A State of Inequity
The real story of financial aid at Tufts
Disclaimer: This piece is no way exhaustive of the variety of experiences that students on differing amounts of financial aid face at Tufts.
“About 40 percent of Tufts students are financial aid recipients and 12 percent receive Pell grants. We award more than $80 million in financial aid to undergraduate students each year and Tufts meets the full demonstrated need of all admitted students, regardless of citizenship, for all four years.” Halfway through the Diversity page on the Undergraduate Admissions website sits this paragraph. For the many who’ve passed through the gates of this school and hopefully, for the many that are yet to come, these words spark hope.
It seems incongruous that the same institutions that have historically preserved socioeconomic hierarchies offer us the prospect of escaping these very hierarchies. Soon, this gives way into fleeting dreams of a near future where we will be emancipated from the socioeconomic circumstances we were born into. You and I read that paragraph and dared to tell our stories of aspiration, persistence, and intellectual aptitude, to prove to Tufts that we are worth the money they are losing out on and to further fortify our strive for class mobility.
Fully aware that the standards for our acceptance are different from ones for our future peers (Tufts is not a need-blind institution), we try not to get ahead of ourselves, as the financial aid offered may not be enough. Whether you receive federal aid money, Pell grants, or asked to take out loans, there exists a good company of us whose ability to afford our place here hangs on a thin thread. We justify the risks to our future by believing in the institution’s promise to value the socioeconomic diversity of our presence. With this promise comes expectations that there will be no more staggered starting lines between us and those of fortunate backgrounds. While our enrollment allows Tufts to boast about their diversity, our equitable participation and inclusion in scholarly and campus life seems to be out of step with these promises.
While for some it is complaining about how filthy Lewis is, or how Latin Way and Wren’s fire alarms go off once a week, for rising juniors on significant financial aid, these complaints center around being pushed out of the housing lottery, representing a grim concern. The housing lottery remains blind to students’ financial ability to afford rent in one of least affordable neighborhoods in Massachusetts. This displacement from campus seems to bother very few.
Under the promise that existing financial aid obligations will cover the expense of off-campus housing, students are billed for $8220 of support for nine months of the school year (September–May) which averages to $913 per month. A Google search for single room rents around campus would give you a fair idea of how “comprehensive” that amount is; unless you feel that students from lower socioeconomic status should congregate in the more squalid residences you’ve passed over or live more than 20 minutes off campus. Once a suitable dwelling is found, after having avoided brokers and seemingly illegal broker fees (kudos to NYC for criminalizing it), you’re asked to fork out amounts ranging from $1000–$3000 for security deposits and first and last month’s rent—most of which is inaccessible since next year’s aid doesn’t kick in until September and your family just paid their Estimated Family Contribution (EFC) for the year. This is the amount they believe your family can allocate for college expenses during that given year. There’s a reason they’re paying that EFC, given there isn’t a lot of disposable income left to throw around after that. If there was, Tufts would take note and elegantly extort it.
Most leases run for a year and Tufts’ financial support leaves out three months of summer. Three months during which you’re either bound to find stable work to support your lease or win the lottery of finding a subletter from the small pool of students doing summer courses or internships, while also competing with wealthier leaseholders who undercut your rates. The decisions around where to live, when to sign the lease, who you live with, and what you’re allowed to do during the summer have radically different considerations in these two worlds. It is an unnecessary overhead cost to time, energy, focus, and personal freedom, the impacts of which may never seem visceral enough for petitions or protests. Although, this inertness may be because of our own efforts to feel included in the community when the efforts of Tufts admin are absent.
On the issue of equitable participation, the idea of work-study as a precondition of our attendance stands out the most. For those who’ve never seen those two joint words listed on their SIS eBill, here’s an explanation: for a given Cost of Attendance, Tufts calculates your EFC. As for the rest, Tufts ‘meets the full demonstrated need of all admitted students’ and decides on ways to cover that bill. For most students on financial aid, the portion of the bill that your family doesn’t pay has work-study allotted, which for simplicity’s sake is like a scholarship unlocked via on-campus work. Tufts or the federal government subsidizes the wage payment from employers.
Depending on how tight your financial aid package is, this work-study money may be crucial to your ability to afford Tufts. For some of your peers, working an on-campus job isn’t a choice. Rather, it is intrinsically linked to their ability to afford anything outside of the purview of the Tufts eBill. Regardless of how one feels about working during the semester, the necessity to hold a job, and allocate time, energy and dedication to hours of work, inevitably shape our lives on campus. While some find themselves unable to pursue certain clubs and interests, others skip out on taking that extra class they would’ve liked to try out. In principle, this isn’t a facilitation of equitable participation in scholarly life, and it mostly remains unprotested. After all, this is an opportunity, and it already feels like we’ve been given so much. You don’t tend to feel entitled to a lot when your entire presence is a result of generosity from donors.
An Incessant Reminder
The ability to push your identity to the back of your head while inhabiting a space is also key to feelings of inclusivity. However, if the space requires you to constantly be cognizant of who you are and where you come from—whether it be nationality, race, gender, sexual orientation, and in this case socioeconomic class, then the conditions around you demand that this identity be used as a form of defense or justification. This projects into all the occasions where you and I have had to ask for special considerations or accommodations for things taken for granted by the majority at Tufts.
For example, let’s consider books and access codes. When it comes to access codes or a required book that isn’t at one of the Tufts book-lending services, at a cheap price or available at all during TCU-Book Exchange, available online (even at LibGen), and there exists one or two copies at the library (yes, let’s make the underprivileged fight for it the night before an exam) you are reminded again of your circumstances beyond Medford. Whether it be speaking to the program coordinator for scholarships when taking instrument lessons or filling out a TCU Student Assistance form when signing up to go to certain extra-curricular conferences, these daily tasks ensure that your economic status remains intrinsic to your presence at Tufts. Most of us operate through a plethora of such moments without being too fazed; after all, there is much at stake and our lives prior to orientation week haven’t left much space for a weak resolve.
Tracing each of these discrepancies between Tufts’ promise of inclusivity and the lived experiences of students from the many underrepresented backgrounds, one could ask the question: for whom has student life at Tufts and other private elite schools been constructed? When the default pupil is assumed to be one from privilege, measures of equity for those without it will always fail to catch up. The way forward involves a restructuring of student life at universities—one where the student body’s least advantaged are truly free from the foreordained circumstances of their birth.