Not Rich Enough and Not Poor Enough

By Xin Lu on 19 July 2008 60 comments

Most of my highschool classmates came from middle class families that were not extremely rich. During senior year, I noticed a situation where families were not wealthy enough to reasonably pay for the costs of college, but not poor enough to receive significant financial aid. As a result, some of my classmates who got into prestigious colleges were forced to make a different choice.

Personally, I was accepted to the University of California, Berkeley with a Regents Scholarship. After filling out a FAFSA , I was determined to have no financial need so I received an honorarium of $500 per semester. On the other hand one of my classmates was determined to have a financial need because his father lost his job. The scholarship covered his tuition and even rent for him and his parents since they lived together. I thought that was great for him because he needed the support, but at the back of my mind I thought it was a bit unfair because I received the exact same scholarship, but my financial reward was about 1/20th of what he received.

My situation was not that dire because my parents could readily afford the fairly low in state tuition of Berkeley at that time. However, a couple of my other classmates chose their second choice schools because their parents were not rich enough and not poor enough to afford their first choices. One girl I knew was accepted into Harvard, but ended up choosing UC Santa Cruz because her parents could not reasonable afford the costs of Harvard, and yet at the same time the forms said that they do not qualify for financial aid because her parents could technically afford Harvard by spending every penny of their income. Another girl chose Berkeley over MIT for the same reason even though she really wanted to go to MIT. Basically, those who can afford college easily had no problems, and those who could not pay also had no worries. It is only those families that could barely afford the fees and tuition of colleges that had to make their children make a difficult decision.

At that time, I thought that the situation was extremely unfair because these classmates of mine were very bright and earned their spots at their top choice of schools. The only reason they had to give up their positions was that their parents were hardworking middle class Americans. Since all of the financial aid documents are so tied to our parents' income and assets there was not much a 17 or 18 year old could do about it. Lately, some colleges like Stanford, Harvard, Princeton, and Yale have extended their aid to middle class families because they finally realized that they are losing great students in families who are barely able to afford these schools. Regardless of these reforms, I think every year thousands of middle class students are still forced to forgo their first choice schools because of the way financial needs are determined.

However, looking back now I think that my classmates made the right choice by not choosing an expensive undergraduate education that their families could not finance. Since they are exceptional individuals they are still exceptional regardless of which college they went to (their second choice schools are great anyway). The girl that gave up MIT during her undergraduate years is now at MIT anyway in a PhD program which is financed by fellowships. Her family also does not have any debts because she chose a school that was much more affordable during her undergraduate years. Now I understand her maturity and wisdom in forgoing her first choice.

If you are a teen who had to give up your top choice school because your family is in the middle class and could not get financial aid, then I understand your angst. All I have to say is that as long as you excel in whichever college you choose, you can still be successful and perhaps end up in your first choice school again.

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Guest's picture

i was in that "not rich enough, not poor enough" middle class. I just ended up with enough student loans to keep me eating ramen noodles till I'm 40.

Guest's picture

I think I'm in the same boat. To top off not receiving any financial support, I was also dumb enough to pay The Art Institute ridiculous sums of money for a subpar education. They are a marketing machine who is leading hoards into financial slavery.

Guest's picture

... in Portugal, my country, if you have good grades you can go to whatever public (state) University. If your grades are fabulous, you can go to Coimbra's Medical School (as good as it gets). Wanna know why? Because tuition is affordable!

That and free medical care for all make it a little more democratic that other (wink wink, nudge, nudge) countries, wouldn't you agree?


Xin Lu's picture
Xin Lu

That's pretty awesome Pedro.  In my state, you are guaranteed an acceptance letter to one of the University of Californias if you are in the top 4% of your graduating class, but the finances are a totally different matter.  A state school could cost as much as a private school if you are from out of state for reasons of taxes and such.  I think it could be a lot more simple and more fair if it is purely a meritocracy, but then people complain that the richer kids had more opportunities for prep classes and such. 

Julie Rains's picture

as my kids will be going to college in a few years. I have been encouraged to consider private schools, which may make sense if we could get aid. It does seem as if saving and having assets may work against us--fortunately, there are great, relatively inexpensive state universities in North Carolina.

I'm glad your friend got to go to MIT on someone else's dime!  

Guest's picture

Isn't this why there are federally backed student loans?

Guest's picture

Yes, unsubsidized loans are non-need based and should be able to make up the difference between the expected family contribution and the cost of attendance.


