It adds up. It’s hard to reduce each person’s unique college experience to three words, but from a strictly factual standpoint, these are perfect. Being at Penn is expensive, period. Forget tuition, rent, books—between seminars and problem sets, there are coffees to drink, Chipotle burritos to eat, weekends to be spent out, clubs and Greek organizations to join. Imagine, for a minute, that someone could show you the amount of money you’ve spent here. Would you want to know? For some students, there’s no choice but to know. They arrive at Penn and find out, sooner or later, that they can’t keep up with the cost of living and never will.
Sure, the education itself has become more accessible. Penn, buoyed by its billions, has used financial aid to bring in talented students of middle– and working–class backgrounds who couldn’t afford an elite education otherwise. That generous financial aid, though, often stops at tuition—you might get rent and meals if your package allows for them. And beyond even the biggest awards, life goes on outside the dining hall and the college house. What then?
The students featured here have had to navigate this campus, which can be so preoccupied with status and spending, with far less money than most. They’re deeply different and fall on a broad economic spectrum: they’re immigrants, sorority girls, part–time workers, sons of housekeepers and daughters of teachers. But together, they tell the story of a side of Penn that isn’t often talked about. It’s a story of awkward conversations, Excel spreadsheets cataloging each and every expense and that nagging thought, before you go to bed, of that drink you bought weeks ago that you shouldn’t have.
For most of these students, who generally did not come from cultures of wealth and privilege, arriving at Penn was a culture shock. Jessica*, who is affiliated with The Daily Pennsylvanian, came to Penn on the strength of her financial aid offer, but found that the money didn’t help with day–to–day life. “Freshman year was the most difficult,” she says. “When you make friends, you can’t just say, ‘oh, I can’t come to your birthday dinner, I don’t have 20 bucks.’ It’s 20 bucks, it shouldn’t be a big deal.” “It’s hard to explain things like this to my friends,” she says. “It’s not that I couldn’t trust [them]. I just didn’t want to be seen that way.”
Daniel* came from a socioeconomically diverse public school where his peers were just as likely to live in mansions as trailer parks. He came to Penn on substantial financial aid and with a goal to manage his money effectively. But he was taken aback at the spending habits of Penn students. “It takes a lot to rattle me, it wasn’t something that shocked me—it was just a cultural thing I noticed,” he says. He remembers suggesting going to Commons on an average night, and his friends suggested dinner at Pod. “I try to get whatever’s cheapest,” he says. “The way we live at Penn is not the way a normal 20–year–old should be living.”
For College senior Robert Franco, being unable to keep up with the high cost of social life was enough to make him consider leaving. Robert comes from a working–class neighborhood in North Philadelphia, but grew up following his mother around Penn, where she is a custodial worker. “When I did matriculate as an undergrad student, it definitely was a culture shock,” he says. “I remember when Gia Pronto was still a thing to go to…Gia’s really expensive! I could never go to that. And late night Wawa runs and stuff.” He seriously considered transferring out to another Philadelphia university where his friends were. “I felt like, maybe if I left, I wouldn’t have to worry about money, or social stuff,” he explains. Ultimately, Robert’s parents convinced him to stay. He says they reminded him “the opportunities provided here at Penn you can’t find at any other school in Philly. I’m glad I stayed for that.”
None of these students take participating in the average Penn lifestyle for granted—from big expenses to small ones. For them, engagement hinges on planning, hard work and sacrifices. Between her clubs, her sorority and her friends, Jessica is a typically busy Penn student. But since her parents can’t afford to contribute anything, she works part–time to make her lifestyle possible, in addition to taking out a considerable amount in loans. To her, every spending decision, big or small, is a question of: do I want to spend another day paying off loans? Or another hour in a Wharton behavioral lab? Generally, she says, “I try to work 15 hours a week, which is 15 hours I’m not doing homework, or sleeping or whatever. I have to compete with people who have the luxury of not having to do that. It changes the way you see earning money.”
Loans, though hard to swallow, are necessary to stay above water. “When I’m taking these loans out, I’m taking them to be at the bare minimum, it’s like, I’m not taking loans out to go to Smokes’.” No matter how well Jessica manages her situation, she believes some things will always be out of reach. “I’ve just accepted that I can never go out and get a drink and not worry about it. I went out…with my friend and I spent $12 on a drink. It was three weeks ago and I’m still thinking about it.”
Like Jessica, Robert’s financial aid allows him to attend Penn, but loans make the rest possible. He could’ve commuted from his home in North Philadelphia, but—worried about missing out on student culture by not living on campus—he decided to take out loans to afford it. “I’m in debt mostly so that I could be on campus and be a full–time Penn student,” he says.
Daniel hasn’t had to take these kinds of measures. He says his parents work hard to make sure he has what he needs, but he still must make sacrifices and tough decisions compared to most in his social circle. Freshman year, he joined an off–campus Greek organization, where dues are high and members tend to hail from privileged, affluent backgrounds. Daniel sold his parents on the professional benefits of joining a group like this one, and they contribute to his dues, with occasional help from extended family.
