Caitlin Caldwell ’12 always dreamed of becoming a doctor. So when she learned she had been accepted to Brown University’s eight-year medical program, which includes both undergraduate and graduate education, she was ecstatic. But Princeton had offered her full financial aid. Without a credit history or a loan co-signer, the $2,000 annual cost she would have to cover at Brown made her decision easy: She came to Princeton.
Every dollar makes a difference for Caldwell, who was raised in a single-parent household in which she shared a queen-sized bed with her mother and three of her four siblings. Now majoring in computer science, Caldwell said she often thinks about her struggling family members, who regularly look to her for help.
Though she sought support from the University freshman year, the challenges of adjusting to an environment so different from the one she had grown up in were overwhelming, and Caldwell took a year off to re-evaluate her situation. She decided to become financially independent to take some pressure off her mother — who earns roughly $30,000 a year as a secretary — and paid rent to her financially strapped grandparents while working as a waitress in Dayton, Ohio.
“I never realized how much I didn’t have until I came [to Princeton],” Caldwell said. “Back home, I was fine eating peanut butter and jelly a lot, and I never thought other people did things differently. I was very sheltered.”
After returning to Princeton, Caldwell still worried about money every day, she said.
Several students from low-income backgrounds said they deal with financial concerns on a daily basis, explaining that though they are grateful for the University’s financial aid policy and work-study opportunities, transitioning to life on Princeton’s campus can be an ongoing challenge for those who may have difficulty paying for things that many of their classmates can easily afford.
Freshman year, one of Caldwell’s roommates furnished her entire room with furniture, a carpet, a television and a refrigerator. When that roommate asked her roommates to split the cost of cable service, which came to $60 each, Caldwell and another roommate from a low-income background initially declined. Caldwell, who ultimately agreed to pay, said she consulted with her RCA about these issues but added that the experience was unhelpful because her RCA was friendly with the roommate who asked to split the costs. Caldwell did not pursue the issue further.
Ana Gonzalez ’11 has always lived in a two-bedroom apartment — which is smaller than her current Spelman apartment — with her parents and two brothers.
Faced with Princeton’s popular but expensive eating club culture, Gonzalez said she decided to forgo joining a club so she could use the money for daily necessities and travel expenses.
“We are pressed for money, and my family needs things,” Gonzalez said. “I would rather [my parents] pour their resources into doctors visits and more urgent things.”
Though joining an eating club was not crucial for her, Gonzalez said, she hopes her younger brother might have the option of joining a club someday “without strings attached.”
For many students from low-income backgrounds, eating clubs, sororities and fraternities are out of the question because of the fees associated with these activities.
Steph Hill ’10, who receives financial aid from the University, said that though many of her friends joined eating clubs, she decided not to join partly because it reduced the amount her family had to pay to the University.
“It’s kind of hilarious that people think they’re entitled to [join an eating club],” Hill said. “I know that some people benefit from that, but I kind of thought that was like too much entitlement … demanding that everyone should be able to join like a golf club or a country club.”
Traveling home during breaks or going out with friends can also be significant concerns for students from low-income backgrounds.
“On breaks, [other students] can go home, and they can decide on any day when they want to go to the movies, but I have to wait till payday,” Caldwell said. “I have to plan things out months in advance.”
Caldwell and Carola Hernandez-Cappas ’11, who receives financial aid, both noted that they had passed on academic or service opportunities because of the extra expenses.
Last summer, Hernandez-Cappas was accepted to a program in Ghana and, though she received some financial aid, not receiving full aid played a major role in her decision not to go.
Still, Gonzalez and Hernandez-Cappas have found student groups on campus that allowed them to find a comfortable niche, they said. Both are members of Princeton Faith in Action, which they said provided them with an immediate community upon arrival at Princeton.
“In PFA, we have found a community where money doesn't matter ... I felt I had a place on campus right away,” Gonzalez said. “I was welcomed regardless of my jeans or who my dad was.”
At Princeton, Hill said, economic disparities are subtler since everyone lives in the dormitories, though she added that she notices differences occasionally when she sees clothing labels or when friends suggest expensive break trips abroad. Still, she explained, she sees no reason to complain, because she will be able to graduate debt-free.
