The Ivy Coach Daily

April 25, 2024

What Is It Like to Be a Low-Income Student at an Ivy League?

Students sit on the Low Library steps at Columbia University.

When low-income students are admitted into Ivy League schools, they can expect to graduate with higher earning potential, a strong network of friends in high places, and a world-class education that will take them far in life. But once they step foot onto campus, many of these students quickly realize that their peers have had a running start. Between elite prep schools, expensive tutoring services, exclusive extracurricular opportunities, and professional advantages provided by parents, the children of the rich are primed to seamlessly transition into a life on campus that in many ways mimics their upbringings. Low-income students, on the other hand, often go through a period of culture shock before campus begins to truly feel like home.

Are “Need-Blind” Admissions Enough for Low-Income Ivy League Students?

First generation/low-income (FGLI) students should by no means be discouraged from applying to Ivy League schools. While “need-blind” admissions is a myth perpetuated by elite universities, it is still true that Ivy League schools offer some of the most robust financial aid packages in the elite higher education sphere, with most providing students below certain income thresholds with full-rides. But these schools are still overwhelmingly composed of high-income students. Data suggest that only 19% of Ivy League students are Pell Grant-eligible, as opposed to 40% of all college students across the nation.

Admissions policies in the Ivy League create student bodies that are stratified between clusters of rich and poor students, making middle class students a rare find. This creates an environment where low-income students struggle to stay afloat in a sea of incredibly affluent peers. Many of these students feel the need to immediately familiarize themselves with the status indicators and behaviors that distinguish them from everyone else in order to blend in. However, when push comes to shove, many friend groups stratify by income level. While richer kids are off in social clubs, eating at expensive restaurants, or traveling, their poorer counterparts can feel isolated.

Class Privilege Manifests in Many Ways on Ivy League Campuses

Low-income students have to demonstrate immense intellectual chops to get into their respective schools, but they may not be as well-versed in the subtle quirks that allow prep and boarding school kids to excel academically. Elite high schools train their students in the art of speaking in seminar-style classrooms, writing in the particular style of academic journals, and making use of academic support resources. Students who lack this background often have to learn these intricacies through trial and error as they make the already difficult transition to college life.

These growing pains take a psychological toll that adds to the burden these students already carry. Many choose majors that lead to lucrative careers and work jobs when they’re not in class to support their family back home, diminishing time for intellectual exploration and self-discovery. These challenges can be magnified when a student is from a minority group.

Finding Community as a Low-Income Student in the Ivy League

This may sound like a bleak picture, but Ivy League schools can still provide accepting and fun communities in which FGLI students find a home. Many Ivies have FGLI programs that bring low-income students together, and for those who are interested, private social clubs on campus often have financial aid programs to subsidize dues payments. It gets easier to navigate socioeconomic differences the longer one spends time on campus, and seeking out the company of upperclassmen who share one’s background is a great way to learn the ropes. Sometimes, certain student organizations, events, and campus locations are hubs for FGLI community, even if they do not appear to be at first glance. 

Community is out there, but low-income students must demonstrate the same ambition and resourcefulness they used to apply to Ivy League schools in the first place to find it once they are there.

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