Guest's picture

Private loans depend on credit rating... either student's or, more likely, parent's. If parent's don't have the credit, there won't be a private loan. Combine that with the declining value of need-based grant aid and relatively low caps on federally backed student loans and you have students getting priced right out of higher ed.

Guest's picture

Federally backed student loans are still only made available to "qualifying" families as well. My father made too much money for me to qualify all but one semester of my schooling. I had to take out almost all of the balance of my tuition in private student loans. With a 3/4 merit scholarship at a private university, that still left me with almost $50,000 in personal student loans...which I will be paying off for most of my life.

Guest's picture

The Monetization session was very informative today. I hope you enjoyed the rest of the show... I know we did!


Guest's picture

Wow, this comment is really encouraging. My children have both had to start at the local community college so that they could live at home and then progress to the four year school. They have done very well. The eldest graduated from the top of her class and is now employed in a responsible position. The youngest is going to move on to the four year school soon.

A friend of mine whose child's test scores were identical to my daughter's got a four year full ride to Harvard. No kidding. But their income was less than ours.

The middle class is getting squeezed really tightly right now. Thank you for the reminder that it is possible to get through school, get a decent job, and advance without taking out a gazillion dollars in student loans to pay for a designer type of education.

Xin Lu's picture
Xin Lu

Hi Aaron,

Federally backed student loans still depend on the needs of the recipients. You still have to file a FAFSA. I didn't qualify for any of those loan programs.  Additionally, the amount you can borrow from these programs aren't very high.  These top private schools cost somewhere around $50k a year including room and board so even if you get a federal loan you probably can't cover the entire amount. 

The other choice is to take out a private loan, which could get extremely expensive.

Guest's picture

I acknowledge that college costs are through the roof right now and I don't doubt that there are situations where people fall through the cracks but I can't feel that badly across the board for a middle class that is wrapped up in consumerism and credit card debt, instead of saving for college and retirement. With unsubsidized loans available (they are not based on need), the middle class should be able to make up the difference.

People with lower incomes have less opportunity to save for college, so they have greater need. They also have less of college-going culture (parents of first generation students often don't know anything about college or preparing their child) and have many more obstacles to overcome to even decide to go to college.

The middle class can get by and still put money away for college and they have the advantage of often being connected to the avenues (internet access, active in public school events, etc) to learn about the process of going to college and about state college savings plans.

And the thing that really sucks to admit is that the rich are often the most frugal of all of us. Most millionaires aren't trust fund babies. They are rich because they know how to manage their money.

We, in the middle class have got to learn this or we are always going to be stuck in the middle.

Guest's picture

Excellent post. I found myself in the same situation my senior year of high school, but looking back, I'm glad I didn't go with the $$$ school. I got into MIT and ended up attending a (very good) state school, because after all that financial consideration, I was given a $1250 loan to cover all four years. Somehow I was fiscally responsible enough at 18 to realize this wasn't a great idea. I'm debt-free, and while it would have been something else to attend MIT, I am pretty dang happy.

Guest's picture

I know this situation well.... my family fell into that "in-between" category. When you apply for aid, there is not an in-depth study of your family's financial situation. Judging by just my parents' income doesn't really give the whole picture.

Guest's picture

Why should parents spend ANY pennies of their income on their children's college education?

If parents are bound and determined to contribute, then invest ahead of time; otherwise, an adult should pay their own way.

Guest's picture

I'm definitely in the middle class category for college costs. Every year FAFSA says that my parents can afford school, which would be true if they didn't have house payments, car payments, food, health care, etc to pay for. It isn't fair that they work hard and have to live pay check to pay check while taking out a hefty unsubsidized parent loan and I take out student loans.

I'm grateful for all the opportunities that I have been given, but it's not right for my friend to get everything covered in grants because his family lies and says that his dad doesn't give him any money (they are divorced) so everything is based on his mother's income. My parents are together and would never lie like that so I am stuck paying off student loans until I die.

The system is broken, we need to fix it.

Xin Lu's picture
Xin Lu

Milehimama, the problem is that schools don't consider children to be separate from their parents. When you apply for financial aid your financial status is tied to your parents. So sure, even if you are 18 and penniless the schools expect your parents to pay. If that system is changed somehow and the teens are treated like adults then almost every teen would be dirt poor and deserving of financial aid.

Guest's picture

...I was under the impression that financial aid was largely award based on the previous years income tax filings. Yes? No?

