Six small groups of students formed a circle on the floor of Parkes Hall, all outfitted with a crisp white sheet of butcher paper and colored markers. Each group was assigned a particular socioeconomic class, and groups were supposed to think of labels, assumptions, attitudes and challenges for each socioeconomic group. While quiet at first, perhaps not wanting to jump to rash assumptions, the air grew less tense as students began to reflect on what these class designations meant to them. Words slowly crept onto the pages, starting at the edges then becoming a collage of perceptions of class, income and wealth among Northwestern students.

Money Matters, a weeklong event organized by the Northwestern QuestBridge Scholars Network (QSN) and the Student Enrichment Services (SES) office, began in 2014 and returned this quarter. It gives students a space to discuss their relationships with identity, class and income, as well as the privilege and wealth that permeates Northwestern culture. Events included a discussion on class, a faculty panel on resilience and a “Life After Northwestern” alumni mixer. Instead of deciding to focus solely on financial aid and on income, SES and Quest scholars are intentionally shifting conversations in a broader and more nuanced direction by concentrating on financial wellness and financial literacy on campus.

“So many of the aspects of financial aid and your financial wellness are not just, ‘Do I have enough money in my pocket?’” says Steffany Bahamon, outgoing president of NU’s QSN. “It’s how you perceive yourself and how you perceive your relation to the general Northwestern society.”

While Northwestern proudly touts need-blind admissions, its policy doesn’t necessarily mean once students are at NU their experience will be need-blind. Some of the events that define the “True Northwestern Experience” are often inaccessible to low-income or first-generation students, leaving them feeling like they aren’t getting the promises of Northwestern that grace the covers of brochures and booklets sent to eager-eyed freshmen.  Even seemingly innocuous “college” activities like frequent CTA trips into the city and student group profit shares involve spending money – and that money adds up.

“There’s always been a problem with that high, really really high fundraising stuff,” says Stephanie Uriostegui, co-service chair of NU’s QSN. “A lot of people hype it up, especially during Wildcat Welcome, and you kind of feel like if you can’t raise it and you feel like you can’t be part of a really big part of Northwestern.”

Sharitza Rivera, assistant director of SES works primarily as a one-on-one resource for students who come into the office. Before Northwestern, she worked at an education non-profit, and she recognizes the stark difference in culture between schools.

“A big difference here with low income, first-gen students is that it’s less of a homogeneous group here. Like, you know, your roommate could have a yacht, that type of thing,” Rivera says. “It feels like everyone else can go to dinners after class and everyone else is going abroad for spring break, and it kind of feels like you’re the only one kind of suffering and pushing through. All these things are magnified.”


How did we get here?

Northwestern’s culture makes events like Money Matters rare. Students don’t necessarily know how to have productive or sensitive conversations with one another about money, income and class, made evident by the appearance of a Tumblr blog called “NU Class Confessions” in February 2014. The site provided an anonymous platform for students to share their stories, and within one month it had over 500 submissions. A similar Tumblr blog, “NU Testimonials on class and classism,” was created for Money Matters week. On the NU Class Confessions page, students are encouraged to “read, acknowledge, and consider” the experiences of fellow students and understand their experience across class lines.

Despite students’ tendency to avoid these conversations, Northwestern as an institution has always been at the forefront of providing need-based financial aid. The university helped establish College Board’s College Scholarship Service (CSS). In 1954, and has participated in the federal aid program since its inception in 1958. As part of the College Board, Northwestern has used need-based analysis since the 1960s and the university provided forms of need-based assistance long before then, according to Brian Drabik, the senior associate director of undergraduate financial aid.

In 2001, Northwestern joined the newly-created 568 Presidents Group, an organization created to maintain and strengthen a need-based financial aid system among its 24 member institutions, and to develop common standards for determining the family’s ability to pay for college.

Out of the 1,100 schools in the United States that submitted their data to U.S. News and World Report this year, only 66 reported covering 100 percent of demonstrated need, Northwestern being one of them. Of course, that's not to assume accuracy of the calculated financial need.

Northwestern is also one of 103 schools which are considered “need-blind,” meaning they don’t take into consideration a student’s financial situation or their family’s potential to pay for schooling during the application process for first-year U.S. citizens and permanent residents. But Northwestern’s capability to overlook financial need, isn’t extended toward international students.

