One in ten MIT undergrads can’t afford food, survey finds

The CASE survey also showed that 31 percent of students felt a gap between their financial aid and their actual needs

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Percent of survey respondents who say they cannot afford basic necessities at some point during the year.
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Number of undergraduate students who work for various motivations, shown as percentages of all respondents and percentages of respondents who felt there was a gap between their financial aid and their actual needs.
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Students were asked whether they agreed that there was no gap between their financial aid and their actual needs.

The student group Class Awareness, Support, and Equality (CASE) published the results of their socioeconomic survey to the undergraduate student body and senior administration Sept. 25. They found that at least one in ten students could not afford food, course supplies, transportation to visit home, or professional clothing at some point during their time at MIT.

Nearly half the surveyed students who took leaves of absence also had difficulties paying for their expenses during their time away. Ultimately, the report called on MIT to “establish a representative or office for students of lower socioeconomic background … and create a special taskforce” to address the issues documented by the survey.

The survey focused on how students’ socioeconomic status affected other aspects of their lives, like affording certain expenses, major choice, and reasons for working. The purpose of the survey, conducted in November and December 2016 via email to all undergraduates, was to “validate that these issues were real, and there was a need for MIT to create a stronger support network for those struggling financially,” CASE President René García Franceschini ’19 said in a phone interview with The Tech.

Former CASE President Lisa Lozano ’17 and Vice President Kyla Truman ’17 primarily wrote the survey questions. Office of the Provost senior research analyst Kate Doria, Director of Admissions Research and Analysis Rachel Kay, and Dean of Admissions and Student Financial Services Stu Schmill helped edit it before its release.

The survey results revealed that 25.3 percent of undergraduate students couldn’t afford transportation to visit home at one point, 15.6 percent course supplies, 11.7 percent clothing, and 11.6 percent food.

When asked to elaborate on why food was difficult to afford, one student wrote, “I don't have much flexible income, so when I need to afford some items (a laptop for school, rent for a summer job), the first thing to get cut is food.”

Another student explained, “I needed to get a surgery to recover from a sexual assault. My parents could not know about this, since they are ludicrously conservative. So, I had to find $800 in a short amount of time to pay for extended insurance to afford care. I borrowed from friends and wanted to pay them back — hence, I skimped on food.”

The survey showed that 31 percent of students felt a gap between their financial aid and their actual needs during the academic year. One student wrote, “My parents do not want me to attend MIT, and are thus not providing their expected [family] contribution [EFC, which is used to calculate financial aid].”

These students also had different motivations to work, instead of for enjoying the job or learning useful skills. They were 1.38 times as likely as those who didn’t feel a gap to work in order to afford basic necessities, 1.88 times as likely in order to send money home, and 2.89 times as likely in order to pay off debt or bills.

Some students also weren’t interested in their major. “I chose my major because ... of money & financial security only. I hate the subject to be honest,” a student in Course 6-3 wrote.

According to the report, 48 percent of students who took leaves of absence encountered difficulties in paying for expenses when away. One student explained that he needed to pay for an expensive medical insurance at home because he wasn’t covered under MIT’s insurance.

A second student wrote, “I needed to pay for classes at a local university in order to apply back to MIT. I took 3 classes which cost around $1,000 per class, and I had to work around 4–5 months in order to obtain that money.”

Lastly, students commented on some technical issues related to their financial aid. One student’s financial aid didn’t reflect that her parents recently became unemployed. Another student wrote, “Time between fall semester starting and financial aid being reimbursed is about 1 to 2 months, so I really struggle during that time.”

The report was emailed to all undergraduates and some senior administrators, including Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart, Vice President of Student Life Suzy Nelson, and Senior Associate Dean David Randall. García Franceschini will meet with Nelson and Randall today. Truman had already talked with Barnhart, Nelson, and Randall in June, but they only discussed the general direction of CASE and challenges on campus, Truman said in a phone interview with The Tech.

CASE also organized a panel event centered around social mobility, titled “The Places You’ll Go!,” on Sept. 21. “We wanted to capture the shocking transition of our panelists, from their background to MIT — how their lives are now versus how they would have been if they didn’t come here,” García Franceschini said.

Jonathon Brown ’19 was a panelist who discussed his upbringing with a mother on Social Security benefits and a father who passed away when he was in high school. “My friends are worried about problem sets, but I also have to think about sending money home and other family issues. I told my story to reach out to people like me, so they feel connected to someone,” Brown said in a phone interview with The Tech.

Brown has relied on The Wily Network, an organization that works to improve college graduation outcomes, for support. Brown said, “We’re matched with a coach, and we meet with them weekly or biweekly. They make sure that we’re taking care of ourselves, have a shoulder to cry on, and have the help we need.”

Brown himself took something away from the panel. He said, “I felt a genuine connection for the few minutes when the audience nodded their heads and I saw their eyes glimmer. I thought I’d be helping them, but they really helped reassure me that I can keep going.”

Besides communicating with the administration about the survey results, CASE plans to host joint events with organizations such as the Latino Cultural Center (LCC) and First Generation Program (FGP), according to García Franceschini.

CASE also hopes to continue a program it started last year, for matching families of graduating students with faculty willing to provide housing during commencement. “If we do the survey again after changes are made, we’d like to see some improvements,” Truman said.