I know that this previous year, I claimed myself on income tax, rather than being a dependent on my parents. Would claiming yourself on income taxes work better for poor students who get little parental help?

As far as the original post, as someone who went to a private 4 year school for his undergrad, I would say it's not all it's cracked up to be. That said, while my experience was not amazing, I certainly received a large amount of free money and a quality education. Drake University gave me $7,500/year to simply exist (and stay above a 2.5GPA). They paid me another 4k to play my guitar (music major), and I received a sizable amount of government grants each year. In all, I ended 4 years at a 30k/year school with $27,000 in student debt. I wish it was lower, but I am certainly luck to have escaped with so little--it would have been more expensive to go to a state school for me.

I would encourage new HS grads and parents to look into smaller, lesser known private universities. Often times they offer a lot of money. My education was top notch, but I did not completely fall in love with the vibe and fell of the campus. I did, however, feel that the college was trying to charge me for every little thing. Maybe that's the trade off.

Also, its worth noting that there's a lot of money available in most communities. My hometown sponsored thousands of dollars in scholarships each year. I took the time to apply for everyone I could and ended up getting around 5k for my freshman year of school. I hated filling out the applications, though.

Guest's picture

@christopher - if you're on your own, you need to study your school's residency and financial aid rules. Basically, you have to legitimately become an independent person, on paper, and the financial aid should become available. If it doesn't maybe you should change schools. Try UC Berkeley. Go Bears.

Guest's picture

In Portugal, it's mostly free/cheap for university. Here in Ireland, the gov't have setup a fairly good system:
Providing you're studying fulltime, you get:
- Low cost housing (friend of mine is paying €10 a month for a 3 bedroom hous)
- Daycare (limited spots) for children under 6, if you have any
- Government funding to pay for your living expenses while studying
- ALMOST NO COST to go to the best (Trinity, iirc), assuming you get a spot that is :)

I think the philosophy in Europe is one America will have to start adopting sooner or later.. by improving your citizens, you improve the general state of your workforce. In Ireland; practically everyone I've met in a stable, management-or-higher position have at least one degree.

ps offtopic: the Captcha ALWAYS fails first time for me.. something up with that?

Guest's picture

i got hit by the parent assumption.

yes, there are many families that pay for their child's education. But there are also a lot of us who were totally on our own.

even as a 22 year old, working full time, living on my own for 3 years already.... somehow how much money my parents made makes a difference even if they aren't willing to part with a dime of it. Actually, i had issues because they werent even willing to part with a copy of their tax return to fill out the form!

Guest's picture

I was in a similar situation for undergraduate. I ended up going to a state school, because I got a merit scholarship that covered tuition and my parents were able to pay the rest out of pocket. At the time, I was PO'd that I had to go there. But when I graduated and I owed nothing, I was grateful because I was then able to go to a top notch grad school. Even though I had to pay for that myself with loans, I could only imagine what I would be paying if I also paid the extra $100K that undergrad would have cost me. I would be paying more than double what I am paying now.

Guest's picture
Canadian Girl

That's interesting that scholarships are based on financial need, although I can see the point there. Part way through grad school, I received a provincial graduate scholarship, as did a good friend of mine. For me, it made the difference of being able to continue with school rather than dropping out for a while to work. For her... Well, she had a sizable down payment for her condo when she graduated.

However, the scholarship was awarded for merit, and if it had been based on financial need, I would never have gotten a penny because I'm in that middle group discussed in this post. I guess I can't complain.

Guest's picture

Yeah, we need to stop subsidizing "private" colleges so they can build multi-billion-dollar endowments and start offering nearly free public college education, especially since college is required for most non-dead-end jobs. Many top colleges could afford to operate solely on their endowments, but keep charging to fund ridiculous building projects and to make their investment fund managers even more money. I was poor and received "100%" financial aid, but loans and work-study while drawing down my meager life-savings (hide student assets from FAFSA!) wrecked my college and post-college experience.

This will probably mean that we also stop spending 100s of millions on college athletics, which is unheard of in other countries. And stop paying college presidents millions of dollars. Of this course never happen. The next Republican president will probably want to abolish public high schools.

Guest's picture

easy for you to say, regents scholar, to people who can't get in free despite high grades and intelligence.

Xin Lu's picture
Xin Lu

easy for you to say, regents scholar, to people who can't get in free despite high grades and intelligence.

