It’s the sound that, for college students, can inflict satisfaction, a twinge or deep regret. It’s the whistle a Wildcard makes swiping in at a dining hall. And it’s the hiss a debit card emits after its bank account takes a blow. They sound identical, but for some students, the difference can mean everything.
As a freshman last year in Willard, Allison* wanted to use her meal plan. Right downstairs, the dining hall was convenient, and after all, she was already paying for the food. As the year went on, though, her friends insisted on eating elsewhere — and spending money she just didn’t have.
“People would always want to go out to dinner,” the Communication sophomore says. “I was kind of uneasy about it because I’d want to go with, but I have a meal plan for a reason, and it’s a very expensive meal plan.”
Allison often feels pressure to spend money to fit in. It’s a common dilemma, but for many, the pressure is heightened at Northwestern.
“It’s hard to find the balance between feeling like you aren’t going out with your friends enough and spending enough time doing fun things, but also trying to be money-conscious,” Allison says.
The costs of a social life at any college can add up — sans parental restrictions, it’s easy to go out and spend money on restaurants, concerts or shopping sprees. And Northwestern campus bears a distinct nature of wealth, and with that, chronic spending.
Part of this is geographic. Downtown Evanston — with boutique shops, brand-name stores and restaurants — can keep students in a bubble. Dining, shopping and going out options are limited to what’s in walking distance on Sherman, Davis and Church. The cost in time and El fare for a trip to Chicago curbs our access to a wider selection.
“Around here, you don’t really have many options,” says Weinberg sophomore Mikaela*. “If you’re like, ‘Oh, I need something to go out in tonight,’ you have to go to Urban Outfitters and buy a $60 dress. That’s the most money I spend, a quick, ‘Oh, I need a pair of shoes for formal, I have to go find some in Evanston.’ Little things like that.”
Though her parents pay for tuition, Mikaela plans on paying them back for half of the costs incurred during her time here, including books and sorority dues. Her family doesn’t qualify for financial aid, which means she’ll owe her parents more than $100,000 after she graduates. Ever-aware that extra costs add to her overall debt, she feels pressure from her friends to spend money. When she goes shopping for new heels or going-out clothes in the confines of downtown Evanston, she often finds herself spending more than she wants to.
Allison sees the same quick-fix syndrome — only she can’t participate in the spending. Whenever there’s a formal or other dress-up event, some of her sorority sisters go to Old Orchard or the high-end shops in Evanston for new clothes. She stays behind, perusing her closet for clothes she’s worn before.
Beyond clothing, living in Evanston and being apart of the Northwestern community is expensive. Even with WildCard discounts from retailers in Evanston, having a social life can be costly. A non-matinee student movie ticket is $8.50, and a drink at Norbucks or treat at Red Mango can be over $3 a pop. On campus, extracurriculars like Greek life and Ski Trip require deeper pockets. Participating in Greek life, which almost 40 percent of undergraduates choose to do, costs an average of $650 a year for new members, and winter break’s annual Ski Trip is almost $400.
Before moving to campus, Weinberg freshman Larry* made vague plans for their room in Willard. He and his roommate would probably bunk their beds for more floor space, and maybe they would add a futon for guests. Then, the first week of school, boxes started showing up in the room.
Larry watched as his roommate unpacked a new coffee table, couch, rug, video projector and a robot vacuum. He doesn’t mind the additions; he appreciates the comfortable couch and the convenience of a self-starting cleaner. But he feels the lamp and fridge he brought don’t match up. “I felt kind of bad that he was buying all this stuff for our room, and I had hardly bought anything,” he says. “I felt like I wasn’t doing my part.
“It’s not that I don’t have money,” he says. “I just don’t want to spend it because I need to use it for bigger things. I just want to save money.”
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Allison attended a public high school in a working-class Chicago suburb. She says she’s found that others who didn’t grow up in similar circumstances often have trouble empathizing with people who have limited financial resources.
“A lot of people have a tough time understanding because they haven’t ever been in a place where they had to deal with having a budget or making their own money,” she says. “When you’re trying to budget yourself because you’re on that limited income, it’s hard for them to understand where you’re coming from, and why your case isn’t the same as theirs.”
After a requisite year in the dorms, Weinberg sophomore Peter* moved to the Park Evanston, a luxury apartment complex close to campus. Because he doesn’t have a meal plan, he often buys groceries from the Whole Foods next door or eats out in Evanston. He considers the proximity to so many dining options a major factor in his decision to come to Northwestern. Peter says he understands if someone can’t afford to go out to eat or spend money on other activities, and he thinks they are unfortunately missing out on one of the best aspects of going here.
“If there are kids on financial aid who aren’t able to do the same things I am, it’s unfortunately limiting their experience because a school like Northwestern, in Evanston and right outside of Chicago, is such a great resource,” Peter says. “If they’re not able to spend the money, I think they may be losing out.”
And for a university working to increase low-income student enrollment, being located in an expensive town could be an issue. But university spokesman Alan Cubbage thinks that student life doesn’t halt for those who aren’t big spenders. “It’s a different experience,” he says. “Does it perhaps limit choices? Perhaps it does. But I would hope that there are enough alternative experiences available at the university.”
Though not everyone can afford to be a part of Greek life or other expensive extracurricular activities, Cubbage says Northwestern provides opportunities for everyone. He refutes the idea that there is a divide between the wealthy and the not-so-wealthy on campus.
“It’s not that half of the students are paying everything and half of the students are paying nothing,” he says. “It’s all the way up and down the ladder, from students who are paying a little to students who are paying some, to students who are paying some more, to students who are paying most, and students who are paying all. It is a wide range.”
Cubbage hopes that the Good Neighbor, Great University scholarship and other aid measures will help more students be able to afford the Northwestern experience.
Yet until these initiatives take root, students on the fringe are forced to cope with financial strains that their wealthy peers in the mainstream can’t comprehend. The groups intermingle, but for now, the pressure persists.
* Editor’s note: The names of sources have been changed. See appended message.