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The Hidden Costs of the College Experience

Winter 2024

Michigan’s Elite Shadows: A First-Gen Journey Through Wealth and Opportunity

By Michael Hartt


Interviewee Bio: Annie Wang is a private equity technology consultant at PwC Strategy&, who graduated in 2023 from the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. At Michigan, she was known as a changemaker who advocated for marginalized students. She won the 2023 Martin King Jr. Spirit Award in recognition of her work, and was admitted to the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business MBA program soon after. Wang plans to complete her MBA after a deferral period, and continue her transformative leadership in whatever path she takes next.


The economic privilege most University of Michigan students hold is no secret to those who have spent time on our campus. Buying $7 lattes is a social norm, class discussions about break plans are often peppered with stories of tropical vacations or European adventures, and the onset of cold temperatures is marked by a proliferation in the number of students sporting $1,000+ Canada Goose jackets.

For the few students at Michigan who come from a low-income family, adjusting to the campus culture can be daunting. In a 2017 project, The New York Times estimated that only 3.6 percent of Michigan’s student body comes from a family in the bottom 20 percent of the national income distribution. Annie Wang, a 2023 graduate of the Ross School of Business, experienced this adjustment firsthand, given her background as the child of Chinese immigrants who settled in Virginia with a little more than $1,000. Throughout her four years at Michigan, she overcame imposter syndrome and isolation, feelings that manifested from the convergence of Michigan’s norms and her background. She said that while greater structural inequities were often on her mind at Michigan, she was also profoundly impacted by seemingly minuscule norms, like owning a Ross-branded Patagonia jacket or going home for shorter breaks as an out-of-state student.

“For breaks, like Thanksgiving or when Parents Weekend happens, I felt kind of ostracized and lonely, because, you know, I couldn't see my family. And that definitely was difficult,” Wang said. “The first thing that comes to mind [from not fitting the Michigan-norm] is imposter syndrome. You might think that [your] voice doesn't matter, [you] can't speak up, or [you] don't belong here.”

Wang says much still needs to be done at Michigan to support low-income and first-generation students, but she is glad to see that progress has been made, even during her four years in Ann Arbor. She is thankful for the financial aid she received throughout college, without which she says she would not have been able to attend Michigan. In addition to getting tuition assistance, she benefited from programs like Academic Success at Ross, which provides orientation opportunities for under-resourced students as well as grants for technology and professional attire. She was also able to get funding to go home for winter break through Michigan’s Home for the Holidays grant program. 

Given the size of Michigan’s ballooning $18 billion endowment, she added, there is always room for the size and accessibility of financial aid programs to be improved. She recognized that her determination to advocate for herself influenced her access to aid opportunities, indicating that students who need aid are falling through the cracks. 

“It's difficult for a lot of people, especially if they're juggling a ton of other stuff for them to look into the resources the university provides,” Wang said. “So I think there [needs to be] more structure from the university for identifying the people in this position or identifying the people working multiple part-time jobs on the side, and then offering them resources that are viable and easily accessible.”

But more importantly, she said, work is still needed to improve social circumstances for under-resourced students at Michigan. Wang contributed immensely to this goal at Ross, where she was the Vice President of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for Ross’ student council, and the founder of the First-Gen Network, an undergraduate student organization dedicated to fostering community among first-generation students.

As Vice President of DEI, she hosted a multitude of events aiming to make the Ross club recruitment process, known for its all-encompassing and cut-throat nature, more equitable. She also advocated for changes to the process that would make it easier for under-resourced students, who often have extensive work commitments in addition to classes and extracurricular activities, to join clubs. Her advocacy culminated in the Ross administration’s decision to limit the number of club rush events that students can be required to attend to be considered for club admission. 

Even though she completed her undergraduate degree, and is now working full time for PwC Strategy&, Wang still works to support students as they navigate challenges. She offers a holistic growth coaching service through her website, AWinperspective, and regularly produces wellness podcasts for her In Perspective podcast series.

Wang encourages under-resourced students to continue fighting for change to make Michigan more equitable. She said the most difficult thing she overcame was the feeling that she could do nothing to prevail over the barriers that stood in her way. Accomplishing the latter challenge, she said, allowed her work on the former to flourish.