Hi guest, if you read my article you would have seen that I didn't get in for free. I was given $500 per semester, and that's it. That covered about 25% of the tuition when I went. Now the tuition has more than doubled compared to what I paid 7 years ago so $500 per semester is even less money than before. (Registration fee in 2001 to 2002 was 2061 per semester, now it's 4400 per semester)

Also, wildgift is right. Most people I met at college came from the same sort of families (middle class, not extremely rich but comfortable enough). A good percentage of students came from the Bay Area or LA so even though their parents incomes may seem high the cost of living is also very high.

Anyway, very few people go to public colleges for free these days in America.

Guest's picture

While UC Berkeley might have many students who are bummed out that they couldn't afford the big ivies because they are middle class, it's also got a population of students who are struggling to afford Berkeley, because they weren't poor enough to get all the Pell grants. (This shows, probably, how generally wealthy UC Berkeley students are compared to the great masses of working people.)

If your family is working class but makes enough to, say, own a house or live modestly and save, or you have two relatively okay incomes, it's harder to get the financial aid at UC. For many families that "small" difference of a few thousand dollars makes a big difference.

So, it used to be that someone could get into an Ivy and a public ivy, but the aid for either was such that the expenses could be a big problem.... so off to the local state university or junior college.

The "secret" was to choose a less well-known Ivy, and get more financial aid. The parental contribution could be less than at a public ivy.

Fortunately, the situation has changed lately, and private universities are offering more financial aid to middle class and working class families. Publics are adapting, too, but by and large have abandoned the old ideal of a fully-paid-for education for in-state residents who qualify. (Believe it or not, UC Berkeley's registration fees used to be $0.00.)

Guest's picture

Milehimama, as mentioned by other commenters already, financial aid determinations do not take into account the willingness of parents to pay. My own financial need was calculated to be lower because of my father's assets even though I paid for all of my own costs. Because I was determined to graduate debt-free, I chose to forgo the more expensive Ivy League universities and instead went to a state school. I also took some semesters off to work and earn enough money for tuition.

Xin, your post does highlight the growing concerns I have about higher education costs in the US. It seems as if many college-aged middle-class Americans are almost forced to choose between furthering their education or starting their lives. The universities in my area have raised tuition about 10% nearly every year for the past several years. That far outpaces inflation.

One 30-year-old that comes to mind still lives with his parents. He was worked since he was 16 and if he did not have his master's degree right now he might have been able to buy a starter home. Instead his student loan payments are more than what I pay for rent. And he is one of the lucky ones. His parents supported his decision to continue his education. Others are not as lucky.

Perhaps if you didn't use words like "unfair" some of the nitpicky comments might have been less critical. That word just comes across as whiny. I don't know about others, but I tend to be more critical of statements I perceive as whining even if the underlying message is one I would support.

Xin Lu's picture
Xin Lu

Hey Judith,

I just don't know how to summarize the situation other than "unfair". At that time I was only 17, and I honestly thought that it was unfair that my best friend had to give up MIT because of money.

Anyway, right now I still think that the way financial aid is determined is pretty flawed and punishes the middle class. Basically, if your parents have assets or income they are expected to pony up even if your parents may need that money for their retirement and living expenses. As you said, college costs are also growing faster than inflation so wages are not keeping up.

Also, like several people have said, their parents didn't feel obligated to pay so they had to take up huge loans because the schools think your parents are supposed to pay. If that's not unfair then I'm not sure what is fair.

I fear that the middle class population is shrinking in America for the reason that it is the group of people that seems to pay for everything and never benefit from many of the social programs, but that may be another post entirely.   


Guest's picture

If attending the best school you can get into were a right, then it'd be "unfair" to have to foregoe MIT for lack of money. The system we have, of private universities, doesn't afford us that right. MIT is market-based education, and they aren't obligated to support their students any more than they deem necessary to get the student population they think they need.

A public school like UC Berkeley (or, more correctly, the entire UC system) is an entitlement. It was founded to educate the 12% most qualified high school grads in the state. To this end, we, as residents, have a right to be there if we qualify. We can even demand that tuition be lowered back to the 1960s price of $0.00 for residents. (Then, the issue of parental contribution would be less of a factor, as some here have complained.)

Just to remind everyone - market-advocate Republicans want to reduce public education, and increase private education. They believe that, fundamentally, attendance at the university should be based on the university's demand for students. In contrast, advocates for public education think, fundamentally, that attendance should be determined by the public's demand for education.

