Filling the Financial Aid Gap

Filling the Financial Aid Gap

Filling the financial aid gap for first generation/low-income college students is one of the major challenges elite colleges and universities face today. Traditional financial aid packages typically cover tuition and room and board. But traditional financial aid packages often do not include expenses for day-to-day life at college. To fill the gap, first generation/low income students often find work on- or off-campus. Do these jobs have an impact on the first generation/low-income student undergraduate academic performance? Do first generation/low-income students feel marginalized with regard to becoming full members of campus academic and social life?

Consider the following scenario:

  • Student A: Parents pay full tuition and also provide a credit card to cover day-to-day expenses. Prospective economics major.
  • Student B: Parents pay nothing and also provide no spending money. Financial aid package includes 8 hours a week at a federal work-study job. Prospective economics major.

Here is what a first generation/low-income student at an Ivy League university told me when pondering the scenario.

Let’s say these students have the exact same academic and extracurricular load. Assuming Student B does not want to take out loans (reasonable) and holding all else equal, there is simply no way these students will achieve at the same level. That is: Student A has weekly time available equal to 168 hours. Student B has weekly time available equal to 168 hours – 8 hours spent at his student job = 160 hours. The figure 168 is 105% of 160, so basically, Student A has 105% of the time available that Student B has. Barring extenuating circumstances, I would expect (and you should too) Student A to achieve about 105% as much in his undergraduate career as Student B.

This equation is so simple that I cannot believe financial aid offices have not yet accepted it as part of their decision-making. The only conclusion a financial aid student can draw is that the Office of Financial Aid does not value his scholarly success as much as that of a wealthy student. Perhaps it has something to do with a twisted idea of “fairness,” the demand that low-SES (socio-economic status) students somehow continue to “earn” the privilege of an elite education, even after their application has passed the admissions test. Perhaps you can see why I and so many other students have felt, and continue everyday to feel, that we are not actually welcome on elite campuses.

Decades ago a university education, especially at an elite institution, was almost exclusively for students from wealthy families. Times have changed. But many policies and practices of universities are frozen in time. It is time to envision new ways to address the financial aid achievement gap.



Karen Collias

My name is Karen Collias and I founded Knowledge Without Borders™ to infuse creativity and innovation into the most salient educational issues affecting global contemporary society. I attribute my enthusiasm to cross the borders of traditional knowledge domains to the multi-disciplinary nature of my education and professional experience. The first in my family to go to college, I have a Ph.D. from Columbia University. My professional experience focuses on interdisciplinary research, teaching, and strategic thinking at a variety of institutions, including Princeton University, the Smithsonian Institution, and the U.S. Department of State. I currently am crossing borders to write about creativity and innovation in education and philanthropy.



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