The Other Ivy League Life

At Columbia University, most students aren’t counting pennies. Parveen Rahman does, though. That she attends class all day, then travels all over the city to work as a private tutor, and then comes home to count every cent in her weekly ledger, doesn’t mean she is having a bad day. It’s just the beginning of an ordinary week.

Rahman, who is a biomedical engineering student, on the path to becoming a doctor asked not to use her real name because she didn’t want her family to know what she is going through.

A college education is hard work, but for Rahman the hill is a steeper climb. She has to pay her own way. When she isn’t taking notes or rifling through her study packs, she is working.

The percentage of college students in the U.S. who come from families without much money is surprisingly high. According to the Center of National Center for Education Statistics, 29 percent of college students in America come from households that make less than $20,000 a year. They tend to build up student debt, and often take part-time jobs to pay for other expenses, even if they’re on a scholarship, like Rahman.

Statistics about the economic levels of Ivy League students are less firm, but most students come from far more comfortable backgrounds than Rahman.

Sixty percent of the incoming Ivy league students tend to come from the top 10 percent of the socioeconomic spectrum according to Richard Sanders, professor of law at UCLA, who studies racial and economic discrimination in college education. And Columbia is the fourth most expensive college in America, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The challenge doesn’t seem to bother Rahman. For her, the job of thriving at school while trying to stay financially afloat seems less like a chore than a pastime. Her week is crammed, but she never fails to smile. Born to Bangladeshi parents who emigrated more than 20 years ago, her story is consistent with many second-generation immigrants whose parents have sacrificed their dreams for their children.

She pencils in the expenditure and earnings for the week. Little pluses and minuses are neatly etched next to the numbers. It’s meticulous, right down the last cent.

She whips out her white iPhone C and looks up email and work appointments. “A real boon to keep me organized,” she said. The phone is her only extravagance in a very frugal life. In addition to paying her own expenses and a small percentage of her own college tuition, she also helps her parents by paying part of her sister’s private education in Philadelphia, which totals some $25,000 a year.

She needs to be organized and punctual. On a typical Monday, Rahman has a full week scheduled, with four different students scattered all over the city—Brooklyn, Harlem, near Columbus Circle, and the Upper East Side. She faithfully refills her Metro card on the fifth day of every month. Her time and money are well monitored.

“I have specific days for different things,” she said. “I pay my phone bill and my sister’s on the 15th of every month.”

Every Sunday, Rahman brings out a single ruled paper ledger with a tan red cover. It’s from a stationery shop in the rough part of Philadelphia where she spent the early part of her childhood. She buys one for 99 cents each time she goes home for a visit.

She pencils in the expenditure and earnings for the week. Little pluses and minuses are neatly etched next to the numbers. It’s meticulous, right down the last cent. “I’ve done it since I started working,” said Rahman.

Rahman began working in a diner at the age of 14, and slowly started climbing the salary ladder. As a tutor for children in New York, she charges $45 an hour, working through an agency. She religiously deposits her earnings the same day she fills up her ledger.

Costs also rise and fall throughout the year. The first quarter of the year is the easiest, but as May approaches, more checks begin to bear her signature, because her sister’s annual tuition bill needs to be paid. So does a small percentage of her own college tuition fees.

She is always finding ways to cut costs. Rahman lives with her partner in university housing close to the Morningside campus, where she moved in November and were was able to lower their living costs. They started buying in bulk from a Costco outside the city last September. This has kept costs significantly down. “We bought so much,” she said, opening her arms wide. “I still have a huge box of detergent left after shopping there.”

But her lifestyle could change. For Rahman, becoming a doctor might change the game for her and her family. She has a few years to go.