Beyond the Numbers: The Challenges of Low Income Students at Wealthy Schools



Negative $27. For the first time in his life, Daniel* came face to face with a bank statement of less than zero. He stared fiercely at the computer screen glowing in his lap, as if he could will the tiny black minus sign to disappear.

Although money has been a constant worry for Daniel during his four years studying communication design and marketing at Washington University in St. Louis, many of his peers cannot fathom the possibility of zeroing out a bank account.

Washington University has long been criticized for its lack of socioeconomic diversity, with many citing its need-conscious admissions policy as a barrier to low-income students. On July 30, the New York Times referenced Washington University as having fewer Pell Grant recipients than other colleges similar in resources and endowment size. Yet with 39.9 percent of full-time undergraduates receiving some kind of need-based financial aid averaging $31,295, not all Washington University students live without financial worry.

“When at the end of the day I think, ‘What am I really stressed out about in life, what really is going to matter?’ That’s the true monster under the bed,” Daniel said.

Researchers at Georgetown University found that only 14 percent of students at the most competitive schools come from the bottom half of the income bracket. Moreover, most high-achieving students in the lowest quarter of incomes do not apply to any selective universities, according to a 2013 Brookings Institute study.

However, the challenges for low-income students do not end after they overcome the odds to be admitted to a top-tier school. Often, first generation college students or students who are leaving home for the first time do not know what to expect once they arrive on campus. Upon being thrown into an unfamiliar culture and exposed to more wealth than ever before, adjusting to college life can be a challenge.

“Last year was really tough in terms of the culture shock,” said Sloane Wolter, a sophomore from O’Fallon, Ill. studying psychology and spanish. “There’s just so many things about the school that I felt like I didn’t really belong. People had assumptions about standards of living that didn’t apply to me. I did kind of feel like I had to hide certain things about my background.”

On a full need-based scholarship, Wolter struggled academically and socially as a freshman to find her footing at Washington University, but vowed that sophomore year would be different. She decided to become more involved in Cornerstone’s TRiO program, a Student Support Services Grant program funded by the U.S. Department of Education that targets first generation, low income, and disabled college students. After her acceptance into the TRiO Leadership Program, Wolter found a community among other TRiO students.

“By no means are TRiO students any different from other Wash. U. students from an academic [ability] standpoint,” Ashley Gilkey, diversity in retention coordinator at Washington University, said.

TRiO students are different, Gilkey clarified, because of their extra financial burden, which can affect their academic performance. TRiO was founded in the 1960s based on the understanding that low-income students face specific economic, social, and cultural barriers to attaining undergraduate degrees that other students do not.

“I can fully concentrate on my studies and not worry about if I can pay my tuition or rent,” said Ben Lewis, a senior from Naperville, Ill. studying physics, acknowledging the difference in his experience as a high-income college student.

Other students are not always so lucky. Even with financial aid or scholarships entirely covering tuition and housing, low-income students’ funding can still fall short.

For Alexa†, a low-income junior from Texas, money plays a role in determining which opportunities she decides to take advantage of outside of the classroom at Washington University. Finances will influence her decision to apply for a volunteer trip abroad this summer, something which could affect her application to medical school. It also was a factor in her decision to join a sorority.

“Yeah, you have a meal plan, but do you have snacks in your room? Do you have the means to get home over break? That’s what comes into fully supporting a student,” Gilkey said.

The TRiO program tries to fill these financial gaps for students by subsidizing necessities not covered in traditional financial aid packages, such as lab fees, textbooks, and tickets to student performances for cultural enrichment.

However, for all the help TRiO provides to Washington University students, not all students who need TRiO’s services can receive them. At Washington University, 800 to 900 students qualify for TRiO, but only 200 of them can be selected for the program.

“That means there are about 600 to 700 students walking around this campus who don’t have the opportunity to get the support and services we can provide,” Gilkey said. “And what about those students who make one dollar over that mark? They have the same needs but they’re going unaddressed.”

As Daniel exasperatedly stared at his negative $27 balance, it was easy to wonder if he was one of the students Gilkey was referring to. Because he is unable to qualify for a full scholarship, half of his tuition is paid in loans which he will have to pay back after graduation.

Daniel clicked through the Wells Fargo screens to find the last charge on his account. Thirty dollars at a Walmart in St. Paul, Minn. His mother must have borrowed money from him again to pay for groceries, despite his warnings that he had already spent his student loan for the semester.

The charge drew his attention to all that he was sacrificing and risking by pouring money he does not yet have into his education. Money that might otherwise be used to pay for food for his four siblings.

“I’m putting it all on the line basically,” Daniel said. “Because if I screw up, then I’m indebted to Wash. U. for the rest of my life.”

* Preferred not to give his surname.
† Name has been changed for publication.

Victoria Sgarro

Victoria Sgarro is a junior studying Comparative Literature in the College of Arts & Sciences. She can be reached at

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