Being a Low-Income Student at an Elite University

I am a low-income, working-class student from Minneapolis, Minnesota. I grew up with divorced parents. My mother is an immigrant from Eastern Europe, and my father is from a small town in Oregon. When I was in high school, I went no-contact with my father and lived exclusively with my mother, who worked as a cashier at a thrift store that was a non-profit as a frontline worker during the pandemic. 

For most of my life, I have relied on government welfare assistance to make rent and buy groceries, and I have leaned on my community for food banks. When considering my opportunities for higher education, I was severely limited in my options. Many public universities wouldn’t be able to offer me a full-ride scholarship to attend, which was the only way I would be able to attend a university. My estimated financial contribution determined by FAFSA was, of course, zero dollars, but as my university acceptances rolled in, my financial aid packages did not reflect what the government thought I should pay for my schooling. Each school left me with a massive sum of money to pay out-of-pocket and through loans. As I learned about my mother’s struggle to pay back her loans, I knew I did not want to have to take out student loans unless necessary.

When I received my financial aid package from the University of Southern California (USC), an elite private university dubbed “University of Snobby Children” because of its largely white, wealthy and upper-class student body, I was told I would need to pay over $5,000 out-of-pocket for my freshman semester (I was a spring admit and only attended USC the second semester of my freshman year). 

I was discouraged because USC was a university that, at the time, had a claim on its financial aid website that said that USC meets 100% of students’ demonstrated need. My demonstrated need was certainly high. I required a full ride to attend, but $5,000 was a tremendous amount for me and my mother. I still committed to USC, despite receiving a full-ride scholarship at the University of Minnesota, because I believed that USC was my path to leaving generational poverty and providing for my mother in the future.

After a lengthy appeal process with financial aid, I received an updated financial aid package from USC and ended up paying around $1,000 that semester, which was only possible through a payment plan and an educational savings plan that my mother made after selling her only asset, an apartment in Hungary. My sophomore year, I received better aid, although it didn’t come in until the day I moved into my dorm, so I was panicking until the last moment. A few of my friends were forced to transfer out of USC due to poor financial aid packages. However, through outside scholarships and USC grants, I have remained student-loan-free and able to afford my education at an elite private school.

Being low-income in a school that brings out A-list celebrities to perform at our semester festivals, that has a speculated $110 million contract for USC football coach Lincoln Riley, and that has events where they give out free Lululemon gift bags, I certainly experienced culture shock coming here. I am surrounded by people who fly first-class or private, who go to Coachella and have a car, who walk around wearing designer clothes, and who show me distaste or even disgust when I say I grew up taking public transit everywhere. I am surrounded by people who have had the complete opposite economic upbringing from me, and I feel worlds away from them in many aspects. 

I am defined and restricted by my economic background, and I am limited in my ability to climb the economic ladder and achieve that notorious “American Dream.” 

On a national level, student debt increases each year as education gets more expensive and minimum wages increase at a shamefully slow pace. 

And, of course, who is being most affected by the rising cost of college? Marginalized, Black and Brown communities are most disadvantaged by our economic system. Black college students, on average, take out more student loans than white students, and BIPOC students are more likely to default on their student loan payments. International students studying in the United States are ineligible for federal student aid, which prevents many from attending college in the United States. 

Moreover, student loan debt is not a uniquely American problem: higher education is becoming more inaccessible to students in developing nations, and British college graduates, for example, face some of the highest average student debt in the world at $55,000. 

Beyond rising education costs and rising student debt, a micro-level analysis of low-income students is valuable. American culture thrives on flashing wealth and posting Instagram photos from your spring break in Cabo, which is even more prevalent at a school like USC. 

While some USC students are homeless (over 2,000 as of 2020), every student-athlete is given an electric scooter to get to class. The university offers free tuition for households making less than $80,000 per year, but that doesn’t mean the school will cover other expenses like housing and meal plans, which bring your bill total to around $20,000. This is coupled with an average five percent increase in tuition at USC each year. 

Although my mother’s income almost doubled from 2021 to 2022, we are still considered low-income in my city and are well under the tuition-free threshold. USC may look at this and decide to charge me more for next year, which is worrying, considering USC does not guarantee housing after sophomore year and I have to pay my rent. 

Los Angeles is facing a severe housing cost crisis, with 60% of Angelenos renting and the median rent for a one-bedroom in LA costing $2,265 per month. The median household income in 2021 in LA County was $76,367. Students at universities across the country and the globe are facing increasing housing costs, which affects the poorest students the most. USC financial aid, meanwhile, badgers you to submit tax documents from three years ago to try to find ways to lower the university grant it gives you. When you are awarded an outside scholarship, USC will lower your university grant, making the outside scholarship worthless.

Ultimately, as student debt increases, the cost of education becomes higher, and post-graduate jobs struggle to keep you above the poverty line, those in poverty are left most vulnerable.


Zigi Kaiser

Zigi is a sophomore from Minneapolis, Minnesota studying International Relations with a minor in Psychology and Law. Her passions are U.S. relations with North Korea and China as well as Eastern European affairs. She is a U.S. Youth Ambassador to Brazil and she interned for Congresswoman Ilhan Omar.