I’ve begun to think that the University of Michigan community isn’t really defined by shared experiences, or sports, or “the Michigan difference,” or any of the other things people say it’s about. We talk about being a Wolverine like it’s something we all just choose to buy into — wear maize and blue, sing “Mr. Brightside,” go to Rick’s and you too can be the Michigan difference.
But underlying all this supposed togetherness and camaraderie is something that no one likes to talk about. We’re all here because someone pays our tuition. Someone, or some combination of people, is paying between $16,178 and $56,962 every academic year for each and every single one of us to attend this school.
It’s uncomfortable to talk about tuition. Especially if your parents aren’t paying it. There’s no hard data on what percentage of students are supporting themselves through college, but given the Ann Arbor campus has a median family income of $154,000 (over twice the median family income in Michigan) and a pervasive wealth culture, you have to imagine these students are few and far between.
But behind the high-rise apartments, the “daddy’s credit card” attitude and the wealth culture are hundreds if not thousands of students who struggle to attend this University. There are students at this university who feel like people from their socioeconomic backgrounds are invisible on campus.
As recent U-M alum Mattie Bowen described in an interview, “Most people at Michigan would be considered by most people in this country to be rich. And rich people really get uncomfortable if you tell them that you’re not rich.”
You won’t hear from any of these rich students in this story. They make up the majority of the student body, and their story has long been told. Here’s what the rest of us have to say.
What the majority of our study body doesn’t understand is that U-M financial aid is no guarantee.
LSA senior Trenten Ingell, a recipient of the Go Blue Guarantee, explained that his aid package would often be adjusted before the start of the academic year, factoring in more money from work study or loans. “There’s always a moment over the summer where they process things and say, ‘Okay, here’s what you’re getting.’ That’s never the thing that you’re getting,” he said. There’s something paradoxical about the “Go Blue Guarantee,” which is supposed to cover the cost of attendance for in-state, low-income students. But in actuality, there is no “guaranteed” support when the aid you do get is constantly fluctuating and students are burdened with more loans year to year.
Bowen went as far as to call the Office of Financial Aid “one of the major stressors” of attending the University — just another bureaucratic entity with no real means or care to lessen the financial pressures on students. Public Policy senior Arron McDonald, who relies on a combination of scholarships and unsubsidized loans to attend the University, recalled that the Office of Financial Aid was often willing to point him to resources and outside opportunities, but unwilling to actually increase his aid or revisit his package.
What rich students don’t talk about is that — at our age — you can’t feasibly take your financial situation into your own hands. Small changes in your family income or your earnings can dramatically reduce your aid. Thus, trying to sustain yourself becomes a tricky roulette that could completely turn your financial aid package on its head if your earnings reach a certain threshold.
At one point in college, Bowen said she worked five jobs to support herself. She was a research assistant, a grader and a telescope operator for introductory astronomy courses, and she also worked for multiple programs designed to support underrepresented students and Native American students on campus.
But no good deed (or in this case, hard work) goes unpunished. She recalled that the Office of Financial Aid “tried to tell me that, because I had worked incredibly hard while being a full time student and made $18,000 in one year before taxes, … two years later my expected contribution (to my tuition) should be $20,000.”
LSA junior Renee Boudreau, who described her financial aid package as “very generous,” said she avoided applying for merit-based scholarships because she knew it might reduce her aid.
These sorts of scholarships can often mean losing grant money for financial aid recipients — leading to a net loss in funds. Merit scholarships have long been criticized for rewarding students who are already wealthy. “Merit” often becomes a proxy for access and privilege. Students who have exceptional test scores or have excelled in extracurriculars are more likely to come from wealthier families. Merit is, quite literally, bestowed on those who can afford to have it.
Making money hurts you, but getting money from the University hurts you too. Students who rely on financial aid to pay their tuition are left in a perpetual state of uncertainty, as budget changes and tuition adjustments each year mean that the level of support you can expect is a complete and utter gamble. You’re at the mercy of the University’s highly calculated fiscal agenda. Your time as a Wolverine becomes one expensive and chronically malfunctioning ticking clock.
It would be an oversight to write about tuition without being transparent about my own financial situation.
The question of how I would afford college was basically all I thought about my senior year of high school. My parents weren’t going to help me (and probably couldn’t even if they wanted to), but our family income was just a bit too high for me to qualify for the Go Blue Guarantee. With financial aid and family support unavailable, I was left with just one dreaded option: loans.
I cried in January when I got my financial aid package from the University of Michigan. My estimated out-of-pocket cost was far beyond what I would be able to earn, even if I managed to work full time during school. While my high school classmates were searching for roommates and celebrating their admissions decisions, I was breaking out into stress hives from constantly worrying about debt. I spent Friday nights alone in my room, hunched over my computer and my eyes glassy from hours staring at a screen, researching loan forgiveness programs, average starting salaries by major and scholarship programs.
