College is expensive for everyone. For lower-income University of Wisconsin-Madison students, though, the cost of life has a far greater impact on their higher education experience.
When junior Dayne Tallier first arrived on campus, he never considered his financial situation to be much different than any of his peers. However, he quickly realized wealth standards in Madison were much higher than in his hometown of 400 people.
“When I got to campus, I didn’t realize how rich people were,” Tallier said.
Reminders of wealth inequality exist across campus, but students with lower incomes most frequently cite unreasonable housing costs as their greatest anxiety. According to a 2020 UW-Madison Geography Department study, the median off-campus bedroom price is nearly $940, far greater than the $500-$799 price range most students define as affordable.
Resources like the Tenant Resource Center and UW’s Campus Area Housing webpage help students navigate the housing market, but student-oriented financial assistance is hard to come by despite a 265% increase in housing costs over the past two decades.
Sophomore Ally Cashmer, who currently lives on-campus, admitted she is “extremely nervous” about paying rent next year after leaving the dorms.
“I’m doing this by myself, completely,” Cashmer said. “I don’t like going out at all anymore because all I think about is paying for rent next year.”
While paying for housing is worrying, apartment searches also cause stress, especially when looking with friends who have higher budgets. Cashmer attempted to move off-campus last year, but said the group she was looking with wanted to live somewhere outside of her price range.
“I was looking for apartments with some girls, and they looked at XO1 so I couldn’t join them. I had to find a whole new group of girls [to look with] because they were looking at apartments way out of my budget,” Cashmer said.
Tallier was able to find an off-campus apartment. He likes his place, but he is still reminded of the campus wealth gap when walking by luxury apartments.
“It’s really homey, I guess, but it’s definitely not as affluent as State Street or something. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Canada Goose jacket around this neighborhood at all,” Tallier said.
Income inequality is inflating college costs across the nation. A 2021 Minneapolis Fed report found that as income inequality increases, demand for higher-quality amenities drives up tuition and other expenses to levels lower-income families can’t afford.
“Our perspective is that everybody (at the high end) is willing to pay more,” Minneapolis Fed Monetary Advisor John Heathcote said. “So colleges’ costs are going up because they’re spending more on what these students and their parents are willing to pay for.”
Even students living in nicer apartments are aware of the class divisions at UW-Madison. Sophomore Deven Chatterjee, who lives in Lark at Randall, says that Madison needs to solve the wealth divide by building more quality housing that doesn’t cost a fortune to rent.
“We need to make more middle-ground housing,” Chatterjee said. “Everyone I know either lives in a luxury apartment or a ‘slums’ apartment.”
How UW is fighting the wealth gap
In response to growing wealth disparities, UW-Madison began Bucky’s Tuition Promise in 2018, which guarantees full coverage of tuition and fees for any in-state student with a household adjusted gross income of $60,000 or less. The amount closely matches Wisconsin’s current median household income of $63,293, meaning almost all households in the bottom 50% of Wisconsin income qualify for full tuition and fees at UW-Madison.
“Our goal was to find a way to communicate to low-income students that as long as their household income fell below a certain level, they would get at least enough financial aid to cover tuition and segregated fees,” UW-Madison Office of Financial Aid Communications Manager, Karla Weber Wandel, said.
The initiative is a last-dollar program, meaning it covers the gap between external scholarships and the full cost of tuition and fees. Incoming freshmen are covered under the program for four years, and transfer students are covered for two years.
Bucky’s Tuition Promise has been a lifeline for students like Cashmer and Tallier, who say the program is the cornerstone of their college funding plan.
“It’s the only reason why I came to this school, so I’d say it’s a pretty big deal,” Cashmer said.
Though Bucky’s Tuition Program has found initial success, potential future tuition hikes threaten to increase program costs. Last spring, the Wisconsin State Legislature voted to end the UW System undergraduate tuition freeze, opening the door for tuition hikes for the first time in nearly a decade.
The UW Board of Regents voted against undergraduate tuition increases last summer and Governor Tony Evers has pushed to extend the freeze through 2023, meaning costs are unlikely to rise immediately. Regardless, Wandel says Bucky’s Tuition Promise has no plans to reduce operations.
“It just means our fundraising efforts need to go up to match [a tuition increase] because our goal is to not see Bucky’s Tuition Promise go away. Ultimately, we’d like to see the program grow.”
Coping with campus life beyond tuition and housing
Bucky’s Tuition Promise covers academic costs, but students are left to navigate a loosely-organized patchwork of off-campus resources and student initiatives to cover other living expenses.
Groceries are a serious challenge for low-income students. Cashmer lamented that Fresh Madison Market was “way too expensive” and that more affordable grocery stores were inaccessible from campus without a personal car.
“Groceries are terrible! I want a Walmart closer by. I don’t have enough money for the groceries around here. I don’t have a car and you can’t take a bus, because there are too many groceries to take on a bus,” Cashmer said.
Student organizations offer some practical solutions for food insecurity. The Open Seat student food pantry offers free non-perishable goods year-round, and F.H. King hands out free, locally-harvested produce on East Campus Mall during the growing season. Students can also visit Slow Food UW on Monday nights for a $5 three-course meal.
There are still some smaller ways to cut costs. Tallier recommends thrifting as a financial trick for students with tight budgets.
“I’m glad that thrifting is a style thing because that’s all I ever do for clothes,” Tallier said.
Working during the school year or seeking out intensive summer work schedules is another common strategy for making ends meet. Yet Tallier said this often puts working-class students at a disadvantage compared to wealthier students, who he feels have more time to grow their professional skills despite already entering college with more credits.
“They don’t have to work a job; they’re already a year ahead,” Tallier said. “It’s almost an unfair advantage.”
Cashmer noted that working during the school year makes it difficult to join extracurriculars and hang out with friends. She said her current job with the library allows her to do homework, but her previous job at Gordon Avenue Market was incompatible with her academics.
“When I worked at Gordon’s, you couldn’t do homework at the same time. That was not good,” Cashmer said. “I need[ed] more time to do homework. You can’t have a job and do that, and have a social life and do clubs.”
Part of the issue stems from a misunderstanding of the financial challenges low-income students face. A Wharton Business School professor made headlines earlier this year when she reported 25% of her students guessed the median American family made over six figures each year. The real figure is $67,521.
However, Chatterjee believes Madison students are more understanding of the wealth challenges many students face on campus.
“I think everyone’s pretty considerate,” Chatterjee said. “I don’t think people here are very judgemental about that kind of stuff.”
Cashmer and Tallier agreed most of their peers are considerate of costs, but Tallier added there are still instances where he feels misunderstood.
“I remember freshman year, my friend took me flying on his private plane, and I was like ‘this is something I could have never done. I don’t know how people just do this,’” Tallier said. “He was like ‘no, I have to do this to get my flight hours, otherwise my parents will get mad.’”
Tyler Katzenberger is the managing editor at The Daily Cardinal. As a former state news editor, he covered numerous protests and wrote state politics, healthcare, business and in-depth stories. Follow him on Twitter at @tk_kutz.