Letter to the Editor: Financial aid was not developed to cater to the upper-class

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In Heena Srivastava’s recent opinion piece, the author outlines many of the obstacles students have when trying to afford college tuition, especially when they have siblings already enrolled in college. She argues that Northwestern should do more for middle-class students, noting how it has already done so much for low-income students with initiatives like the “20 by 2020” campaign or removing loans from financial aid packages. She describes how college expenses have risen faster than many things, including financial aid.
These are all valid points that reflect the pernicious effects of rising college tuition and the things NU has done to address them. However, her article makes several overarching assumptions that dramatically neglect the realities of the American economic landscape. Simply put, her definition of “middle-class” is out of touch with the new realities of American society, rife with booming income inequality and a dearth of social mobility. This makes her argument misleading, as she relies on a definition of middle class that does not reflect the actual American median income — something most Americans tend to do.

Last quarter, I took a course titled “Economics of Inequality and Discrimination,” where we discussed at length the rise of inequality in America and job polarization. Essentially, this means that without a college degree, one’s lifetime earnings potential is severely reduced, and changes in the economy have made it so many blue-collar jobs that once provided stable incomes no longer exist.

These changes have increased the income gap significantly. An app from The Wall Street Journal describes how wealthy one is compared to the rest of Americans based on income percentile. Earning $75,000 per year puts someone at the top 14 percent of income earners per this graphic, whereas $100,000 is the top 7 percent.
As you can see, most families in the United States are not earning anywhere close to $75,000 per year. While I do think it is unfair that a family making $80,000 per year has to pay more than half of that in college expenses, there are a variety of options available for loans and other funding sources that are more easily obtainable when one is higher-income. Historically speaking, credit is more readily accessible for this population, and students who are low-income may become victims of predatory loans easier than their wealthier peers.

Thirty-eight percent of students here at Northwestern don’t receive financial aid, according to NU’s Financial Aid Office website. The same website lists that yearly figure at just shy of $73,000. So, just to clarify, almost two-fifths of our school can afford to pay, annually, what around only 17 percent of the country makes per year. Having a wide range of income diversity at a school is not necessarily a bad thing. However, the hidden costs of college add up very quickly, and it can be ostracizing to have to stay in because you cannot afford going out with friends during the weekend.
I know that I have an EFC (expected family contribution) of $0, and I have worked since sophomore year to afford books and other necessary classroom supplies. Higher education has always been a conglomerate of privilege, whiteness and wealth, and many people on our campus who are low-income and/or students of color regularly feel left out of the larger campus culture. It is the duty of our higher-education institutions to foster inclusive environments where all students can learn, and while financial aid is one way of ensuring this transpires, it is not sufficient in and of itself to achieve this goal. Low-income students regularly under-attend prestigious universities, and as a Quest Scholar I know firsthand many of my peers feel ostracized at places like Northwestern even in spite of the tremendous resources available, like Student Enrichment Services or Northwestern Career Advancement. Every day is a battle for validation.

Students of all economic backgrounds should be free to pursue a high-quality education without the bondage of sticker prices. This is not to say that financial aid policies are fair to upper-income students, or that they necessarily account for all circumstances evenly. Certainly, they don’t. However, the primary focus of financial aid must be to increase access to institutions of higher education for low-income and marginalized students. There should be more organizations like Posse and Quest getting low-income students to apply to selective institutions, as well as more comprehensive oversight of financial aid policies so as to prevent scandals like what recently transpired at Howard University, where a student and several financial aid officers have been accused of embezzling several million dollars over the course of the last decade. This money was intended for low-income students, many of whom had to appeal their reward while money was fraudulently given out.

Students like me are already bearing the brunt of a complicated financial aid system, and institutions like Northwestern should use their resources to further support us.

Kevin Corkran, SESP ’18