Guest's picture

I went to a public university for free...
Louisiana has a great program that provides free tuition to all of its high school graduates if they get a certain GPA, a certain ACT score and a certain number of credits in high school, including core credits. Depending on how high were scores/grades were, you can even qualify for an additional stipend each semester. I was at the top of the group and got $800 in cash along with tuition. Outside scholarships (one for an essay I wrote, one for being the child of an active Knight of Columbus) paid my fees and books. A student worker job and my parents paid for my other expenses. (My parents contributed less than $500 a month to my expenses from 1999-2003)

In short, I got a great education at a public school with an excellent program in what I wanted to study (journalism) and graduated with no debt. Maybe my public education meant that I didn't get paid as well in the beginning of career as my peers who graduated from more prestigious universities, but since I've never had to pay off school debt, I feel like I'm ahead. Now that I have five years of experience, my pay has equalized compared to others from schools with bigger names.

Guest's picture
Gates VP

Xin: I fear that the middle class population is shrinking in America for the reason that it is the group of people that seems to pay for everything and never benefit from many of the social programs, but that may be another post entirely.

Yes you are correct. More than just being "the group that pays for everything", the US middle class has constantly absorbed more and more risk into their lifestyles over the last 30 years. For more details with lots of facts, please see this Elizabeth Warren video:

CanadianGirl has a positive story, but that's because she lives in Canada. Canada has three big things going it's way:
1. more government funding
2. no "ivy league"
3. primarily commuter schools
Most schools in Canada are sufficient for most degrees. And Canadians in general just accept this principle. Also, any Canadian willing to "put in the hours" at University will graduate with little or modest debt.

This whole concept of graduating with 50k in student debt is alien to most Canadians because their degree simply didn't cost that much. With books and gear, my degree was about 20k (1998-2002), my wife's was < 25k (2002-2007, she even blew a year). We both graduated without student loans and debt-free. I had savings, but my wife paid for everything out-of-pocket. She lived at home, bussed to school and worked part-time during the school year with some better-paid summer student work.

The "average" Canadian University student lives at home and buses / carpools to school. They work part-time and hold down summer jobs. We still get the odd "middle-class" syndrome as you describe above with respect to government-backed loans, but school is simply not as prohibitively expensive.

BTW, commuting to school and living at home is a huge factor in saving money. The US students I've spoken with are spending more than half of their "tuition" on food and housing. Not only is the cost of classes more expensive (estimates I've seen range from 1.5 to 2 times), but then you "have" to live on campus in some places.

At the end of the day, the US system is simlpy broken. (I'm not going to preach the wonder of the Canadian school system, it has its own issues) The crux of the US problem is the concept that schools are more important than students. Consumers are blindly fighting to get into "the best schools" instead of making the value decision of how good these schools actually are. Yes, the school does matter, but dedication and passion transcend schools.

Xin, you may feel "screwed" by MIT, but maybe it's just as important to be humble and accept that MIT wasn't really knocking at your door either.

Guest's picture

When I filed my first FAFSA, my parents and I estimated our income (pretty well), but we were asked to submit the final documentation to the school I was to attend. Between the two events my mother lost her job (she is a teacher and unit allocations went down--last hired, first fired). When we filed with our corrected 1040 and enclosed the letter from the school district saying she was not hired back due to budget cuts, my Expected Family Contribution went up! It ended up being more than her entire (no longer applicable) salary. Funny story, but there was no way my parents could pay over 3/8 of their (pre-job loss) income for my education. I ended up transferring to a cheaper school midway through and paying my own way while working with a little help from them. I think it was the correct way for me--but I still have my acceptance letters from MIT and Yale in a drawer somewhere.

Xin Lu's picture
Xin Lu

Gates VP, Thank you for your comment from a Canadian point of view. I'd like to clarify that I wasn't the one that wanted to go to MIT and I didn't feel screwed by them. My best friend was the one that went to MIT after going to Berkeley for undergraduate and I felt that she was screwed by the financial aid system. She ended up living at home for all four years and her parents paid for the tuition at Berkeley, which came out to about $20000 for all four years. Personally I was quite happy with Berkeley. I got in early and it was close to home. My parents were also happy with it because it is one of the best public schools in the nation.

I have heard of Elizabeth Warren and I heard her speak on the two income trap. Basically she wrote a book that said the most bankruptcies in America come from two income families with children because costs are going up and taxes aren't advantageous to two incomes. It's pretty disturbing actually.  The video you linked is pretty good.  I am watching it.

