“Sixty thousand dollars a year for this?”
It’s common to hear this joke at university events with free meals or entertainment. Someone inevitably makes a sarcastic comment about their “tuition at work,” with the underlying assumption that every student is paying the $68,500 fee to attend Tufts in the 2016-2017 academic year. Yet for many students, including myself, this tuition is more than one or both of their parents’ annual salaries. The unspoken truth at Tufts is that many students can’t afford to be here, and that can seriously impact one’s Tufts experience.
In the 2014-2015 academic year, a little over 40 percent of students received financial aid of some form, whether from the federal government or Tufts itself. According to Patricia Reilly, the director of financial aid at Tufts, the university ensures that every admitted student can afford to attend.
“Tufts meets 100 percent of the calculated financial need of every accepted student, and promises to continue to meet full need for four years,” Reilly said in an email. “Our goal is that our need based financial aid program will allow every qualified admitted student to be able to afford to attend Tufts, regardless of their family’s financial situation.”
Dakota LeRoy, a sophomore studying Computer Science, doesn’t believe that Tufts responded to her family’s financial need with enough assistance. Dakota’s mother is going back to school, and her father is in and out of employment. She wrote in an email that her family still struggles to pay for her to attend college, despite the costs defrayed by Tufts.
“Tufts definitely makes it possible for me to attend, however, I will have debt when I graduate and my parents have to make drastic lifestyle changes in order to afford tuition year to year,” Dakota wrote.
Reilly explained that the university has launched programs to try to respond to the calculated need of families like Dakota’s. She described the Financial Aid Initiative, started by President Monaco in 2012, to raise $90 million in scholarship funds. After concluding in June, the initiative had surpassed its goal and raised $95 million.
Life at Tufts is more than just academics, and many students have limited access to social experiences on campus because of financial restraints. Moreover, conversations about how socioeconomic status affects students’ lives are rarely had.
“There’s definitely a sense of misunderstanding,” said Tim*, a Tufts senior majoring in International Relations. Being on financial aid doesn’t make you lower class or poor.”
He described his frustration at some of the misconceptions towards students receiving scholarships. As there is no real conversation surrounding financial aid on campus, this misinformation may stem from a lack of understanding as to how many people are receiving assistance.
“It’s not something people talk a lot about,” said Charlie Zhen, a sophomore whose tuition is almost entirely covered by the university and grants from the federal government.
“I need to schedule my life around shifts at work,” Charlie explained, adding that his financial situation precludes him from going out on weekends with the same regularity as many of his peers. Charlie has a wide range of commitments on campus: in addition to working at the Campus Center, he’s the office manager for the Leonard Carmichael Society and a TCU senator for the Class of 2019. He is also a tour guide and participates in the Chinese Students Association, Tufts Dance Collective, and the Tufts University Social Collective Entertainment Board.
While his financial situation clearly hasn’t inhibited his involvement on campus, Charlie admitted that some extracurriculars such as sports or Greek life are inaccessible to him, given the expenses that often accompany these groups.
Dakota was forced to drop out of Greek Life because of the expensive dues. “From attending tuition hike rallies to dropping my sorority because nationals forces out students who cannot afford dues, I feel monetary pressures in many ways,” she said. “Leaving campus, paying for campus events, or making plans with more affluent classmates, I constantly feel restricted by the number on my bank account.”
Madeline, a junior majoring in Peace and Justice Studies, expressed the same frustration at having her social life inhibited by financial limitations, and further by the lack of acknowledgement on campus that many students come from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. “I am not in a position where I can ask my parents to borrow money for a ski trip or a trip to the Loj or whatever and I obviously can’t pay for it myself,” Madeline said. “I don’t even like going out to dinner.”
Charlie also expressed an inability to eat off campus regularly, saying that he needs to be “wary” about going to restaurants because of his financial situation.
The cost of other living expenses can also impact the student experience. As a sophomore, Charlie worries about paying for housing next year. He has already had to purchase a smaller meal plan because meals at Tufts are so expensive.
“Breakfast doesn’t exist anymore,” he shrugged.
Madeline said that she can “barely afford” to live off campus, as her rent this spring will be $875 a month. If she lived on campus, however, she would be separated from her friends; this creates a cost-benefit analysis of living that students who aren’t receiving financial aid never have to make.
For students like Madeline, sometimes maintaining a social life precludes financial efficiency. Staying connected to friends can require spending more money, whether through off-campus housing or going out on weekends. It’s a difficult choice between saving money and social isolation. “Just thinking about it stresses me out,” Madeline confessed.
The students also spoke about their inability to accept unpaid internships due to financial constraints. Madeline was upset to pass on numerous opportunities over the summer, taking a paid retail job instead.
“Internships have become a necessity in university, but a huge privilege for those who can afford to take them, as so many of them are unpaid,” she explained.
Dakota also discussed her limitations in accepting internships, as compared to other students who can afford to be more exploratory in their career decisions.
“I have always accepted low-ranking paid positions in areas neither affiliated to my major nor that I am interested in simply because I need to be paid, whereas my more affluent peers are able to explore a more creative job search,” she said.
The experience of a student on financial aid is complicated by other aspects of identity, such as race and gender. Madeline is a first-generation American, and she talked about the pressures she faces from her family to succeed, as well as the judgments she faces from other students at Tufts.
“I’ve been told before by a White male student that he, in his words, ‘basically owns me because I pay for your tuition,’” Madeline said. Moreover, he made this comment without even knowing that she was on financial aid—it was based on her skin color alone. She described her anger at feeling as if she is “sub-human” in the eyes of her peers, as if she “owes” something to those who pay the full tuition.
“It’s disgusting, it’s degrading, and too common for my comfort,” she said.
Charlie spoke about the difficulties that students of color on financial aid face at Tufts. He said that an operative difference between race and class is visibility. “You’re not walking around with a money sign on your head,” he said. “With race, it’s much more obvious.” Because of this, Charlie believes that he is more often judged based on race, not class.
The students also spoke about how receiving financial aid has affected their friendships. On one hand, Tim said that he has had the same social life as most other students.
“I’m not aware of differences in background,” he said about his experiences when hanging out with his wealthier friends, although he acknowledged that he can’t afford to go on trips over winter or spring breaks like some of his peers.
However, Madeline painted a different picture, explaining that the gap in experience between her and her wealthier friends became too much to bridge.
“My friends who are not supported by financial aid don’t have to do this. They don’t have to buy groceries for their family,” she said. “They don’t have to take care of their siblings financially, and sometimes even their parents.”
Charlie spoke of the “little things” he wished people realized about his background, such as why he has to work so many hours per week.
Madeline also described some of the aspects she wanted people to understand about the financial aid experience, such as choosing between buying textbooks or food. There’s a difference between what she called “college-broke” and “broke-broke.”
“I wish they knew the stress and anxiety that comes with constantly worrying about your financial stability,” she said about wealthier students on campus. Regardless of the university’s initiatives to raise funds for scholarship students, Madeline was unimpressed because of rising tuition costs.
“I wish they knew just how horrible Tufts’ continuous hiking of tuition costs is and how damaging it is to us, especially with their lack of clarity as to why this institution needs more money,” Madeline said.
This financial strain has also affected Dakota. “There is much to the Tufts price tag that is not included in your SIS bill,” she wrote. “It saddens me to think of the silent struggle the socioeconomically disadvantaged minority feels while navigating life at Tufts.”
*Name has been changed by his request