Affording NU: Northwestern pushed for low-income students to be on campus. Now it’s time to actually care about their experience

Allie Goulding, Digital Managing Editor

In this series, a writer explores the everyday struggles of being a low-income student at Northwestern.

Three years ago, Northwestern announced a new initiative to have 20 percent of the entering class be Pell Grant-eligible by 2020 and to increase “access for academically qualified students, regardless of their economic background,” as the press release stated. They accomplished that goal two years early with the entering class of 2022.

The University has said this is one of its top priorities, announcing publicly its progress and success with the goal. But if Northwestern is going to push to have low-income students on campus, the University needs to actually do more for them when they get to campus.

For the past three years, I have struggled as a low-income student on campus. At times, it felt like no one was listening to my concerns. I felt like I couldn’t keep up with my peers. And I especially felt that the University did not care about me, my struggles as a low-income student or what help I needed to succeed in comparison to my higher-income peers.

This quarter, specifically, I have been preparing for my photography Journalism Residency at the Tampa Bay Times this spring.

For JR housing, the recommended options are usually Airbnb, short-term leases, subletting or finding alumni to stay with. But in St. Petersburg, Florida, the only viable option for me was Airbnb — which required either full payment or the first month up front. I certainly didn’t budget for a third of next quarter’s housing to be taken out of my financial aid refund from this quarter.

Luckily, I knew who to talk to about this: JR director Karen Springen and Interim Dean Charles Whitaker, two faculty members whom I formed connections with in the past. While Springen initially pointed me toward an emergency short-term Northwestern loan, it is only available for $500 and must be repaid within 60 days — nothing close to what I would need for my first payment of $1,375.

I brought up the issue to Whitaker, and he immediately talked to Beth Bennett, the Medill associate dean who helps with finances for the school. Within about three weeks, they had a solution for me: Medill would back a short-term loan of up to $1,500 for me, and they would use this model going forward.

Three weeks is an incredibly short time when it comes to changing University policies. But Medill did it. So why can’t Northwestern, as a broader institution?

The University needs to follow suit immediately. It should not have been on Medill to correct this situation. In fact, the Office of Undergraduate Financial Aid and Office of Student Finance could have helped me with this issue further. Before Medill worked out the details of backing a loan up to $1,500 for me, I reached out to Financial Aid, and they asked me to provide an itemized budget. However, when I listed $500 for emergency expenses, the office told me I needed to use that money as part of my housing payment. As a low-income student, these funds are some of the only funds I have to fall back on if something serious were to happen with my health or my apartment.

Disregarding this, Financial Aid told me the advancement and $500 emergency loan was all they could do for me when, clearly, they could have done more.

This situation is all too familiar for students like myself. Not only do we have to justify our spending and our situations every single time we ask for assistance, but often times, we’re told that what we need “isn’t possible.”

There are several individual offices already working to help with those situations in which low-income students are basically told no. Student Enrichment Services — an office that is barely five years old — has created a winter gear closet, laptop loan program (now run by the library), the SES One Form (a catch-all application for numerous scholarships and opportunities), and so much more. Northwestern Career Advancement started a closet of business casual and business-professional attire for students to borrow. And now, Medill has created a precedent for students in need of financial assistance before their JR quarter.

However, the responsibility of assisting low-income students should not have to fall on these individual offices, departments and schools. On the University level, Northwestern needs to do better. Each school and administrative department was told to cut spending due to the budget deficit, and several offices are already working with small staffs. These offices and the individual schools were not the ones that created an initiative to enroll more low-income students at Northwestern, but they are the ones dealing with the result of this. And it isn’t fair.

There are just a few objectives Northwestern could tackle at the University level.

1. Devote more resources to established programs. It shouldn’t be on individual offices to create programs and initiatives to help solve issues that span the entire Northwestern population. But since these programs already exist through SES, NCA and some of the schools, the University should fully support and fund them. This includes Books for Cats, the winter gear and professional attire closets, and opportunities listed on the SES One Form.

2. Properly staff the SES office. The University should expand the offices — specifically SES — that started the programs intended to help low-income students, ensuring that the programs can continue and improve. The SES office, as the only office on campus dedicated to low-income and first-generation students, lists only four people on its staff page, one of whom is a volunteer. That’s not nearly enough to handle the increase in low-income students on campus due to the 20 by 2020 initiative.

3. Improve the physical space dedicated to low-income students. Right now, the SES office is housed in Foster-Walker Complex. It’s extremely difficult to find (though SES has put up signs to help with this). The University should not hide some of the only resources designated for low-income students. This office should have a prominent spot on campus, similar to the Black House or Multicultural Center.

4. Make resources and extra aid processes easy to navigate. I’ve been here long enough to figure out resources and make connections that might help me, but many new students haven’t gotten the chance yet. These resources are spread out over numerous individual offices and programs — not streamlined and organized on the University level — which makes it extremely hard to navigate them. Because low-income students are statistically less likely to ask for help, these students may never find the resources they need to survive on this campus.

There is so much more Northwestern could do on their end to ensure low-income students have a worthwhile experience on this campus. Offices like SES would not exist if it weren’t for student-driven requests for more low-income resources. And by not taking the initiative to create University-wide programs and processes to help low-income students when they arrive on campus, Northwestern clearly has shown they do not actually care about low-income students. They simply care about maintaining a “good” public profile by setting and meeting goals, such as the 20 by 2020 initiative.

Don’t get me wrong — I love that Northwestern created this initiative to enroll more low-income students on campus. I think it is incredibly necessary. But the University needs to do more to support these students. Northwestern pushed so hard to meet this initiative before the set goal of 2020. They should push just as hard to ensure that low-income students, once on campus, can have the same experience as everyone else.

Allie Goulding is a Medill junior. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.