Bobby Allyn left his small blue-collar town of Plymouth in northeast Pennsylvania to attend Ithaca College in fall 2006. His high school guidance counselor told him that with his father’s income as a machinist and the cost of a private institution, Ithaca might not have been the best fiscal choice for him. But his father did not want to hear that and insisted that his son become the first in the family to receive a college degree.
By second semester, Allyn said he couldn’t find a social niche. Though he said he did meet other students from working-class backgrounds, the majority of students he met were from lifestyles he never experienced — students who grew up in affluent suburbs reading the New York Times and vacationing in Europe, a significant difference from the local community newspaper he read and the vacations his family took to Wild Wood, N.J.
“Everyone I met at IC was well-traveled, had parents who attended prestigious universities and were well-read,” he said. “They made me feel uncomfortable. Coming to a private institution was more of a culture shock than I anticipated.”
Attending a private institution, like the college with its $32,060 tuition this year, may have once seemed like a dream for students from working-class backgrounds. But with financial aid programs and a rise in Pell Grants, more students have the opportunity to attend private institutions. The struggle for a private college education, though, doesn’t stop at the payment of the tuition bill.
At the college, 1,289 students receive a Pell Grant, a need-based grant that is given to low-income students whose family income is typically under $20,000, Larry Chambers, director of student financial services, said. This is an increase from the 1,010 students who received Pell Grants in 2008-09 and the 978 who were awarded them in 2006-07. Chambers said the Ithaca Access Grant, the Ithaca Opportunity Grant for ALANA students, the IC Higher Education Opportunity Program and the W.G. Egbert Grant Fund are also awarded to students on a need-based scale.
Freshman Haedn Hogan, a first-generation college student whose single-parent mother works as a teacher-aide in Buffalo, N.Y., is one of the 1,289 students at the college who was awarded a Pell Grant this year.
Applying to colleges was difficult for Hogan. She said she felt as if she was on her own, not knowing what to do. She said her mother always stressed that Hogan and her older brother should attend college but didn’t know how to motivate them. Hogan’s older brother attended community college for a semester before dropping out.
Hogan said she was friends with students in high school who came from families with two college-educated parents. She said being friends with students who were going to go to college made her want a similar life — one that did not include struggling to pay bills.
Allyn also felt lost in the college search as a high school senior and did not have much help from his parents or from his guidance counselor. He said if he had more time in college, he would have created a student organization that focused on first-generation college students remaining in school.
“There’s scholarships for ethnic minorities and disadvantaged minority groups in the country, but there’s not any focus or efforts, campuswide and nationwide, to target students who are entering college for the first time,” he said
For Hogan, tuition is not an extreme worry because she received a large financial aid package and is also taking out about $10,000 in loans each year. She does worry, however, about paying for books each semester. But what Hogan finds to be the most challenging is keeping up with the expensive social life at the college.
“Things you do to have fun and make friends here is expensive,” she said. “All my friends here want to go out to eat, to the movies or to go shopping. When we go out, I have to be really stingy, but I see a lot of kids who don’t have to worry about money. It’s the social aspect that costs so much.”
For Hogan, her first year at the college has made her realize not everyone comes from a working-class background like she does.
“There’s one girl in one of my classes that went to boarding school and drives a BMW and wears Gucci,” she said. “I sometimes wonder, the kids that don’t get financial aid, how do they afford to go here?”
Allyn said when at Ithaca, he felt like other students didn’t have the same worries he had, such as paying for tuition. He said most of the friends he was making were able to drop money without even thinking about it.
“They would take things for granted that were a shock to me — even just going out to eat all the time to Moosewood,” he said. “I would say I can’t afford that, and they would just say, ‘Can’t you get a loan from your dad this weekend?’”
Besides the issue of money, Allyn said he felt as if he came from a different world than his peers.
“I’m not trying to disparage students who have trust funds or have traveled around the world with their parents,” he said. “It was all just completely abnormal and foreign to me.”
Paying for his first year of college was no easy task for Allyn. Even though he received scholarships and financial aid, he was still short thousands. His father had bad credit and could not help him co-sign for a loan. But his father didn’t want the cost of a private institution to stop his son from attending college.
“My dad’s just an uneducated, hard-working guy,” Allyn said. “But he wanted me to follow my heart.”
Allyn’s father tapped into his social security funds to help his son be the first in his family to receive a college degree.
“My dad was like, ‘I want you to go to school. This is something you want to do,’” he said. “But then he had no other funds to tap in to the next year.”
His sophomore year of college, Allyn transferred to American University, another private institution priced at $34,456 but one that offered him more financial aid. He said if he didn’t transfer, he would have had to drop out of Ithaca. Going into his sophomore year, he was thousands of dollars short on his tuition bill. He said he appealed his financial aid package and explained his situation to the college, but the college told him they gave him all that they could.
Eric Maguire, vice president of enrollment management at the college, said the college does not have any means of recruiting students from low-income backgrounds because the college does not know a student’s financial situation until after financial aid paperwork is filled out.
“It would not be appropriate for us to ask a prospective student to identify their family’s financial background that early in the recruitment cycle,” he said. “We won’t know a student’s financial background until February or March of their senior year [of high school] … far too late for us to logistically implement targeted recruitment initiatives.”
But Maguire said the college, which is an enrollment-dependent institution, does encourage students from all socio-economic levels to apply to the college.
Since the college is an enrollment-dependent institution, each year it budgets a certain amount of income from “net tuition,” Carl Sgrecci, vice president of finance and administration, said. Sgrecci said if more students enroll who need additional financial aid, then the college does not receive the amount of net tuition it planned on and would therefore have to cut expenses elsewhere in the budget in order to be certain the budget would remain balanced.
Sgrecci said the college is always concerned about the ability of students’ families to pay the price of a private higher education.
“That’s the primary reason for why we have kept the tuition increases under 5 percent for the last two years,” he said. “In the end, part of the task of trying to manage the college’s fiscal stability is to strike the right balance between achieving the economic diversity of the student body and the college’s economic bottom line.”
Right now, Hogan said she is making sure she doesn’t spend as much money as she did her first semester at the college when she was trying to adjust to the social life. She’ll spend her summer working two jobs to pay for her fall semester books, and next semester she’ll hope to have an on-campus job. But Hogan said she worries about what would happen to her education if New York state decided to cut back on financial aid.
“If I ever lose some aid, I may have to transfer to a state school,” she said. “I love it here, but the cost is definitely a worry.”