Graduating Middle Class: Colleges’ Hidden Obstacles for Middle Income Students

Loves history and politics almost as much as Kurt Vonnegut novels.

Welcome to an idyllic, suburban town where the post-war split-levels block out the horizon. Sprawling villages full of modern McMansions on the outskirts of town give our region its affluent reputation. Yet, when I sat down with three high-performing high school seniors in our intensely competitive high school for forty minutes before one had to rush to his next AP class and the other two to their jobs at a nearby laboratory, “affluent” was anything but how they described themselves. Discussing application fees, Robin said:

“All of us exist in that middle income area where we don’t have that much disposable income that this is just chump change. I wanted to apply for a Common App fee waiver but because we exist in the middle, I don’t meet the threshold.”

How could this concern arise in a community with a $155,000 median income? It’s difficult to realize how extensively regional cost-of-living changes the meaning of money. In these students’ town, an average family of four to make $93,000 to accommodate all essential expenses. Nationally, that number — the poverty line — is $25,750.

In my discussion with these three students — Robin, Eric, and Dan — I hoped to elucidate how all high school seniors share concerns about the cost of college, even those who — according to the FAFSA — have it easy.

Advanced Payment Testing

In highly competitive schools like ours, there is tremendous pressure to take AP courses throughout all four years of high school. Students are told that the rigorous courseload bulks up their résumé for college and may count for college credit in the future. However, there’s no such thing as a free lunch and the many students whose colleges don’t accept AP credit are left with another financial obstacle to maneuver.

Unlike the majority of high schools, ours mandates that any student taking an AP course must register (and pay) for the AP test in May. While there is some (disputed) evidence that AP courses and especially AP tests boost college performance, the more students who sit for AP tests — regardless of score — boost the high school’s ranking. The students I spoke to were critical of this policy.

“I think what a lot of schools need to do is change their policies so it’s not mandatory for you to sit,” said Robin. “Yeah, that probably will hurt the school’s reputation but, as a student, I don’t care what our ranking is.”

All three of the students are feeling the blunt force of these payments as the payment deadline looms: Dan and Robin are taking six tests ($564) and Eric is taking four ($376). In addition to payments made in previous years, these current expenses are now coming amidst a flurry of college application fees.

The students were in favor of the school covering the cost of the tests, as is the case in other districts, especially if our school insists on enforcing sitting. Robin, Eric, and Dan all mentioned that the school should allocate more funds to financial assistance programs. They were critical of what recent, superfluous payments that they felt only served to superficially boost the school’s reputation — namely, a $25,000 laser cutter for the robotics team. That’s 265 AP tests.

Schools dictating our academic requirements may be somewhat draconian, but at least it is within their purview. It is another thing entirely for them to dictate our financial decisions without offering any semblance of a safety net.

“Band-Aids Don’t Fix Bullet Holes”

Having to pay up to $80 per application, Robin, who may be applying up to twenty schools, said, “It’s almost as if the more doors you want to get your foot in, the harder it is for you to go through the process because the more you have to pay.”

Being academically successful students, they all concurred with Dan’s desire for more schools to provide application fee waivers based on academic ability, saying, “If the schools see a prospective candidate, I wish they would make it easier for you to actually apply there. Otherwise that is just shutting doors for people who would get in.”

After paying the application fees, these students still have to pay for college itself. However, college financial aid structures will hardly benefit them. This precarious financial situation pressures the middle class find ways to game the system.

“I’m expecting a good amount of aid,” Robin said, “but I know it’s still not going to be enough to the point where my parents have tried to go through steps to make sure we get even more financial aid. They see the little tips and tricks that other people do in order to get as much financial aid as possible.”

These “tips and tricks” are part of an every person for themselves attitude that has been derided as “unethical” ploys by rich kids to get off easy. These students see them a necessary to afford tuition. The college process seems to be unfairly geared towards the rich, especially after the wave of admissions scandals involving celebrities that rocked the news earlier this year, but families in the middle are also left looking at lower income families, too, with envy. The current system fails to accurately communicate the financial security, or lack thereof, of middle income families. When you have a system that deems a diploma essential for any shot at a good life, but the vast majority can’t afford to obtain one without going into debt, you know the rich institutions that created the system are winning.

“I think that when people say the middle class is the ‘forgotten class,’ it’s colleges that especially forget about it,” Eric said.

“When I visit a college, they’re always like, ‘We help 90% of applicants who wish for financial aid,’ but then even if they give you five cents that still counts as aid. They can literally buy me a Nathan’s hot dog and that’s gonna be financial aid for my four years of attending.” Meat products aside, he continued, “They might give me $10,000 and that still leaves a large sum of money every year; $10,000 off of $70,000 is still $60,000.” That touched a nerve in the room. “Demonstrated need” has lost its meaning for these students.

“I’m a pretty good student,” said Dan, “so there are schools that I think I can get into, but there’s an even better shot that if I do get in, I won’t be able to go unless they give me significant amounts of money — which is really gonna stink because they see me as worthy of going there. They didn’t accept me with a caveat.”

A troubling trend, said Dan, is how colleges and universities have shifted funding previously allotted for merit scholarships to their financial aid pool. Schools like Tulane University have made this change in the attempts to be more accessible to low-income students, but Dan views this as the money he believes to be his only hope of affording higher education being shifted to a pool wholly inaccessible to him.

The only option left to the forgotten middle class is students loans. With a student debt crisis and a looming recession, the students were not thrilled to think this may be their future. Robin recalled a discussion with a conservative relative who conceded the only issue on which he could find common ground with the Left was on student loans, finding it ridiculous to have minors make a financial decision affecting the rest of their lives. As Dan put it:

“We can’t drink, we can’t vote, we can’t own a gun. But do you know what we can do? We can ruin our lives!”

Pupils Looking to the Future

To conclude our conversation, I asked the students if, at the end of the day, they still found their AP tests, college application and tuition fees, and all that jazz worth it. The answer was a resounding, “yes.” The high-performing, intellectually curious students want to further their education. But because of the hidden burden of being middle class, they know they will hardly get out alive.

All three hoped for a future where every student has access to an affordable education. But in the meantime, money-saving strategies such as attending community or state colleges instead of “elite” schools needs to be destigmatized. In a world beaten down by education’s high price, the cachet of the Ivy League and its fellow universities must be put on hold. Students wish to learn, not to be bled dry.