Five Tips for Surviving Life in an Ivy League for Students of Modest Means

How to Survive the Ivy League As a Student of Modest Means

  • Talk to Family
  • Focus on the Long Term
  • Find Free Events
  • Build Support Networks
  • Seek Help

Ivy League schools offer generous financial aid to low-income students. In reality, those funds don’t cover everything students need. Trips with friends, brand-new textbooks and designer clothes are important for fitting in, but they aren’t part of the budget. What can first-generation college students do to thrive in the Ivy League? Here are five tips.

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1. Talk to Family

One of the biggest barriers for students of modest means at Ivy League schools is family expectations. First-generation college students have parents who don’t understand the demands of higher education or its strict schedules. Before heading to the dorms, students should have a heartfelt conversation with their extended family about life at an Ivy League school. Families need to know that students aren’t available during class exams and that it’s difficult to provide financial support while attending school full-time.

2. Focus on the Long Term

An Ivy League education is a passport to a new world. The four years of undergraduate education are the training ground. Once students get through the difficulties of college, they’ll be ready to reap the rewards of their hard work for the rest of their lives. A good way to do this is identifying a career path before starting classes.

3. Find Free Events

It’s the little things that end up: A latte at Starbucks, a lunch out on the town or a shopping trip for new clothes. A big barrier for low-income students at elite schools is the constant pressure for expensive social outings. Although Ivy League schools offer need-blind financial aid programs, those grants don’t include a brunch budget. Rich students can’t understand why their low-income peers have to turn down social invitations, and this can make it hard to build friendships. For poor students, this is a chance to seize the initiative. Every Ivy League school offers a dizzying array of free concerts, performance, and lectures on campus. Big-city schools like Columbia or Harvard are right next to an urban jungle of free or free-with-a-student-ID events. A social life doesn’t have to add up to big costs.

4. Build Support Networks

Now is the best time in American history to be a low-income student at an Ivy League school. These universities are realizing their lack of economic diversity and trying to address it, as a recent article in the Harvard Crimson explains. This means poor students are stuck rubbing shoulders with the elite. Instead, it’s possible for students from low-income families to find peers during their Ivy League education. It’s helpful to have a shoulder to lean on and friends who can understand the difficult choice between going out for drinks and buying food for the week.

5. Seek Help

Every Ivy League college offers support services for first-generation college students. These include academic counseling, small-scale grants for emergencies or just keeping the dining hall open over school breaks. New students should talk to their advisers about how to access this help for students of modest means.

More than anything else, a world-class education represents possibilities. That’s as true for fifth-generation Harvard students as it is for a first-generation Cornell student. With the right approach, students of modest means can find academic and social success at Ivy League schools.