“As someone who is low income (and) first-gen, I think the majority of the work lies in the students,” Wang said. “No matter the cards you were dealt, it's in your power to overcome them. How you perceive your opportunities is equally as important as taking advantage of them.”

Admission Economics: Why Elite Colleges Accept Wealthy Students

By Andrii Kolenov

Attending an elite college is the golden opportunity for a low-income person to break the familial cycle of poverty and advance their professional status. According to NPR, low-income students graduating from highly selective universities are sixty percent more likely to reach the top one percent of the income distribution, twice as likely to attend an elite graduate school, and thrice as likely to work at a prestigious firm, compared to those graduating from less selective colleges.

Unfortunately, the nation’s most high achieving universities tend to exclude the socioeconomically disadvantaged. The New York Times reported that a third of the University of Michigan’s students come from the top five percent of earners, half come from the top ten percent of earners, and only 3.6% are from the bottom fifth of earners. According to The Michigan Daily, U-M ranks last for socioeconomic mobility out of the top twenty-five public universities. Yet, it’s still more inclusive than the Ivy League universities, which accept half of the wealthy kids who score in the 99th percentile on the SAT and only ten percent of lower-class and middle-class kids who score within the same range according to Forbes.

Why do colleges support affirmative action for the rich? One might reason that wealthy kids have access to superior academic and tutoring opportunities, thus performing better in school and on standardized tests. Indeed, rich students typically attend better-funded schools and can afford to take a standardized test several times. As a result, Opportunity Insights (a Harvard research group) found that the wealthiest one percent of Americans are thirteen times more likely to score 1300 or higher on the SAT than low-income children.

Nonetheless, in a separate study the research group uncovered that wealthy kids possess a leg up in admissions even when compared to low-income students with similar academics and standardized test scores. According to them, differences in application rates explain about twenty-two percent of the gap in acceptances and differences in matriculation rates explain another twelve percent. However, most of the discrimination arises from collegiate policies on legacy admissions, athletics, and nonacademic ratings. 

Opportunity Insights found that legacy admissions explain thirty percent of the gap in elite college admissions. According to its website, in the fall of 2022, the University of Michigan solicited an impressive $742 million in alumni donations. Some Ivy universities received over a billion. To maintain these profitable relations, many universities choose to grant alumni’s children preference in admission. Forbes writes that students whose parents attended an Ivy college are three times as likely to be admitted and high-income legacies are five times as likely to get in. The ACLU highlights that at top universities more legacy students get accepted than Black and Latinx students combined. In short, legacy admissions perpetuate the status of privileged families for generations.


Preference for recruited athletes explains roughly sixteen percent of the admissions gap. Intercollegiate athletics bring in a lot of money for top universities, with some making over $100 million annually. Football is a hallmark of Michigan’s campus culture, and the University generates about $8.7 million from each home game according to Bridge Michigan. In turn, Michigan rubber stamps nearly every recruited athlete's application. For example, The Washington Post reported that the University accepted ninety-three percent of recruited athletes who applied in 2018 compared to twenty-three percent of general applicants. Wealthy parents are more likely to invest in skillful coaches and quality sports equipment for their kids, especially for the country-club sports favored at top universities such as rowing, fencing, and pole vaulting. As a result, rich children are more likely to thrive athletically. The New York Times found that at the twelve most elite colleges, one in eight admitted students from the top one percent was a recruited athlete. For the bottom sixty percent, that figure was one in twenty. College preference for athletes ends up being a preference for those who can afford professional training.

Non-academic ratings explain the remaining twenty percent of the wealth gap in admissions. Richer students tend to score higher in the nonacademic dimension of college admissions such as extracurricular activities, volunteering, and recommendation letters. Wealthier kids can afford endless sailing lessons - after all, it’s easier to spend time sailing or volunteering when you don't need to work a job. Recommendation letters from elite private schools are notoriously laudatory and some counselors even call admission officers to promote certain students. As a result, wealthy kids are 1.5 times more likely to have higher nonacademic ratings than middle or lower-class kids as reported by The New York Times.