Part of Northwestern’s ability to finance the educations of more low income and first-generation students is due to a growth in available financing. The discovery of the fibromyalgia drug Lyrica in 1990, its FDA approval in 2004 and its subsequent sales added millions of dollars to Northwestern’s endowment, which is now the eighth largest among universities in the United States. As the endowment has grown, more funding has gone to initiatives such as the Pledge Scholarship and the Good Neighbor, Great University Scholarship. The school no longer offers loans as a part of aid packages and has instead replaced them with grants. Currently, 18 percent of Northwestern’s first-year undergraduates are Pell Grant eligible, 45 percent of students receive a Northwestern Scholarship, and 62 percent of undergraduates receive financial aid.

“Over the years, as we’ve become more competitive and as we were allocated more funding to distribute to students, we were able to be more generous with some of our aid packaging,” Drabik says. “So slowly over the years, we were able to offer less loans in our packages.”

In March 2016, President Morton Schapiro announced the university would no longer offer loans as a part of incoming student’s financial aid packages and that grants, scholarships and summer work-study jobs would replace those loans. In that same announcement, he discussed the university’s goal to have a student body that would be 20 percent Pell Grant eligible by 2020. The question is whether the university has the structures and resources in place to support the rise in students who have a high level of financial need and to ensure a successful Northwestern experience for low income and first-generation students.


Kimani’s Quest

Kimani Isaac started and finished her QuestBridge National College Match application the same day it was due.

Isaac participated in the National High School Institute’s Theatre Arts Division, also known as Cherubs, the summer before her senior year. She knew Northwestern was where she wanted to be, but she also knew she needed to go to college essentially for free. When an admissions essay advisor introduced her to the scholarship program the Friday before the deadline, Isaac thought she was too late. On that September deadline in East Brunswick, New Jersey, the then-high school senior talked about the application with a teacher, who told her to just do it and helped her rally teachers for letters of recommendation, finalize transcripts and straighten out her essays to submit them that evening. With two minutes and 23 seconds left, Isaac hit the submit button.

Less than a month later, Isaac sat in her afternoon theatre class anxiously refreshing the application portal, and there was an update. She clicked and an orange banner blinking “Congratulations!” unfurled on her computer screen. She had been selected to be a QuestBridge College Match finalist. A few weeks later she opened up another “Congratulations!” while on the train to theatre class in New York City, telling her she’d been matched with Northwestern, her top choice.

Northwestern joined the QuestBridge Scholars Network in 2009, a national program that partners with 39 colleges and universities across the United States to make college a reality for high-achieving, low income high school students.

Partner institutions entire finance QuestBridge’s College Match Scholarships and cover the full cost of tuition as well as room and board. Northwestern pays a fee to the QuestBridge Scholars Network for them to recruit and seek out high-achieving, low-income students. QuestBridge then matches them with partner institutions through the College Match Scholarship, which binds students to a university by Dec. 1. If not matched, they become part of the regular decision QuestBridge pool and find out on a regular decision timeline. Isaac was one of 35 QuestBridge students matched with Northwestern, and over 100 others in the regular decision pool.

The Northwestern chapter of the Quest Scholars Network is the largest of any chapter with over 400 students. NU’s Quest Scholars Network is also the only advocacy group on campus for low income, first-generation students. It was through grassroots student mobilization that students within the QuestBridge community reached out to the Northwestern administration and voiced the ways in which they felt the university wasn’t supporting them. Out of these concerns came the Student Enrichment Services (SES) office in 2014, with Kourtney Cockrell at its head.

Despite growth in coverage and support through financial aid, gaps still exist, especially for low-income and first-generation students. One of the goals of QSN and SES’ Money Matters week was to help break down the walls that often keep students from having frank and honest discussions about wealth and income. Often the only people entering the spaces that foster these discussions are those already within the community. For Bahamon, to have an entire campus fundamentally understand the social workings of class and wealth inequality at Northwestern, will require people leaving their comfort zones to actively join these discussions.

“It’s great if you support me in the abstract, but just getting to know some of the details of what that means and the lingo will really make you think about it and reframe everything,” Bahamon says. Before she arrived on campus, Isaac already knew she would have a community with fellow “Questies.” They had a massive group chat where they would relay eager messages back and forth talking about the various resources on campus, from the free condoms in Searle to suggestions for pre-orientation programs to ease their transition into Northwestern. Isaac chose Northwestern’s Summer Academic Workshop (SAW) pre-orientation program, which brought her to campus three weeks early and allowed her to find her bearings as a Northwestern student before Wildcat Welcome. From academic workshops to introducing to faculty and staff, Isaac credits SAW with making her comfortable and knowledgeable about Northwestern resources on campus.