And then in March, I got an email. At first, I thought it was a scam because my name was misspelled as “Hayley.” It wasn’t — I was being invited to interview for the Stamps Scholarship, one of the few full-ride scholarships offered by the University. This, of course, ushered in another round of crying and stress hives and panicking and researching.
I was trying to discreetly text in class during AP English when I got the notification: an email from the Office of Financial Aid. The scholarship was mine; my entire cost of attendance would be covered by the University. And, as expected, I cried again.
So when people ask me about tuition or affordability, I’m not quite sure what to say. My situation is very different from students who are taking on loans or paying their way through college, but I don’t think my scholarship invalidates my working-class background or lack of familial support. I have enough aid to be comfortable during the school year. But, once summer rolls around, that familiar financial stress comes right along with it as I panic about how I’m going to pay for two leases: one in Ann Arbor and one in the San Francisco Bay Area.
There’s something about financial stress that stays with you. On a logical level, I think I’ll be okay until I graduate, but the anxiety never really goes away: the constant fear that an emergency will drain my savings, the voice in my head reminding me that if I fuck up I have no one to fall back on, no one to pay my rent, that the financial aid office will change my scholarship’s award package (which they’ve done before, without notice) or do something and I’ll have no way to continue attending this university.
What rich students don’t understand is that many of the experiences that are “normal” on campus are very much not normal. Most Americans don’t have two parents that attended college. Most Americans don’t have a passport. (I’ll never forget someone asking me if I was “on a list or something” my freshman year when I told her I didn’t have one.) Most Americans can’t afford a $1,000 emergency, which is less than the cost of a Canada Goose jacket.
All of this can leave low-income students feeling alienated from their peers.
Bowen echoed this sentiment. “They were able to do things like take time off during the summers … they could travel internationally, or go on really luxurious spring breaks or things along those lines. And I couldn’t do that,” she said. In college, when she couldn’t afford to go shopping or go out, Bowen would “just go with them and watch.”
Eventually, students seem to divide themselves along financial lines, creating distinct subsets of campus that, despite attending the same university, can experience college very differently. Boudreau found herself naturally gravitating toward other low-income students when she began looking for off-campus housing.
“Because we went into housing with similar budgets, I ended up (living) with people with similar financial situations,” she explained. For Boudreau, finding other low-income or working-class students was a net positive — she and her roommates were able to plan an affordable Spring Break trip together, giving her the opportunity to have one of those “typical Michigan experiences” that’s often out of reach for low-income students.
Nevertheless, there’s something troubling about the way Ann Arbor forces students to stratify themselves by social class. Whatever gap existed between rich students and working-class students seems only to be exacerbated by Ann Arbor’s infamously expensive rental market.
What rich students need to understand is that these issues are bigger than them, but inextricably connected to them.
I don’t think anyone wants to see other people struggle financially, especially when you’ve experienced that hardship yourself. For many low-income students, an honest acknowledgment of privilege is all they wanted from their peers.
Boudreau said she “wouldn’t wish the stress of being that poor” on anyone, but also admitted she “feel(s) some resentment when people who are supported by their parents don’t have to work as hard or talk about not having money.”
Similarly, Bowen said she just wants rich students to “learn how to use their privilege to at least be compassionate, if not benefit, people who don’t have that luxury.”
Other students, however, viewed their financial struggles as being indicative of larger problems in higher education.
Ingell still wants rich students to try to understand issues of access and affordability but emphasized that the issue was much larger than individual students. “Tuition is going to keep on increasing until we have a system where we don’t have to charge for it,” Ingell said. To him, the fight for affordability was really “a political struggle.”
McDonald, who transferred to the University of Michigan from Michigan State University at the start of his junior year, saw affordability as a problem that wasn’t specific to the wealth culture at the University of Michigan. “My situation (at MSU) was a lot worse than it is here,” he said. “Ann Arbor is obviously an expensive city, but I still have those same struggles here that I would have had at MSU.”
That’s the hard thing about talking about affordability — it’s a systemic problem that students experience on an individual level. Resenting rich students doesn’t do anything to solve the student-loan crisis or combat rising tuition, but students who depend on financial aid have limited avenues to combat these issues.
I don’t know what the right solution is. Like Ingell, I believe that free tuition is a start, but many of the issues working-class students experience on campus cut to deeper issues — access to opportunity, generational wealth, navigating higher education to name a few. Higher education as a whole has an affordability problem, but what’s unique about affluent institutions like the University of Michigan is their wealth culture problem.
I don’t think that rich students have any illusions about just how expensive being a student here is, even if they’re not paying. But I believe that many wealthy students would struggle to see the wealth culture on campus in the way that working-class students do. They see no problem because they are part of the problem.
That, to me, is the most important thing that rich students need to understand.
Statement Columnist Haley Johnson can be reached at email@example.com.