Guest's picture

I went to the school I wanted to go to. It was a government selective (for smart people) school. So fees were just $200/year and I got great education and finished in the top 6% of my state.
I was happy. The funny thing is I didn't ever go to university because I wanted to be a pastor/entrepreneur

Guest's picture

I had a similar problem when I went to school.

My financial aid was based on my dad's income, and since he made a high-ish salary, he was expected to make a huge contribution and I got bunk for financial aid.

However, that didn't take into account the massive medical bills he was paying off for himself and my youngest brother, and quite honestly very poor financial decisions in the past.

While those decisions were his fault, they weren't mine, and I was really upset. Now, of course, I get to be reminded of the situation every month when I pay my student loan bill...

Guest's picture

First let me say - yes one can often find themselves in a situation where they are right in the middle and don't qualify for any significant aid. I found that this was the case due to my race (white) and means (middle class).

My only advice would be to consider how you anticipate your years after graduation. If you expect to work in an industry where a 4 year degree is all you need it probably makes sense to go into debt and go to a school that is respected in that industry. This was my situation as I am an engineer. However, if you need to get an advanced degree I would suggest that you go to a good instate public school.

What college recruiters will never tell a candidate is:
a) if your program/degree will be insufficient to attain employment. This is really unfortunate but is just they way it is for so many fields

b) when applying for a masters program the choice of your undergraduate degree is not significant


Guest's picture

The words Ivy League school connote a certain prestige among people, not just in the US but in the global community as well. After all, who wouldn’t want to receive a diploma from any of the eight places of higher learning comprising the so-called Ivy League—Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard , Penn, Princeton, and Yale.

In any survey of the top universities of the world, the University of California – Berkeley, the University of Chicago, the University of Pennsylvania, and the New York University are usually found at the top of the list (side by side with some of the Ivy League schools). Yes, these schools are state schools or state universities. Yes, these schools have outstanding programs which are considered the best in the field.

Ask yourself: is prestige really important? Would the place where I got my diploma matter in the real world? Or, would the experience I will be getting from the top state schools in the country far outweigh the advantages concerning the prestige of an Ivy League diploma?

Xin Lu's picture
Xin Lu


You are right, your success is not based entirely on the school you went to, but having a degree from a top school does give you an edge in that first job search. I know that my Berkeley degree opened a lot of doors for me because in one company where I was hired the VP told me that they would throw away resumes from even San Jose State University.

Also I'd like to clarify that amongst the schools you listed " University of California – Berkeley, the University of Chicago, the University of Pennsylvania, and the New York University" only the University of California - Berkeley is a public institution. All the rest are private universities with fairly high tuitions just like the Ivies you listed in your first paragraph. They are all good schools, though.

 @wildgift - haha yeah Go Bears!  



Guest's picture

my previous post was in reply to Aaron above, forgot to say that.

Guest's picture

Any one of those kids could take out student loans like everyone else. That's what I did for my super-expensive school.

Besides, financial aid now is light-years from where it was even five years ago. It's not even a fair comparison.

Guest's picture

I graduated at the head of my class in a country town and tried to go to school. Financial aid was turned down because my Dad made just over the limit even though for seven years before, we were on food stamps and welfare due to Dad's chronic unemployment.

I fled home as soon as I turned 18 because it was a terribly abusive environment and ended up going to a community school. I worked my way through until my car broke and the bank repossessed it.

With no car and no financial assistance, I quit school. I never worked for an employer that provided assistance and could only find minimum wage jobs within bus routes until school became a distant dream.

I've worked hard and studied on my own to become a programmer but still have a very tough time getting an interview without that diploma.

In America, college is a privilege for those with somewhat stable homes with parents who encourage their children, those poor enough to qualify for aid or those rich enough to pay for it. Some kids need more than finances to make it. Unfortunately, some kids still have the odds stacked against them from the start.

Maybe someday, college recruiters will go into the hills of Kentucky and the inner cities of Chicago to find bright kids and help them.

Guest's picture

It is never too late to go to college. I am a non-traditional student. Many valid colleges have evening and online courses.

Two kids in college and a love of teaching qualified me for a grant. I am in my late forties and am relishing the opportunity to study. So far, I am twenty credits in to my associate's degree, going to go on for my bachelor's degree. I have purchased only my notebook, some pencils, and a flash drive. The program I am in is designed with working adults in mind, I work during the day and do school in the evenings and on weekends.