“I remember seeing this Daily article about how it takes time to find your community at Northwestern. SAW gave me that community,” Isaac says. “A lot of us come in not having a network in the way that like, people whose parents come here or cousins come here do. A lot of us sometimes have contentious relationships with family, or we come and we’re not able to just go out to Blaze every single Friday.” While Money Matters was a continuation of the work that began back in 2014, SES is striving to expand its reach and remain in touch with the needs of students as the university plans to reach out to more low-income and first-generation students. Some of its signature programs and initiatives, though, have helped Isaac in her first quarters at Northwestern. She brought her mother’s laptop with her from home, leaving her mother with a desktop that still used a dial up connection. Because of SES’ laptop loan program, she was able to return the computer to her mother. Similarly, instead of layering up in three to four jackets and hoping for the best during the winter, SES was able to provide Isaac with a winter coat, scarf, hat and gloves.

One major project that aims to close the experiential gap and that both SES and NU’s Quest Scholars Network have been working on is the SES One Form. The portal went live in February and consolidates numerous funding opportunities across Northwestern’s campus into one application. The One Form saves students from having to recount their financial narrative over and over again. It also works to support students through the sometimes unexpected or previously unaccounted expenses that crop up, such as Greek life dues, a student’s desire to participate in Dance Marathon, a pre-orientation program, or an emergency trip home. SES hopes to expand into other student groups to help make the quintessential Northwestern experience one that isn’t dictated by how much money a student has available to spend.

“I think the SES One Form kind of gives a better view of it, instead of looking at financial aid through just numbers,” Uriostegui says. “I think it definitely gives a space for people who may not identify as low-income but still need financial assistance in some kind of way.”

The SES office also piloted the Compass Mentor Program, which aims to provide low income first-generation first years with peer mentorship by older students from similar backgrounds. The mentorship program, which began Fall 2015, now has nine student mentors and 32 first-year mentees. During Fall and Winter Quarter, mentors and their small groups of mentees met on Friday evenings for workshops that ranged from self-care to professional networking.

“It’s a pretty robust program and it’s our biggest program that comes out of this office,” Rivera says. “We do feel like we’re onto something special and we’re trying to see where we can take it.” Jamal Julien, a Weinberg sophomore and Compass mentor, calls the mentorship program “training wheels” for low-income first-generation students and says it’s a space where students can just hang out together. Weinberg freshman William Paik saw the flyers for Compass after struggling to buy the textbooks he needed and taking several trips to SES during the beginning of his Fall Quarter. Realizing that he was struggling to get his feet on the ground at Northwestern, he applied for the mentorship program and was paired with Julien.  

“Some people think you can use financial aid and that covers up the disparities, but aside from economic there are also a lot of social disparities,” Paik says. “So knowing what resources are available is a big thing and knowing how to just live at Northwestern is a big thing.”

From a more administrative standpoint, the Office of Undergraduate Financial Aid is piloting a new financial wellness initiative and partnering with American Student Assistance (ASA), a non-profit organization, through the online program Salt. The program is aimed at increasing financial wellness and literacy for undergraduate students and alumni, and offers help with budgeting, managing loans and information about credit.

“We’re trying to engage with students in conversations outside of the aid office, just to sort of build a relationship and a rapport with students,” Drabik says. “We thought it’d be a really nice complement to some of the efforts we’re doing on campus.”

Students are also going out of their way to create resources for their communities. After a panel during SAW with low-income, first-generation faculty inspired Isaac, she began thinking about the particular challenges that low income students studying theater and radio, television and film faced and got in touch with Communications professor Harvey Young. After several conversations, they began a small group for low-income theater students.

“It was like three people, but that was okay, because we did it and it worked,” Isaac says.

While many of these conversations are in their early stages, administrative ears are growing more attuned to the concerns and needs of students. SES plans to do a needs assessment in the near future to ensure that as a student-founded service it remains equipped to support low -income and first-generation students, especially as Northwestern nears its 20 percent Pell-eligible goal.

“I’m seeing a system that’s really looking inward and really wants to change things for the better here, and it is benefiting me,” Isaac says. “People are filling the gaps through our sense of community and our social networking. And it’s working.”