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BC Focuses on ‘Pockets of Support’ to Deal With Income Gap

A recent study conducted by The Upshot, a data analytics blog run by The New York Times, found that Boston College students’ families have a median income of $194,100—ranking 22nd out of 65 elite colleges. About 70 percent of BC’s students reportedly come from the top 20 percent of earners, and 3.1 percent come from the bottom 20 percent of earners.

According to Eve Spangler, a sociology professor who first came to BC in the late 1970s, it’s not so different today from how it was then. She said the student body was overwhelmingly white and Irish Catholic, which has changed significantly, though she is not sure to what extent racial diversity has brought along socioeconomic diversity.

“I used to laughingly say that if I saw a student on campus and forgot their name, I’d say ‘Hi, Kathleen’ or ‘Hi, Kevin,’ and the worst that would happen is they’d look at me and go ‘God you know my middle name?’” she said. “We’re past that now. Certainly the AHANA community is much bigger.”

In a class Spangler teaches, Inequality in America, she has her students go up to the blackboard and put down what they think their budget will be when they are 30. Typically, she said, men come in assuming that they will not be married yet and women come in assuming that they will. Her students’ estimated budgets tend to be about two to three times the national median income, she said, all of which is spent on consumption rather than setting money aside.

“Nobody tithes to the church, nobody has much savings, nobody’s planning to be supporting elderly parents,” she said. Spangler then has her students redo their budgets at the national median income and the poverty line.

Using those budgets as an indicator—she sees about 50 or 60 three times a semester—Spangler said there is not that dramatic of a change over time.

Director of Financial Aid Mary McGranahan said in an email that her office cannot report a breakdown of students by the funding level they receive. BC is need-blind in its admissions process and meets the full demonstrated need of its students, one of 19 schools in the country that does so. She said BC had budgeted over $114 million this year for need-based grants to undergraduates. BC’s Office of Undergraduate Admission site says the average grant to students for the 2015-16 school year was $34,729.

“Definitely that 70-30 mark [of students in the top 20 percent] is a real number,” said Rossanna Contreras-Godfray, the interim director of the Learning to Learn Office, which offers students academic and personal advising and oversees programs aimed at low-income, first-generation, and/or underrepresented students.

She added, however, that even if it is a little disturbing that the numbers are so disparate, people find solace in BC’s institutional support for programs like Learning to Learn, which is mostly federally funded.

“The University becoming so competitive in attracting a higher number of affluent students and higher academic ranks—we come to terms with that,” Contreras-Godfrey said. “The implications on BC’s history and the mission of BC’s history—that piece is where you kind of wonder, ‘Where is it going to go?’”

She said less affluent high school students sometimes attend schools that would not adequately prepare them for higher education, which puts them in a difficult position.

“You don’t want to set students up to come to Boston College and not succeed,” she said.

BC runs a program through the Thea Bowman AHANA and Intercultural Center called “Options Through Education”, a six-week residential summer experience meant to prepare a select group of diverse students who have had challenging educational and financial circumstances. Contreras-Godfrey said the program invites about 40 students a year. They get academic support and take summer classes that allow them to reduce their course loads during freshman year. The College Transition Program is a two-week intensive summer orientation for students admitted in the regular decision applicant pool. The Montserrat Coalition provides about 1,400 students with free tickets to campus events and other financial help.

“We’re providing pockets of support systems for these students so they hopefully don’t get lost,” she said.

Contreras-Godfrey, who graduated from BC in 1991, added that it has gotten more socioeconomically diverse in her time here. But she said that even as the University provides students with aid, there is a such a variety of needs that it can be difficult to ensure that every student’s need situation is fully met. Students still often struggle with smaller expenses that might not be included in the financial aid formula, and some might have to support their families by working. It’s hard to fix, though, because of regulations on federal financial aid and the need to be equitable between students.

“I’ve quite a few times had students come to me in tears that their dad got a $2,000 raise or bonus and it put them up in the next highest bracket so they lost $6,000 in support,” Spangler said. “So we’re not that supportive of poorer people.”

Featured Image by Margaux Eckert / Heights Staff

January 30, 2017