Priced out of College: Middle-Class Struggles

By WILEEN GENZ

Middle-child syndrome is one of the most recognizable phenomena in families. Parents thrust responsibility upon the eldest while indulging the youngest. As a result, the middle child is neglected. 

Similarly, in the world of elite colleges, increasing attention to the disparities between the dynastically wealthy and the underprivileged has left the middle-class students who form the backbone of American society feeling ignored. 

Defining a universal household income that qualifies one as middle class has been intentionally vague due to differences in household size and cost of living across the U.S., and to help politician sell “tax cut for the middle class” policies. Based on the Pew Research Center 2016 data, though, middle income ranges from $47,661- $148,279 in 2019 dollars. The upper middle class (top 20%) constituted a narrow margin of $148,280–$158,870. 

However, other sources based on economist Stephen Rose’s research have also capped the upper middle class to as high as $370,700 in 2019 dollars. This considerable distinction between the subsets of the middle-class differentiates college students who receive significant financial aid as opposed to those who do not. For households that earn just slightly above the upper middle class threshold, financial aid often barely covers room and board. 

Without violating multiple etiquette principles such as directly inquiring about Colorado College students’ financial matters, I was able to glean from conversations with my peers that their parents are overwhelmingly composed of high-salaried doctors, lawyers, and CEOs, with a small portion on the other end of the spectrum who hold various low-paying occupations. 

Data from the highly publicized 2017 New York Times study on economic diversity at Colorado College indicates that 78% of students are from the top 20%, while 10.5% are from the bottom 60% (<$65,000). Ignoring the overlaps in subcategories of middle-class income, this means that only 11.5% belong to households that make $65,001–148,000, which is not representative of the general American college-bound population. Additionally, the struggles faced by this population when they do attend these kinds of institutions remain largely unheard. 

Of course, there are more complex forces at play when determining financial aid packages, including whether the parents are divorced, have multiple children in college, household size, and so on. Shannon Amundson, the director of CC’s Financial Aid Office, cautions against displaying sample financial aid packages as public information. She states, “What I found, very quickly, in my first year was that they are misleading and families put too much stock in them and are angry and disappointed when their package doesn’t match that information.”

But Amundson provided the Integrated Postsecondary average net price for the federal income brackets. From 2014–17, the average net price of CC for families with income from $48,001–$110,001 has risen faster than it has for the lower and higher income brackets. 

As an ostensibly upper middle class student on paper, just barely past the threshold, attending a private liberal arts college meant receiving little financial aid. While the Financial Aid Office was under the impression that I was well-off enough to afford CC, investing hundreds of thousands of dollars over four years felt like being demoted to a lower-tiered lifestyle. Unlike families who are so high up on the socioeconomic ladder that they might as well buy the stratosphere, paying off that e-bill statement meant making sacrifices. 

Illustration by Wileen Genz

I was fortunate to have parents who were willing to give up certain luxuries. But there are so many students in the same financial situation whose family is unable or unwilling to do the same, which means turning down a school like Colorado College.

When my parents and other middle-income families have to keep up with home mortgages, property taxes, utilities, transportation, a cocktail of insurances, and other expenses for survival, that imparts a considerable strain to the living situation. And doing all this in New York City, where costs of living are noticeably higher than other areas in the U.S., it felt nearly impossible.

In some ways, Colorado College has performed better than other peer institutions in minimizing extra cost for students, with free printing, laundry, campus-events, and MicroFridges in every dorm room. However, beyond books, flights, and meals, the aspects that make the college unique are also what exacerbate the socioeconomic disparities, such as block breaks and blocks abroad. With my seemingly healthy financial status comes my ineligibility for financial aid on blocks abroad, Ourdoor Recreation Committee trips, or certifications. 

During my study abroad, I worried about paying for my next meal, while the other students were either wealthy, or full-ride and received an extra $1,000 in need-based scholarships for travel expenses. During my first year at CC, I was stripped of work-study privileges since the Financial Aid Office claimed they had provided me with more than sufficient funding.

I’ve managed to pay each semester’s bills on time, thanks to my supportive family, but we need to address these overlooked students whose parents cannot or do not to support their children’s education, and are thereby denied the opportunity to attend the institution of their choice.

Universities are driven by the belief that only low-income students need assistance. I am aware that the college’s $765 million endowment only stretches so far; however, the college could prioritize financial aid above capital projects that aim to elevate the profile of the college and thereby raise its U.S. News ranking. Additionally, campus-facilitated conversations on socioeconomic diversity should raise awareness for middle-class identifying students who feel their financial need is unmet.

With graduation quickly approaching, I will soon pass out of the college bubble and step into the real world filled with exciting prospects. But I’m sensing that reality is more along the lines of an entry-level job that pays significantly less than a private university’s tuition, a credit score mired by loans as I eventually pursue further education, nagged by the feeling that maybe I should have gone to Vanderbilt University, which offered me more aid. Until institutional change happens, all I’m asking for is some sympathy to this neglected middle class.  

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