What can be done? Some proposed expanding the student body size and ending need-blind admissions. Opportunity Insights argues that a higher emphasis on academics and standardized tests with a decreased focus on nonacademic qualities would greatly improve socioeconomic diversity. The study demonstrated that if elite colleges got rid of preferences for legacies, athletes, and private school students, children from the top one percent would constitute ten percent of the class down from the actual sixteen percent.            

Ultimately, elite universities have few low-income students because it’s not as profitable to admit low-income students. The long-term solution is to fundamentally change college incentive structures, so a student’s potential profitability for a university doesn’t factor into their admission decision.

The Costs of the College Experience Transcend Class

By Megan DeGrand and Jenna Hausmann

Interviewee Bio: Sharon Song is a sophomore at the University of Michigan studying Material Science. Song comes from the suburbs of Los Angeles, California. She’s always lived with her parents who willingly and easily provided for her. As she began living on her own in college, she realized there are a lot of trivial expenses she hadn’t originally paid much mind to that she now must deal with on her own.


College is a transformative period, ushering in significant changes not only in personal development but also in mindset and priorities. Students, regardless of their backgrounds, commonly develop a heightened sense of financial responsibility and awareness throughout their pursuit of higher education. This academic journey frequently triggers a transformation in spending habits as individuals grapple with the challenges of newfound accountability. While the intensity of this burden may vary among students based on their economic status and background, the shared sentiment is that many people feel the strain of keeping up with the expenses associated with college life. The financial challenges are a common thread that ties students from various backgrounds in the shared struggle of managing the costs that come with higher education.

The University of Michigan is known for having expensive tuition and dorming costs, but most of its admitted students, by the looks of it, should be able to afford it. However, the costs of the Michigan experience go beyond the University’s fees. On campus, students are required to buy textbooks for specific classes and pay fees to be a part of student organizations or clubs that give them more experience in their desired field. Further, students may feel pressure to spend money to engage in the social aspects of the University, like buying $216 football season tickets, purchasing pricy Michigan merchandise at the M Den, and even going out to eat or party on the weekends.

Growing up in an upper-middle-class family can shield someone from the worry of everyday expenses. However, the transition to college represents a shift in which students living independently realize that seemingly trivial expenses, such as daily coffee runs and convenience store snacks, can accumulate quickly. These costs, once covered by parents, now fall onto the shoulders of the students. This transition can make students better understand the value of money and adjust their financial habits.

Sharon Song’s perspective highlights how this change of responsibility acts as an eye-opener, forcing individuals to confront the true prices of daily items and prompting a reevaluation of spending habits. Though her parents pay for her extraneous costs such as tuition and housing, day-to-day expenses are now Song’s responsibility. Previously indifferent to buying on-brand products like Vitamin Water, she now consciously opts for generic alternatives or refrains from purchasing the product altogether. This shift illustrates a newfound awareness and practical adjustment to the economic realities of living independently. However, when considering the often more challenging transition for lower-income students, Song acknowledges her privilege, expressing gratitude for the ability to save money comfortably, without the stress or anxiety associated with financial constraints.

With enhanced financial awareness, Song has developed a more consumer-conscious mindset, evaluating the importance of buying something based on her level of desire. Despite occasionally forgoing experiences or products, she doesn't perceive it as missing out. “I have turned down opportunities in college because of the cost, but I see it then as the opportunity not being worth it,” Song said. She explained her desire to join an engineering program, but some of the annual costs didn’t seem to justify what she thought she would get out of the experience. Even with smaller social activities such as ice skating at Yost for $7 (plus $3 for renting skates), she rationed that there would be less costly events in the future that are cheaper and as much or even more fun.

Students from upper-middle-class families still may have a sense of dependability with their parents if they need a little extra spending money or help with groceries. If even these students are struggling to keep up with their peers on campus, this directs new attention to lower income students. Lower income students do not have the same luxury to decide if they want to go out or what they can direct their funds towards. While many students are stressed about spending money and want to save it, lower income students need to save their money for necessities.

“I am thankful that I can be comfortable in saving money, instead of being stressed or anxious about saving money,” Song said. Song attributes her money-saving habits more to discipline than necessity, something that her parents instilled in her early on. Acknowledging this privilege, she appreciates the freedom to participate in activities of her choice. Nevertheless, Song remains considerate in her spending decisions, demonstrating a mindful approach to her financial choices.