Anyway, it is never too late to go back to school. Some colleges are very much aware of the working class these days. There are community colleges with decent programs in little towns where the cost of living is less. You seem like a really intelligent person. Anyone who can teach themselves programming has got to be above average in intelligence. I would encourage you pursue the diploma. You may even be able to test out of some of your courses. It would not hurt to try......

Xin Lu's picture
Xin Lu


Kids can apply for loans but very few I know take that option without parental approval. Even if they do , they have to submit their parents' income statements if they are still a dependent. My friend didn't take this option because her MIT interviewer told her that he has been trying to pay off the loan for 20 years and is almost done.

Plus, I'm not sure what you mean by financial aid is light years ahead. There was a time when you didn't need financial aid to attend even MIT. My neighbor went to MIT a very very long time ago (he is almost 90 so I'm not sure which year he attended) and he said that the fees were so minimal that pretty much anyone who could get in could afford it.

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No, this is not true. It does require additional paperwork and an 18 yr old must be living on their own (and have a job) but a student CAN be considered their own person, separate from their parents. I did have to have a lease in my own name (which I did) to prove I was not living at home.

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Just to clarify, everyone who ever filled out a fafsa should qualify for unsubsidized federal stafford loans. They are non-need based, so not as good as need-based subsidized, by they are SO much better than private loans. Plus the limits are increasing for 08-09. So no matter how much money your family makes, you can still get a low-cost federal loan just by completing a fafsa.

I agree that the middle class is given the shaft in terms of financial aid. But I really hate the attitude of contempt some people in this category harbor toward low-income minority students who qualify for more aid and are recruited more heavily. I think only one other commenter made this point, but I have to repeat it - no white, middle class person has any right to judge a person considered lower-class. Kids from families who have barely ever made ends meet, especially non-white and first-generation college, have faced so many obstacles that more privileged Americans can't wrap their brains around. I can't express in words how awful I feel when I hear/see this kind of attitude and I wish people had a more open and forgiving perspective regarding issues like this.

Xin Lu's picture
Xin Lu


I didn't write this article to judge "people considered lower class". I just wanted to point out that when it comes to financial aid the middle class kids are probably more disadvantaged. I also think that these kids earned their spots in the schools they wanted to go to. I also don't think a lot of the commenters showed contempt towards the poor. Most of them just related their stories.


Note that I said they have to submit parental income information if they are classified as a dependent. This is true. Most kids aren't independent by senior year in highschool. Even if you had a job you have to prove that you can support yourself or have kids to be consider "independent".  This usually means a full time job.  

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I grew up middle class. I didn't want for anything. I have a hard time feeling pity for the middle class, because they chose the expensive 5-br house, fancy TVs, SUVs, etc, etc, etc. It's not being middle class that screws anyone out of financial aid, it's poor budgeting and a failure to plan. It's not like expensive colleges are a big surprise to anyone - save for it.

The only people for whom it really sucks are the kids whose parents make a tidy sum and refuse to pay for any part of college. But even then, summer jobs and filing taxes independently can help pay the way through a good state school (which is still a good school, in the end).

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When I started college, uh, 20 years ago (yikes), you could be considered "separate" from your parents if you were under 24 AND were either:
1. married
2. in the military

Not sure of the rules now.

I was one of those poor kids who went to a private school. Even a good scholarship meant I had to borrow for room and board, so after the first year I joined ROTC to pay tuition.

Some of my classmates back then would say "doesn't it suck how little you would be making when you graduate?" And some of my friends at my first post-Navy job would say "you are so lucky you don't have DEBT!" But the honest truth is that I made a choice...I was lucky to get the scholarship, and that's why I didn't have debt.

The last engineer to work for me went to community college before transferring to UC. You couldn't tell the difference from someone who went all through UC, except maybe he was more down to earth and practical, and all around a really good guy.

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I would suggest that you go back to earlier posts in this thread and watch the Elizabeth Warren presentation. It is exactly where we live, as middle class people. I think it might give you a different view of the middle class.

My husband and I are very close to the median income. We have a three bedroom house in a little town. We have not ever driven big SUVs. My current mode of transportation is a 1985 Chevy. We bought it used in 1999 for not very much. I am hoping it lasts another three years until my youngest is out of college. The girls started at a community college and went from there. The eldest is out and has a responsible job that is using her degree. She is living like a broke college student until her loan is paid off.

