Struggling Among the Elite


On a Thursday morning in April, Karissa Austin woke up at 8 a.m. in her dorm room behind Barnard College to get to work. Her walls are plastered with posters of Frida Kahlo, band flyers and pictures from her hometown of West Covina in California. Her shoes are scattered around her bed. She brushes her teeth, puts on makeup, steps over the pile of Red Bull cans lying in front of her roommate’s bed and sets out of her dorm building.

“Everyone thinks, oh Ivy League, that’s your ticket out of this rut. It’s all so much more complicated.”

-Karissa Austin

On the surface, her life is the same as any college student’s. But, Austin, who is a 19- year-old sophomore at Columbia University, is not on her way to a unpaid internship, like many of her classmates. Nor is she going to the library to study. Instead, she’s going to her work-study data entry job at the School of Social Work – a position that pays $11 an hour, reserved for students like her who need financial assistance.

Columbia University doesn’t release how many work-study placements it offers, nor does it share how many grants or scholarships they give out. One thing is certain though – many students like Austin, even at the Ivy Leagues, struggle to make ends meet, working jobs on and off campus to pay for student loans and groceries. “Everyone thinks, oh Ivy League, that’s your ticket out of this rut,” said Austin. “It’s all so much more complicated.”

Austin and her twin sister, Kristin, both sociology majors at Columbia, share the same burden as 15 percent of the Class of 2017 at Columbia – they are the first in their families to go to college. And, they’re doing it with barely any help. Their mom, a teacher, earns less than $25,000 a year. Her dad lives in Mexico and is unemployed. Financially, the girls are basically on their own.

That’s not to say that she doesn’t get any assistance. The university waives the majority of tuition and housing fees for anyone whose parents have a combined income of less than $60,000. By facilitating various federal aid programs and offering a sizeable grant that approaches $50,000 to some individuals, the school entices students from backgrounds like Austin’s to enroll. This means that Austin and her sister only have to pay around $3,000 in their student contribution – less than 10 percent of the average tuition cost for an undergrad student at Columbia.

They have some savings too; thanks to an account their parents opened when they were born. It’s not much, but it’s enough to cover books, the small tuition, meal plan and minor expenses like a MetroCard.

Her father, who oversees the savings account, often forgets to pay the school, Austin said, adding financial pressure to the girls. “[It’s] made me almost miss registration due to a financial hold on my account,” Austin said.

Even with her financial troubles partially mitigated, she still feels like she doesn’t fit in at Columbia. She attended public school, while many of her peers went to private prep schools. It comes up in day-to-day social situations, like going shopping with friends. One time, she was at Macy’s with a classmate from a privileged background and found two sweaters she liked. But, she hesitated to buy them. “He said, ‘Oh my god, stop being cheap, just buy both,’” she said. Frustrated and alienated, she felt like she had to explain herself when she didn’t buy the sweater.

She also thinks that her public school education didn’t prepare her as well academically. Unlike her classmates, Austin said she wasn’t offered any additional training to help land advanced jobs and internships in college. “Nobody interned at my high school, no one did research,” Austin said. “You realize you’re really behind on the game.”

After her freshman year, she considered dropping out of Columbia and re-enrolling at a state school in California in the hopes of finding a place where she fit in better – and where her skills would be considered more valuable. But, she realized that the generous grant Columbia offered made her education cheaper than any state school could.

And a part of her is glad that she stayed. Now that she’s at Columbia, she sometimes feels awkward going home. “People say, oh the Columbia girls are here,” Austin said. But, luckily, she’s found a group of “Columbia girls,” including her twin sister, at her sorority who face similar challenges. “We talk about it a lot and commiserate with the struggles,” she said.