"If I were to pay that amount of money today, I would be flat broke," he said.
At that point in the admissions process, a legacy of attending college or being surrounded by college-educated people may have helped Weathers' family. Savvy parents often pit one elite school against another, trying to negotiate a better financial aid package. Or the family could have applied to the University of Illinois' smaller honors college for standout students.
The family didn't know any of that. Navigating the financial aspect of college, which Chris Weathers called "a never-ending loop," can be a mind-boggling process, even for highly-educated parents. Armstrong mentioned that even though she'd written a book about college, knew many admissions officers, and grew up with a professor as a father, she was "baffled and befuddled by the money and the logistics. It's almost impossible to navigate well."
Still, Weathers reassured his family, who didn't know much about applying for loans, that it would all work out. April turned into summer, which dragged into fall, and on the first day of school, Weathers still hadn't gotten the loans he needed. He said he applied to scholarships, but they were all need-based. So now, weeks after school has started, he's scrambling to get a loan, while his father has applied to refinance his home. The first time Weathers went to the financial aid office to see if he could improve his package, he said a school official suggested he look into transfer options.
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"That was really discouraging," he said. "I was like, 'I got accepted here for a reason. I'm not leaving'…I didn't think I'd go broke trying to go to school."
But some would say the financial aid officer had a point. If, hypothetically, his financial package stays the same for four years, Weathers will be staring down nearly $170,000 in debt. Michael Fabricant, a Hunter College professor and author of Organizing for Educational Justice, says going to a public university allows a middle-class student "to sidestep all that debt. There's a real power in being able to build a life right out of college without worry about student loans." Debt requires a graduate to immediately seek out a few high-paying industries, like finance, rather than "engag[ing] in experimentation he or she would otherwise be able to."
A well-known Brookings Institution study by Stacy Dale and Alan Kreuger found that for the majority of students, the most important factor in long-term success is whether one earns a Bachelor's degree, not where it's earned. But the study made an exception for low-income and first-generation college students. In those cases, the networks and personal attention the students have access to in elite colleges make all the difference. At a big, impersonal university, said Fabricant, "you don't forge relationships with people whose families are affluent and have vast networks." First-generation students can do well in state schools, but their upward mobility "may be far slower." These students are 13 percent more likely to graduate in six years from a private institution than a public one.
"If you want to join the leadership class in American society, you're better off staying at a place like Williams," said Richard Kahlenberg, senior fellow at the Century Foundation. "Look at where our Supreme Court justices have gone. Look at our last few presidents."
Weathers loves Williams because of the "super-intelligent people" surrounding him. He wants to be a lawyer or a neurologist, although he has the disposition for politics—he can't walk 10 feet on campus without running into someone he knows. Everyone seems to want to be friends with him. On a typical afternoon in his dorm, his hall mates will knock on his door to come hang in his unusually spacious corner room, outfitted with a lava lamp and hang-a-round chair.
Weathers said he's already struck up a rapport with the professors who teach his classes, two of which have fewer than 30 students. And before classes started, Weathers benefited from a pre-orientation program devoted to first-generation college students, meant to soften the blow of culture shock.
"It's an invisible identity," said Rosanna Reyes, an associate dean at Williams and a first-generation student herself. "It's easier to get lost…bigger schools don't have the ability to devote so much energy to helping these students."
Programs like Williams' pre-orientation are becoming more common, and to their credit, many institutions, regardless of endowment, are making sure they set aside funds for low-income students. But where does that leave families like the Weatherses?
"The middle class gets squeezed," said Kahlenberg. Lots of colleges have yet to recognize that "not just the poorest are in need."