Lower Income at Vassar: Vassar and Opportunity

I'm writing this article about being a lower income student at Vassar, but it's not something that I'm doing easily. It's not difficult because I'm one to shy away from speaking or writing about social class. It's because as a quite privileged, formerly middle class, white, suburban dwelling male, I don't consider myself the most fitting person to write this article. And yet, I feel that it's important to share my story. Despite numerically being one of the students on a large amount of aid -- about $59,000 this year -- I'm still in a better situation than about 25 percent of Vassar students who receive Pell Grants. There is often a lack of voice to lower income college students, usually a voice is given to the students with extensive resumes, wealthy families, etc, not someone from a currently struggling, formerly solidly middle class family, or lower class families in general. Most often, the story of a lower income student is told by those in a position of privilege, to the tune of an article written by someone you can tell really doesn't understand what it's like to be a low income college student, not the actual lower income students themselves. I feel that it's important to share this to encourage others to do the same, to show that it's not only the wealthy and powerful at schools like Vassar, but people of much more modest means.

I'll begin with a bit of background about me. Near the end of my freshman year of high school, I came home to find my dad sitting at the kitchen table, something markedly unusual considering he worked about 2 hours away in New York City, and it was only 2:00 pm. He had just been let go from CBS, an unexpected event that now means even more to me than I thought it would then. Up to that point, we were a decidedly middle class family, some would even say upper middle class. My dad has yet to find consistent employment, over four years later.

My story could have ended tragically, like the many that proliferate the media, with $100,000 in student debt. But Vassar allowed me to receive a top-tier education for around the cost of community college. Had Vassar not had faith in me, or had such a firm dedication to need-based aid, I potentially wouldn't have had the opportunity to attend a residential college, or if I had, I would have assumed an immense debt load. With the encouragement of my family, I took the initiative and decided to apply to as many schools which met 100 percent of demonstrated need as I could, as I wanted to be make sure I could attend school without accruing enormous amounts of debt. I ended up choosing Vassar in part due to their extremely generous financial aid.

Once I began college, though, I realized that being a lower income student imposes certain hardships that don't affect many wealthier students. Luxuries like frequent trips to the city, regularly patronizing relatively expensive local restaurants, and many other miscellaneous expenses add up quickly. These color the college experience a bit, not in a negative way, just making the experience different, and less luxurious than many fellow classmates' experiences.

Due to my fortune of being raised in a middle class family with consistent income, I was able to experience the benefits of a middle class lifestyle for many years, but with that changing I've had my viewpoint about the world and about opportunity change dramatically. With the benefits of being middle class still lingering, such as going to a relatively good suburban high school, having some money in a college fund, being connected to people who have high paying jobs, having personal savings, etc., I'm in a sort of limbo. My family has very little money to contribute to my education, and I have to be very careful about how I spend, but I'm not that worried about the day-to-day costs of attending college (i.e. I do, unlike some close friends of mine, have money to buy my textbooks), something for which I consider myself immensely lucky. That said, I realize that I need to ensure that I conserve as much money as I can, as I don't know what the future holds, especially considering that my dad might not find consistent employment, and we might end up in a far more dire situation. Given the bizarre mix of circumstances, I am at a point where I feel both the effects of being a low-income student, but also having the background of being a middle class suburbanite. I'm very grateful that Vassar gives me the opportunity to connect to people of diverse backgrounds and socioeconomic statuses. The connections and knowledge that I'll have when I leave Vassar are things for which I will be eternally thankful.