College Guide


November 16, 2009 11:25 AM The Perils of Being a Poor Ivy Leaguer

By Jesse Singal

The Daily Princetonian has a good article on some of the difficulties faced by low-income students at Princeton. For some reason, this (relatively unimportant, at least compared to some of the other parts of the article) anecdote got me the most:

Freshman year, one of [Caitlin] Caldwell’s roommates furnished her entire room with furniture, a carpet, a television and a refrigerator. When that roommate asked her roommates to split the cost of cable service, which came to $60 each, Caldwell and another roommate from a low-income background initially declined. Caldwell, who ultimately agreed to pay, said she consulted with her RCA about these issues but added that the experience was unhelpful because her RCA was friendly with the roommate who asked to split the costs. Caldwell did not pursue the issue further.

For Caldwell and her roommate, that $60 month is not a throwaway expense; it’s real money. For her roommates, however, $60 is nothing—who wouldn’t pay that for cable? Not an easy divide to bridge, especially when you face it on a daily basis at a place like Princeton. It would wear you down after awhile.

Jesse Singal is a former opinion writer for The Boston Globe and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. He is currently a master's student at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Policy. Follow him on Twitter at @jessesingal.


  • buddy66 on November 16, 2009 6:28 PM:

    WTF's an RCA?

  • Walker on November 16, 2009 6:34 PM:

    Actually, unless they are hard core sports fans, I am surprised they would spend that much on cable. Just about everything other than sports is available online. Indeed that is how
    most college students I know watch TV.

  • MNPundit on November 16, 2009 6:53 PM:

    Yep, canceled my cable and throttled (a bit) my broadband. It's $40 but works just fine though it's noticeably slower. But I'm saving $65 a month so it's worth it.

  • Emily on November 16, 2009 9:16 PM:

    I guess that, as a current Princeton student, I should probably weigh in...

    (buddy66, an RCA is a Residential College Adviser. Same as an RA anywhere else, but they call it that because they want to emphasize how we live in a community within our residential college and all that jazz.)

    While I had my issues with that Prince article, mostly because the tone came across as awkwardly condescending, economic inequality really is the last frontier in terms of what kinds of inequality we're comfortable having conversations about here. The present university administration has done a world of good to make things easier for students of color and Jewish students, women, and students of sexual-orientation minorities, and has tried to help with the economic issue by greatly increasing financial aid. However, there are social issues at Princeton surrounding class and economic status that go back far enough to require a more aggressive approach.

    Most issues of socioeconomic ignorance at Princeton aren't quite like the anecdote about an entire living-room set that Walter Kirn tells in Lost in the Meritocracy, but I know I've come up against situations where I've been shocked out of my own bubble with regard to what I can assume about someone else's socioeconomic status. At least Princeton is increasingly becoming the kind of place where you can actually be confronted with that sort of real-world experience.

  • keith on November 16, 2009 10:38 PM:

    Bo freekin hoo. These students will be OK. I went through the same deal. Twice. So did my wife. Fortunately, for law school she will be on the other side of the fence. And when I have kids, they will not be eating ramen noodles three times a day, like I had to.

    It seems like hell when you are going through it, but eventually you look back on it with fond memories. Sure the rich aholes will try to rub it in their faces. But that is life. They will make a lot of money out of Princeton.

    When I was at Rice, I had to make photocopies b/c I could not afford books. At the end of the day, ti all worked out. The struggles that they are enduing will only incentivize them to make more money.

  • Chuck on November 17, 2009 4:06 AM:

    I was a poor kid at an elite college myself, there was a student on my floor who was paying his tuition from the capital gains on his trust fund portfolio and another kid whose father was on the Forbes billionaire list (and this was 15 years ago). I had no car, could not buy all of my books, couldn't even go in on pizza at night with the guys until I found a job. I was the only one on the floor who got a campus job.

    Keith - you seem to think the entire reason to go to an elite school is to make money but that is a limited perspective. A fair number of the people I went to school with went into non-profit work or teaching. Ans another critical difference is that the wealthy students could afford to get unpaid internships (I new several whose parents paid for them to live in prime locations like NYC or London for the summer to get the best internships) but guys like me had to try to find paid jobs so we could not get internships at most top firms. When graduation came the students with the top internships walked into great jobs or could afford to do things like go into the peace corps, or take one last summer off to travel before adulthood set in. The lower income students had to start working right away to try to get a head start on the student loans. I knew people who took jobs that started during senior week.

    I am not saying that this is a terrible cross to bear, being a person of color also had its challenges at this elite private school (the racial dynamics played out differently than I thought they would I admit - but that is for another time). I am saying that very few of my well off classmates ever gave any thought to the idea that some of us walking amongst them did not have access to money whenever we wanted or needed it.

    A lot of elite schools just don't think it through. If a student is getting a full ride because he or she qualifies for maximum aide, don't expect that same student to show up with 600-800 dollars for books. They also closed all the dorms for breaks, including Thanksgiving break which is only a couple of days and some of us could not afford to go anywhere (I lived 1200 miles from where I went to school - how was I supposed to afford to fly home for a four day weekend and then fly back home in two weeks for winter break?) When I asked if I could stay in my room the Residential Life people acted like it was the oddest thing they'd ever heard. Meanwhile my roommate was jetting off to Spain to see a concert for Thanksgiving weekend. Seriously. I wound up staying in an apartment that a junior friend of my had just off campus but with the dining halls closed I had to walk into town to get food - I was broke because my next paycheck was coming after the holiday, and back then grocery stores in that town did not take credit card (I had just gotten one with a horrible rate but I felt like I needed it to get by). So I walked to a Pizza Hut because it took credit cards and I ate there three days in a row over that break. It took me a few years after college to pay off that credit card as I wound up putting all my books and all my food from holiday breaks on it for the next three and a half years.

    I am a professor now and I see similar things going on at the private college I work for. I am trying to change the culture from within but it is not so easy.

  • dooflow on November 17, 2009 10:34 AM:

    You're a college professor, really? Nice writing skills buddy.

  • Chuck on November 20, 2009 6:04 AM:

    dooflow - I apologize if my stream of consciousness writing offends your delicate sensibilities. In my professional work I reread and edit my writing but on a blog post it tends to be first draft theater. It is always nice to be reminded by perfect strangers that I am imperfect.