However, some of the things touched on in that video are very pertinent to the plight of the middle class today. We are experiencing them. First, the cost of medical insurance and medical problems have shifted dramatically. Medical insurance used to be included in any good benefits package for basically free. As medical costs have skyrocketed, employers have passed those costs on to their employees. People are paying up to five hundred a month for medical insurance for their families. They do so because one negative health event can bankrupt a family. Second, the cost of utilities, gas, and food have gone through the roof, but the salaries of the middle class have not kept pace.

Anyway, the middle class are not all mindless consumers. Some of us have thought it out and planned as carefully as we could and we are still coming up short when it comes to putting the kids through school. When that occurs, and it does occur, we do feel less than generous when it comes to being shut out of the financial aid process b/c we might make just a little too much to be considered.

The middle class is the most heavily taxed group in America. Most of the social spending programs come straight out of our pocket. The only place government has to go for funding is to the people, it is not productive on its own.

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Rachel D

This is just one great example of how the middle class gets screwed. Look into health insurance options for another classic example. If you have no money at all you can get aide or if you have tons of money you are able to afford it out of pocket. However, if you are in the middle class you don't qualify for any type of state help and you struggle to pay out of pocket.

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There are also working class students in high-cost areas who get hosed. If you're in that boat, you can't afford college but you also don't get financial aid because your family earns "too much" even if it's only a working class income where you live.

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I am one of those people who qualified for the full PELL grant for tuition, but I also worked very hard to get merit-based scholarships for college. My merit-based scholarships were based on my test scores, GPA, community work, etc. If a student is willing to work hard and apply for private merit-based scholarships, they should have no problem paying for college. Just one of my private scholarships was $1500 a year for four years. Others were one time payments from essay contests and things like that. I worked two jobs to pay my rent, food, etc. And I think that once you are 18, you are an adult and you should start taking control of your own life instead of depending on your parents for everything. I put myself through college, and I came out of it debt-free. My GPA (3.9) only suffered a little bit because of working the two jobs.

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My friend's husband is about to go back to school for his teaching credential. They've yet to figure out how to pay for it even though he starts in September. They cant' take out loans because he has too much debit, nor can they afford it, nor can he qualify for scholarships... It's really a loose-loose for them.

Now that I'm paying back my student loans, I constantly find myself wishing that I'd figured out ANY OTHER WAY to pay for my education than loans. Of course, I'd not be done with school already and have a Master's degree, but I'd love to not have the loans hanging over my head.

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I too came from a middle class family but I was adopted by my aunt and uncle and then emancipated at 16 which allowed only my income to matter, not my parents. I've been a freelancer for years and can now pretty much estimate what it will be each month (except for a really bad month like this one and last).

I decided to go to SPC, a local college that had more affordable tuition after hearing horror stories from people who have been stuck paying back loans until their damn near 40 years old! That certainly isn't for me, especially these days where is takes months and months to find jobs so how will you pay back those loans once you graduate with no job or source of income? Exactly.

We don't need an Ivy league education. We just need to be talented in our field and we'll get where we need to be.

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Ralph Cooper

I do not need Financial aid for school, I can't pay my Bills, I'am on Soc.Sec. and disabled, wife has Diabeties, we just do not make enough to pay all of them (Bills). We can't recieve food
stamps, or, they say, anything else to help us. Only make $1500
a month, for us both, anything out there that we could possibly
qualify for to help us? We are thinking about Bankruptcy, Would
this be good for us? Please help! send email to:
PS: Thanks,

Guest's picture

Just wanted to say that school is a privilege. Some just get lucky and get aid (that's not me). I paid nearly every dollar aside from a few small scholarhips that took care of my books while my "broke" peers in luxury cars went to school for free.

Race plays a part in this too...I swear to you.

I always thought that whether you get aid or not, you are responsible for your education. Life is never fair for us in the middle.

Guest's picture

always classify yourself as a so called "minority" to receive special consideration and funding. No one ever checks and if they do it's racist. Suckers!

Guest's picture

You could do all of that stuff, or... you could become an Australian citizen, join the defence force and study at the best Aussie universities at zero cost to you - they even pay for your accommodation and food, as well as giving you $25,000 annual salary, minimum (our cost of living is high and this is considered a low income, but your basics, including top health cover for you and your family, are covered by the Defence Dept, so this is play money). Best of all, you graduate totally debt-free.

The only down side is that you are in the defence force. And you have to live in Canberra...