No matter their economic circumstances, college students share universal financial worries. It's imperative to listen to the various struggles students face with finances, aiding them in navigating these stressors and, hopefully, improving their adjustment. Recognizing and addressing the financial pressures every student experiences is vital for fostering positive changes in their lives.


The Real Cost of Off-Campus Housing

By Alex Scheib and Marissa Kosco

Interviewee Bio: Eva Ji is a junior majoring in the School of  Information and minoring in English and Art/Design. She moved from China to California when she was in fourth grade and is currently living in Michigan for school. She aspires to pursue a career that uses design to help people. In her free time, she likes to draw, watch movies, and try new recipes.


Every fall, University of Michigan students are faced with the daunting task of finding housing for the following year. Almost a year before they will move in, students need to plan where and with whom they’re living with. The lack of housing in Ann Arbor has made this process incredibly stressful, and has been aggravated by increasing rent prices. It has been known to break friendships when the friend group of five can only find a house that fits four, or the roommate who has classes on North Campus can’t bring a car because her friends want to live in an apartment without available parking. This only further alienates those who need to factor cost into their housing decision more heavily than their friends do. More often than not, the person bumped out of the housing agreement is the friend whose family will struggle to afford it.

Eva Ji is a junior at the University of Michigan with a major in the School of Information and Art and English minors, mostly taking classes on North Campus. Ji currently lives a 40 minute walk from campus because it is more affordable. The further away one lives, the cheaper housing gets and the less desirable the location becomes. She highlights how buses to her classes on campus are often unreliable, stop running after certain hours, and can only get so close to where she lives. She is anxious about getting to and from her commitments on campus in a timely manner and walking home alone at night if she misses the bus, but this is the only housing she could find in her price range. Next year, Ji’s rent is increasing by $267 per person, meaning she must find housing elsewhere. She actually has to move to Ypsilanti, a nearby town with cheaper rent, in order to continue her education. She does not have a car and will have to rely on public transportation, which can take about 45 minutes to an hour, to make it to North Campus for her classes.

As a result, Ji has to drop her commitments and clubs, which can impact her ability to get jobs down the line due to a lack of involvement on campus. She can’t go home for lunch or rest between classes, which is harming her mental and physical health, and doesn’t have time to socialize with anybody but her roommates. Even then, she details how their travel schedules are so time-consuming and exhausting that she can easily go up to three weeks without seeing her roommates, who are often too fatigued to hang out anyway.

Imagine how different her college experience is from a student who lives a block away from their classes, favorite hang out spots, and school resources, because their family can afford a higher rent. We have all of these free resources on campus, but for people in Ji’s situation who can’t easily get to campus, it’s almost as if they’re not free anymore. A perfect example is the accessibility of free interview spaces and the career center. A student who lives near campus can visit the library for research, attend resume building workshops, and utilize all the other pop-ups and helpful resources available, but Ji lives an hour's bus ride away and has to prioritize her classes when she is on campus.

Housing on campus is only guaranteed for first-year students according to the University’s student life website. Most students move off campus, with few choosing to stay in dorms, or to become Resident Advisors (RAs) after their freshman year. RAs have free housing, but if you are already on a scholarship, being an RA can decrease the amount of aid you receive, making it an unattractive option for low-income students. Because it’s an incredibly competitive process, most people are left to scramble for housing if they find out too late that they don’t get the position. As for living in the dorms, it costs anywhere from $12,247 a year to $18,332 based on the number of roommates and the size of the room. This is quite expensive considering students don’t stay in dorms over the summer or winter breaks, meaning you are paying $1,530/month for the eight months of the year that you live there. At that point, it can be almost cheaper to live off campus where rents can cost anywhere from $800/month for the smallest room in a prorated room in a house to $1,800/month for a room in a state-of-the-art suite style apartment building.

With rents rapidly increasing each year, stories like Ji’s need to be told, as more students are facing economic barriers to housing which is subsequently taking a toll on their education. The work-life balance is different for every student and where you can afford to live plays a huge role in the college experience.

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