But that’s just getting in the door. “The kids in my frat go downtown every single week,” Daniel says. “When you go downtown, it’s $10 for cab, $10 back…every time you go downtown it’s at least $100. I’m not really into that whole scene.” On the occasions he does go, he drinks beforehand to avoid spending money on expensive drinks and bottle service. “You are able to do things wealthy people do, you just have to find a way to do it cheaply.” But spring break—an institution in his house—complicated that. Finding the money for a $1,500 trip, he says, required planning nearly a year in advance. “I told my parents, don’t get me anything for Christmas, no birthday presents.”
Rachel*, who would be considered middle–class almost anywhere but here, manages her funds more intensely than most. “I’ve always been frugal, and it doesn’t necessarily bother me that I’ve had to keep tight constraints on my budget,” she says. Nevertheless, she explains, “I have ridiculous spreadsheets on my computer, all of what I spend on groceries for the week, divided by the number of weeks that I’ve lived here, so that I can keep track of where I am…It’s a little ridiculous,” she says, laughing.
One of those spreadsheets is for the sorority she joined her freshman year. Navigating sorority life, with its dues and numerous out–of–pocket expenses, is challenging. “Thus far this year, God, with big–little week it’s over $1,000 that I’ve spent on a sorority.” She is quick to put her situation in perspective: “It goes to show you that it’s not like I don’t have the means to do that, because if I truly was struggling in any way, I’d cut it out,” she says. “But it is tough.” To make things work, she almost never goes out to eat. Friends, she says, have basically stopped asking her to go out anywhere.
Despite their different backgrounds and ways of making ends meet, those featured here agreed that wealthier students don’t look down on or pity less wealthy ones, but seem almost unable to understand their lives.
Rachel brought up an illustrative example from a spring break conversation this year. She ran into a friend who asked about break, and she told him she planned to stay in Philly. According to Rachel, he said, “shit, that sucks!” She responded that she was looking forward to it, but he kept pressing the issue—saying “that’s so lame” or “why aren’t you going?” “He was going somewhere, PV, PC, I don’t know…I tried to give him every possible excuse without saying I don’t have $1,500 to spend on a week vacation.” She finally said that she couldn’t spend that much money, to which the friend responded, “oh…ok.”
Jessica has had plenty of similar experiences. “A lot of people have very strong assumptions that are very hard to combat,” she says. When talking to peers, Jessica explains, “If I say, ‘sorry, I don’t have money for this,’ they don’t get it. If they don’t have money, it’s that their parents forgot to put it in their account, not that it doesn’t exist.”
Ignorance about the lifestyles of socioeconomically diverse students appears to be a status quo around here, and it’s one that this group would like to see changed. A difficult point, however, is that Penn students can engage in conversations on a number of issues, but money—and socioeconomic diversity—is a topic with which few are comfortable. Jessica feels that “other issues we talk about here are often not specific to one individual.” Students’ financial situations are highly personal and can change often; “I guess it’s too awkward and specific to bring up,” she says.
It’s unclear how to advance the conversation, but a few students pointed to advising as a potential avenue for improving the socioeconomic dialogue on campus and helping students adjust. Dr. Pamela Felder, a faculty member at the Graduate School of Education who specializes in diversity in higher education, feels that Penn has done well in accommodating students of diverse backgrounds and identifies advising as one of the university’s strengths. At the same time, she says, “advising is certainly an area where we could do better—not just Penn, higher education in general—helping students find the resources to support their interests, and being facilitators in terms of making connections for students.”
As far as advising is concerned, Robert agrees more could be done. “There could be better mentoring in college houses,” he says, “or people in college houses that are aware of economic situations of people. I think that would go a long way.” Daniel believes that any improvements have to come from the student body. “I think…students that come from lower backgrounds need to realize they deserve to be here,” he says. He has a freshman friend from a similar background, and they often talk about how to live what he calls “the Penn lifestyle on a budget.” Daniel says it’s helped boost his friend’s confidence, and feels he would’ve benefitted from that mentorship as a freshman.
Fundamentals of Collective Undergraduate Success (FOCUS), a new student group, is attempting to foster those kinds of relationships and fill a support void on campus, regardless of the student’s status or background. Azani Pinkney, a College senior, co–founded the group with the broad mission of promoting “undergraduate success” in a variety of ways. A part of the plan is facilitating student–to–student advising and providing students with upperclassman mentors. Beyond that, Azani hopes FOCUS will help improve the dialogue on socioeconomic diversity. “So much of what I feel like goes on at Penn in terms of culture here is about fighting silence and replacing it with cultures of understanding and communication.”
No one’s suggesting that more financial aid is the solution. Still, students expressed hope that more communication will lead to freedom and comfort for socioeconomically diverse students, not more awkwardness and tension. For a number of reasons, talking about money in college is hard—but it doesn’t need to be as painful as it is. “Talking about this is liberating,” Jessica said. “We talk about everything so much. Why is this the one thing that people ignore?”
*Students’ names have been changed to protect their identities.
Sam Brodey is a senior from Los Angeles majoring in political science. He is the former managing editor of 34th Street Magazine.