Columbia University faces mounting pressure to address student poverty and homelessness despite massive endowment

According to interviews with students and recent surveys, a significant portion of Columbia’s student population is encountering difficulties in completing their studies due to escalating costs and inadequate financial support.

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Columbia University, New York, renowned for its substantial endowment and vast real estate holdings, is increasingly under scrutiny to confront poverty, hunger, and homelessness among its student body, especially among international students. With an endowment nearing $14 billion and ownership of over 200 buildings, including the prestigious $6 billion Manhattanville campus, the institution is grappling with calls for greater assistance from both students and faculty.

According to interviews with students and recent surveys, a significant portion of Columbia’s student population is encountering difficulties in completing their studies due to escalating costs and inadequate financial support. This issue underscores a broader trend affecting students across the United States.

Of particular concern is the plight of students enrolled in Columbia’s School of General Studies, established in 1947 to cater to non-traditional students. With an enrollment of 3,000, the school has witnessed rapid growth in recent decades, drawing in students with diverse backgrounds and significant financial need.

Unlike other elite universities, Columbia’s General Studies program faces unique challenges, with 73 percent of its students identified as financially needy. This contrasts with figures of 62 percent at Harvard and Princeton, and even lower percentages at Yale and Columbia core Ivy League College and School of Engineering and Applied Science.

General Studies, which attracts mature applicants from various socioeconomic backgrounds, lacks a specific financial aid calculator to assist students in estimating expenses, despite marketing itself as an inclusive institution. Curtis Rodgers, the vice-dean of General Studies, revealed that a startling 4 percent of its students had experienced homelessness during their academic journey, while up to 10 percent were deemed to be “really struggling.”

Criticism has been directed at Columbia’s disparity in financial aid allocation between General Studies students and those in its core College and School of Engineering. While the university covers all demonstrated financial need for the latter, only 57 percent of need is met for General Studies students.

Charissa Kathleen Ratliff-D’Addario, leading the Equality for GS campaign, highlighted the financial hardships faced by General Studies students, describing them as being taken advantage of by the institution. She recounted her own experience of accumulating $150,000 in student debt and emphasized the disparity in treatment between General Studies and other student demographics.

“Columbia is a tuition-driven school. It takes advantage of already disadvantaged people, coaxing them and feeding off their desire to be educated with this Ivory Tower dream of traditional education.

“Students in GS feel like a doormat. They provide diversity but do not have the same standing,” she said.

Recent complaints have shed light on punitive measures faced by General Studies students attempting to alleviate financial burdens, including penalties for seeking alternative housing options to save costs. These accounts underscore the financial precariousness experienced by many within the Columbia community.

She said, “I cannot afford to attend your institution, and I cannot afford to leave. This is the epitome of financial predatory behavior . . . The demographic you aim to attract is arguably the most marginalized and aid-dependent, yet full need is given to all other domestic undergraduate students in both Columbia College and SEAS (Engineering), a student demographic known to carry legacy admissions and come from wealthy and privileged backgrounds.”

Despite efforts such as the establishment of a university food bank by concerned students, which provided support to thousands, challenges persist. The university’s response, including its allocation of endowment income to student financial aid, has drawn criticism from faculty members and advocates alike.

In response to mounting pressure, Columbia University has reaffirmed its commitment to supporting non-traditional students. However, calls for greater transparency and equity in financial aid distribution persist as the institution navigates the complex landscape of student poverty and homelessness.

A Columbia University spokesman said, “Columbia General Studies is committed to providing support for non-traditional students navigating their educational expenses. Although the endowment for General Studies is still quite small, the school directs significant funding across multiple sources to financial aid as a top priority. General Studies awarded nearly $37mn in financial aid to students for the 2022-2023 academic year, and continues to work towards increasing the amount of aid available.”

As Columbia’s Student Support Initiative aims to raise $1.4 billion by 2025 for expanded access and affordability, the broader conversation around addressing student poverty and homelessness in the United States continues to evolve. With national surveys indicating widespread food insecurity and homelessness among students, the need for comprehensive solutions remains urgent.

While Columbia University grapples with the challenges of catering to a diverse student body, the imperative to prioritize the welfare of all students, regardless of background, remains paramount. As the university seeks to reconcile its commitment to academic excellence with the realities of student poverty and homelessness, the path forward necessitates collaboration, transparency, and a steadfast commitment to equity and inclusion.

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