed a job immediately.

In Matlock’s opinion, one major example of the economic inequality on campus is the assumption that everyone owns brand-name clothing, like Coach and Longchamp bags. Although Matlock admits she would like to own these things, she knows that her limited earnings do not allow her to purchase them. She says she would only be able to afford these items if she “saved for a long time.”

Although low-income students do make up part of the Northwestern student population, she feels that this amount is often underestimated.

“[My friends] are more cautious talking about money around me. Being at Northwestern, there’s just an assumption that you have money. I don’t think [wealthy students] are aware we’re here: the broke people,” she said. “There’s a lot more broke kids than they think there are.”

Like Matlock, Medill freshman Maggie Flynn has to budget her money. The Pennsylvania native states that even though her father makes around $50,000 as a teacher and school custodian, his salary still needs to be distributed among eight children.

Although she used to get frustrated when she couldn’t buy everything she wanted as a little kid, she soon learned that making frivolous purchases was unnecessary.

“I don’t buy anything unless I absolutely need it,” Flynn said. “Just buying something on an impulse is something you shouldn’t do if you pay money for it and only wear it once.”

According to Flynn, the $20 that her siblings and she would each get from their grandparents for their birthdays would be their only spending money. If they wanted candy, the Flynn siblings had to pay for it themselves. Before purchasing her first iPod touch with money she earned from her job, she used to use a “really crappy CD player that [she] had to bang the bottom of to make CDs work.” Currently, her family does not have cable television.

“My parents don’t like the idea of 24 hour stuff going on,” she says.

As a family, the Flynns go to the movies about once a year, and they only have one desktop computer, which provides challenges in an increasingly technology-based world.

“It makes it interesting when we all have homework to do,” she says.

Still, Maggie claims, her family always figured out a way to have fun. For Christmas, one of their family traditions includes driving around neighborhoods, looking at the light displays.

“I told somebody else about [our Christmas tradition] and she said, ‘What? You actually do that? That’s so cute,'” she said. “Why was that a weird thing?”

Like Matlock, Flynn’s only source of money is her work-study job at Phonathon. She admits that she feels guilty for making her parents pay for her tuition and transportation. However, next year, when her sister goes to college, it’s very possible that she will be paying for every single aspect of her college education.

“The way I see it is I won’t be able to go to a place like Northwestern for nothing. If you want to get exactly what you want, you have to work for it,” she said. “At one point, my dad said what you do for work, there’s no shame in it.”

One student who lies at the wealthier end of the Northwestern economic spectrum is Weinberg junior Lisa Mithun. Both of her parents are doctors. Her mother has an annual income of $150,000 and her father makes $400,000. Just like how they paid for her sister’s education at Stanford University and her brother’s at Brown University, they are covering Lisa’s education at Northwestern completely.

But just because Mithun lives comfortably doesn’t mean she doesn’t have to worry about money.

Her parents give her $1,200 a month for living expenses. But once she pays the $800 rent for her off-campus apartment, groceries and the combined costs of utilities, gas, water and Internet service, she doesn’t have much money left for actual personal expenses.

Mithun’s social experiences are where she encounters the most economic difficulty. Because her friends are mostly wealthy, they are able to afford $40 cab rides to Chicago, going out to dinner every night, buying expensive drinks for everyone and renting limos and bars for their birthdays.

“For someone like me, [money] still does limit what I can or can’t do. You don’t want to seem stingy, but you can’t buy drinks for everyone. People equate that with you not liking them,” Mithun said.

Ever since coming to Northwestern, Mithun admits that she often has to ask herself if certain activities and her refusal to do some of them will make her look stingy. She thinks that money is one of the reasons why some students went their separate ways after freshmen year. Since some people could afford certain activities and others couldn’t, the friendships broke because they couldn’t share the same experiences.

Although she thinks that Northwestern does have more class diversity than many people believe exists, Dr. Celeste Watkins-Hayes, Associate Professor of the Departments of Sociology and African American Studies, says that participation in certain Northwestern activities does rely on wealth.

“The most privileged activities and the campus groups that yield the most power on campus tends to cost money, like how people run for elected office or joining a fraternity or sorority,” Watkins-Hayes said.

Some ways that Northwestern can achieve more economic diversity, Watkins-Hayes said, is to create opportunities for those on the bottom, creating more programs in the community, and “aggressively thinking how to diversify your student body so you can have more class difference.”

The sacrifices run a li
ttle deeper for Weinberg sophomore Emily Kaht. Her mother, who used to be a teacher, now works at Richardson’s Corn Maze. Her father is an auditor for electrical companies. She has four siblings, one of whom goes to St. Joseph’s College in Indiana. In her opinion, her parents always did more than they were obligated to because they paid for gymnastics, cross country, and track for their kids.

Her work-study job is extremely important to her, and she could never afford some of the things that other Northwestern students can afford, like fancy dinners and flying home for one weekend.

Despite these activities, Kaht says that Northwestern helps make enjoyable events affordable for all students. Events like Dillo Day and concerts that cost only $5 or $10 “makes it seem more equal.”

Unless her sister receives a pole-vaulting scholarship, she will probably have to go to community college for the first two years since her parents cannot afford tuition for three children.

“I don’t think she really cares. She doesn’t know what she wants to major in so community college makes more sense,” she said.

Associate Provost Mike Mills also recognizes that Northwestern needs to diversify its student population economically. Some events that have helped create this diversity include the addition of Northwestern to the Questbridge Scholarship program, the federal government’s increase of Pell grants last year and Illinois’s provision of the MAP grants. Northwestern also measures many factors, including who makes up the study-abroad student group and the types of majors that low-income students pursue, to make sure that low-income students are not excluded from any opportunities that the university provides. He does not want any student, no matter what minority group they belong to, to be seen as the “sole spokesperson of their group.”

“I remember always fighting against feeling resentful for having to work and hearing kids talk about all the exotic things they’ve been doing,” Mills said.

For students like Matlock, Flynn, and Kaht, their current economic status does not define their future. As Matlock said, “I’m not going to be here forever. I’m on the right track transcending this.”