“Sometimes it sucks to not have money, but on the other hand, that’s life,” Hill said.
Beyond social and extracurricular hurdles, students on financial aid may also have to deal with filing taxes and managing their own money.
Gonzalez, whose father is a janitor and whose mother is an airport customer service agent, said the difficulties faced by students who receive financial aid and therefore have to pay scholarship taxes motivated her to seek a more formal support network for low-income students.
Gonzalez said she has spoken to Associate Dean of Undergraduate Students Thomas Dunne on several occasions about forming an advisory group for students from low-income backgrounds. She said that they plan to meet with Director of Undergraduate Financial Aid Robin Moscato in the coming weeks.
Every year, Gonzalez said, she is expected to pay thousands of dollars in taxes to the federal government because aid received for room and board — money that is not being used toward courses — is considered taxable income.
When she spoke to the financial aid office, a counselor suggested that she write a letter to Congress regarding the issue.
“I’m sure the people who wrote this law didn’t realize they would be asking poor students who don’t have money for school in the first place to pay taxes on money they don’t see,” she said.
Caldwell said that the expected contribution from summer income has always been an burden as well.
“I have no way of earning enough money to pay for my education ... because I have to worry about food and like living and everything else. I never have enough money to actually pay my summer contribution. I wish that that was deleted for students on extreme financial aid,” she said.
Gonzalez added that, though discussing money is almost taboo on campus, she hopes Princeton will educate incoming freshmen about the taxes and support them by understanding all the financial strains placed on students from low-income backgrounds.
“It’s hard for students like me to be here,” she said. “We’re not just thinking about school, we’re thinking about money. We’re handling our own finances. We’re filing taxes. I think about students who aren’t on financial aid here … What’s life like for you? You don’t even think about your tuition or money. You just go do your Princeton thing.”
Freshman Scholars Institute
The University does take steps to help low-income students adjust to life on campus. Associate Dean of the College Frank Ordiway ’81, who heads the Freshman Scholars Institute (FSI), said that, in addition to students who are the first in their families to go to college or who come from less academically rigorous high schools, “students from low-income backgrounds are one of the principal groups we look at for FSI,” adding that there was “no simple criterion” in determining who is invited.
Caldwell, who was invited to attend, said she enjoyed her experience but found the courses “very, very easy.” Later, she said, she realized that nearly all of the FSI students who were not athletes were black. She questioned why black students from elite boarding schools such as Phillips Exeter Academy were invited to attend.
“It was very ghettoizing. It was like pointing a finger and saying, ‘Black people, unite!’ ” Caldwell said. “It’s not like I’m international. I’m American. I didn’t think I needed more help than another public school kid.”
Of the students interviewed for this article, nearly all were invited to attend FSI, and only Caldwell accepted the invitation.
Ordiway advises students from low-income backgrounds to seek help from their residential colleges or University support services and said that, often, students mistakenly think they are the only ones facing a difficult situation.
Fitting into the bubble
Grecia Rivas ’13, who is also from a low-income background, said she adjusted to Princeton by joining groups geared toward Hispanic students and not being afraid to ask for academic help. She added that she might have had a difficult time if she had not previously been exposed to affluent environments like Princeton’s through summer programs.
Rivas added that she plans to rush a sorority as a sophomore to participate in their charitable work and hopes to be able to pay the monthly social dues by taking a campus job next year. She also expects to join an eating club in her junior year.
Hernandez-Cappas noted that in most cases it is difficult to discern a student’s economic background.
“There are a lot of people that might not be from affluent backgrounds, but you can pretty much walk around and look like you are,” she said. “Unless you really know people, you might just assume everyone’s from pretty similar backgrounds.”
Caldwell said that though she has many friends and is active on campus, she sometimes feels that she doesn’t meet the stereotypical standard of a Princeton student and falls into a “pocket” of the student body that doesn’t fit into one group. These students, she said, may not enjoy their experiences as much as the average student.
“At Princeton, you have to be preppy. You have to wear boat shoes or dress in pastels at Lawnparties. You have to go to the Street. And if you don’t do these things, you’re not a Princeton student,” she said. “Here you’re put in a shape-shifting box where you have to shift yourself to make yourself comfortable in situations.”