Poor Students at Columbia Take Their Angst Public, and the School Responds
A group of low-income Columbia University students launched a Facebook page last week that offered an unfiltered lesson on what it’s like to be poor and attending one of the most expensive schools in the country.
Since it was created on March 22, more than 260 students have posted to the page, Columbia University Class Confessions, many to share stories about balancing classes with earning a living—or in some extreme cases, scrounging money for meals. Mandeep Singh, a senior and co-president of Columbia's First-Generation Low-Income Partnership, the student group behind the page, says its purpose is to highlight the reality of life for students who may be paying their tuition with help from the school administration and have little left to spend on survival in New York. More than 1,700 people have liked the page in a little over a week.
The page is similar to other so-called confession pages that have become popular among college students in the last few years: pockets of Facebook on which students anonymously share everything from their hatred of dining hall food to struggles with depression. While other college confession pages have typically invited a free-for-all, accepting submissions from all students, Columbia's focuses on the experiences of low-income students and students who are the first in their family to attend college. The struggles this group faces, Singh says, aren't well understood by administrators and wealthier students.
At Columbia—where the cost of attendance was $66,604 this academic year, according to the university—14 percent of students were the first in their families to attend college, and 16 percent received federal Pell grants, government aid meant for the neediest students. Due to its sizable aid packages, Columbia was called one of the most economically diverse top colleges in the U.S. by the New York Times.
The recent stream of Facebook revelations showed, however, that even with financial help, some members of the Ivy League school's small group of poor students still felt isolated from other students. "Even though the university's site boasts how diverse Columbia is, this institution wasn't necessarily created for first generation students, low-income students, and people of color," Singh says.
Several students said they have not always known where their next meal will come from: "Breaks when the dining halls are closed are really hard for me because I don't have the extra money to buy food so I go hungry," one student wrote in a post. Another talked about feeling alienated from wealthier peers with a different perspective on money. “I was standing in the pasta line at Ferris, when I overheard two other first-year students behind me talk about how terrible the food at Columbia is,” one student wrote, referring to Ferris Booth Commons, one of the school's dining halls. “I come from a low socioeconomic background, so the food I am used to eating usually comes from a box, a can or McDonalds, so I didn’t think Columbia’s food was bad. Then one of the two students says something along the lines of ‘This food is probably amazing for poor kids.’”
A university spokesperson declined to comment on the Facebook page. Other university officials said Columbia offers its students various forms of support, including an advising center, workshops, and events directed at the needs of students who are first in their families to go to college, as well as a new peer mentoring program.
“Every Columbia student arrives on our campus with his or her own unique background and experiences, all of which contribute to the rich fabric of our diverse campus community,” says Monique Rinere, dean of advising for Columbia College and the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science. “Our goals are to guide and support each student in whatever ways that he or she needs.”
The posts aren't checked for authenticity, but a spokesperson for the First-Generation Low-Income Partnership said almost all the people who recently visited the submissions page had used either on-campus Wi-Fi or a second New York-based network to do so.
The posts are numerous and compelling enough that Toni Airaksinen, a freshman at Columbia sister school Barnard College who moderates the page, says she has received dozens of messages from students asking how they can help peers who need a meal or a place to crash for a few days.
"It's been striking to see, not just how many people identify with the page, but also the number of people who want to help," Airaksinen says.
Columbia University officials are reading, too. Airaksinen says she and the First-Generation Low-Income Partnership have met with school officials to discuss the page. "A lot of administrators have been really stricken and concerned by the posts," she says. She and other students have been categorizing the confessions according to the issues they address—such themes as hunger, housing, and financial aid—and organizing meetings to propose potential fixes to common issues that include keeping the dining halls open during school breaks and allowing students to share their meal allotments with peers in need.
Airaksinen says she has received positive feedback from both her peers and the administration, and the page has grown fast. Perhaps more important, it has shed light on a group of students who struggle with more than studies.
"It's been a shocking moment for a lot of people," says Singh. "If anything, I think that's really reflective of how much this dialogue was necessary at Columbia."