At Dartmouth, an environment of wealth not eliminated by scholarships

In his senior year of high school, Diego Perez’ biggest concern about college was affordability. A college counselor told him to apply through Questbridge, a non-profit organization that matches low-income students such as Perez with the nation’s elite colleges and universities. After being selected by Questbridge and creating his preferred colleges list, Perez was matched with Dartmouth College.

“Any college that fits me, and I don’t have to pay, I would definitely just go,” said Perez, chuckling. “[I thought] ‘Lets just go to whichever one’, and it happened to be Dartmouth.”

Perez lived in the United States until he was 6, then in Mexico until he was 12, and then in Texas for the rest of his life up until college. He lived in an environment that was, as he described, “pretty homogenous.” Coming to Dartmouth, he was amazed to meet so many different students from different backgrounds.

Today, Perez is part of the 18% of students classified as “low-income” and the 15% classified as “first-generation” of Dartmouth’s Class of 2023.

Dartmouth defines “low income” as students eligible for federal Pell Grants, said school spokesperson Diana Lawrence. Pell Grants don’t have a defined income threshold, but are given to students that demonstrate “exceptional financial need”.

First-generation college students are typically defined as coming from families lacking a college-going tradition. Frequently, first generation students come from lower-income families with minimal exposure to higher education.

Between 2002 and 2020, undergraduate enrollment of first-generation students at the school doubled, from 7% to 14%

Even though nearly a fifth of Dartmouth students are considered “low income” the school’s enrollment skews towards students from upper income households.

The median family income of a Dartmouth student is $200,400, the New York Times reports. About 69% of Dartmouth students come from the nation’s 20% highest-earning households, those earning $110,000 or more per year.

More than one-fifth of students come from the highest-earning 1% of American households, or those earning over $630,000 per year. Dartmouth is one of 38 colleges in the U.S. that enrolls more students from the top 1% than from the entire bottom 60%.

For comparison, at UNH and Plymouth, around 2% of their students are from the top 1%. At Keene State and SNHU, less than 1% of their students come from the top 1%.

Questbridge students like Perez typically “come from households earning less than $65,000 per year for a family of four with minimal significant assets.”

Dartmouth supports several programs to assist first-generation and low-income students assimilate into the campus community, including First Year Student Enrichment Program, a mentoring program for students who are among the first in their family to attend a four-year college.

Still, for some students, the transition is not always smooth.

Sophomore Hubert Galan-Vargas recalls meeting his fellow student during freshman orientation

“We were pulling up in Vans, and they were pulling up in Gucci shoes.” said Galan-Vargas.

He recalls a word chain icebreaker game during his orientation. In Galan-Vargas’ icebreaker, the theme was food.

“They would say hors d’oeuvre, and caviar, and all these French names, and I was thinking, what is happening?” Galan-Vargas remembers. “And then they got to me, and I went… bread. I felt so poor. I have never felt so poor in my life.” The worst part Galan-Vargas said, was when other students would fawn over food that he had no clue even existed.

Galan-Vargas found a home in Dartmouth’s First Year Student Enrichment Program, which Perez also took advantage of. There they found other students with first-generation low-income backgrounds they could relate to and talk to without having to worry about awkward conversations involving fancy foods.

But in the classrooms and lecture halls, the economic divide is felt and discouraging for students such as Galan-Vargas.

“In the classroom, your background influences how comfortable you are, especially during your first year,” said Love Tsai, also a sophomore and a Questbridge student at Dartmouth.

Tsai is on a pre-med track at Dartmouth and comes from Michigan. In her first year on the Hanover campus, she felt she was always behind because of her first-generation, low-income background.

“I went in, never having really been in a real lab before. As a pre-med, that’s pretty astonishing,” said Tsai. “When I was trying to interview for labs, they asked me if I had any research experience, and I’d be like, ‘No, it wasn’t really a possibility where I’m from.’”

Tsai couldn’t even fathom some of the opportunities her classmates had, such as valuable internships and professional connections even before entering college. “I was just sort of studying, doing my work and I happened to get in, when I didn’t have any of these tangible experiences,” said Tsai.

Galan-Vargas shares Tsai’s experience of academic culture shock. “We come in not really having a grasp on how to study properly and efficiently,” said Galan-Vargas. “We’re sitting next to students who went to the best high schools in the world; we’re at a severe disadvantage.”

When admitting students from low-income and disadvantaged backgrounds, Dartmouth provides full-tuition scholarships. Just recently, Dartmouth raised the threshold for full-tuition scholarships to students that come from households that make $125,000 a year, up from $100,000 a year. For students such as Galan-Vargas, Tsai, and Perez, their full tuition is covered in addition to stipends for class materials. Dartmouth admits U.S. students through a need-blind process, meaning an applicant’s financial background is not considered in the application review process.

Critics of need-blind admissions processes say that some schools can’t afford to financially support every student without reviewing a student’s financial background. But among the few need-blind schools in the country, Dartmouth is one of the few to guarantee that every student receives all the financial aid they need.

But apart from financial aid, Galan-Vargas said there has been little to no outreach from Dartmouth to academically support students like him. For rigorous college schedules such as the pre-med track Galan-Vargas is on, he has seen several of his fellow first-generation low-income students drop out.

“We come in and we all fail out. All my friends who were doing engineering, they’re not doing engineering anymore. I just saw my peers drop like flies,” said Galan-Vargas. “I only have four pre-med classes left, and there’s literally two other FGLI (first-generation low-income) students left.”

Dartmouth College has acknowledged the different academic realities students such as Galan-Vargas face. “Although Dartmouth covers 100 percent of a student’s demonstrated financial need, we must do more to make sure all students have the tools and supportive programs they need to succeed,” said Philip J. Hanlon, President of Dartmouth College in a statement from 2019. When reached out for further comment for this story, Lawrence declined an interview request and provided a link to Dartmouth’s FYSEP program.

Yet despite the challenges, some first-generation low-income students still defy the odds and have little or no regret attending Dartmouth College. Elite schools such as Dartmouth provide a wealth of opportunity that other schools just can’t provide, and in that environment, Galan-Vargas feels more invigorated than ever.

“When you’re poor, you’re conditioned to have these extremely high aspirations,” said Galan-Vargas. “If you were to ask me if I was smart, I would immediately say no. But I do consider myself a hard-working person. Other rich kids are not gonna want to  study on a Friday or a Saturday night, but I’m willing to do that.”

Tsai feels like she has caught up academically thanks in part to spending more time in the same labs her privileged peers were now using and help from her professors. “At the end of year, my grades were significantly better,” Tsai said. “I feel more confident in my abilities as a student.”

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