Missing middle class

Finances often can derail attendance to dream schools
Illustration by Addyson Leathers
Illustration by Addyson Leathers

As the bell rang at 2:15 p.m. on Dec. 15, senior Thien-Nhi Nguyen rose from her seat and rushed toward her car in anticipation of Johns Hopkins University’s 3 p.m. status update. When she arrived home, her family gathered around to open her decision letter. Opening it, she saw a blue jay appear and knew that she was accepted before even seeing a “Congratulations.”
“It was really nerve-wracking for me as I logged into the computer, but my parents both said to not even worry about it,” she said. “I just felt like as a person, I didn’t live up to the standard of what a Johns Hopkins student should be. I spent a lot of time watching YouTube videos and seeing different people’s stats, and I wasn’t quite that.”
Thien-Nhi said she felt like the acceptance validated her high school experience. She had committed to an early decision contract, which meant she was bound to Johns Hopkins after being accepted.
“I burst out in tears, which is something I don’t usually do since I’m not a very emotional person,” she said. “All the stress and my efforts of applying to college and from school was relieved. I push myself so hard academically and through my extracurriculars, so I felt like this was proof that all my hard work actually could result in something so wonderful for my future.”
Thien-Nhi plans to pursue a career in oncology and cancer research. According to U.S. News & World Report, Johns Hopkins is ranked No. 2 in Best Medical Schools: Research. Thien-Nhi has been involved in science research on cancer since sixth grade, gaining interest in microbiology and treatments on bacteria, worms and nanoparticles.
“Johns Hopkins would be optimal because it is one of the top medical institutions,” she said. “I’m interested in the treatment and diagnostic side of cancer, and I want to improve patients’ mental health since a lot of treatments diminish patients’ quality of life and demoralize them and their families. One of Johns Hopkins’ researchers actually studied the efficiency of vitamin C on cancer cells, which is what drew me to using nanoparticles to get the right dose of vitamin C for cancer patients.”
A week after her acceptance, Thien-Nhi received her financial aid estimate. The problem — she could not afford to pay $88,610 for the 2024-2025 academic year. Johns Hopkins calculated her family contribution of $103,000 to be more than their cost of attendance.
“I basically signed off my soul to Johns Hopkins through an early decision, but one of the ways to get out of the contract is for financial reasons,” she said. “We thought that maybe they would give us something and then we could negotiate that further, or we could bring in all the other merit scholarships that I’ve gotten and negotiate that with them. But they were not willing to negotiate anything.”
Thien-Nhi’s father Kevin Nguyen said he was happy for her when she was accepted by Johns Hopkins, but when they received their financial aid offer, he “felt so sad because [she] worked so hard.”
“I was assuming Johns Hopkins would give us money because of Thien-Nhi’s dedication and talent,” he said. “When we found out that she didn’t get anything, she cried. You don’t understand how hard it is when, as a parent, you cannot get your kids to school. Can I afford it? Probably, but is it worth it? When you don’t have billions of dollars, the cost is a big deal.”
Kevin Nguyen said he pushes his daughters to study “because when I came here, I had nothing at all.” He arrived in the United States from Vietnam in 1980 at 17 years old. After finding a sponsor in Des Moines, Iowa, he attended college, receiving a bachelor’s degree in computer science, a master’s in system engineering and a master’s in computer engineering. Now, he works for Northrop Grumman designing military aircrafts.
“I was poor, and I had nothing,” he said. “My mom took care of us, but under the communist country, we had no freedom. They did not allow me to go to college, because instead, by 18 years old you would go to Cambodia or to the North to fight. My mom tried to send me to America several times for like five years. I’m glad I had the opportunity to live a comfortable life here in the middle class based on merit and hard work.”
Kevin said students applying to colleges need to have a balance between reality, ambition and goals. He let Thien-Nhi make the final decision to decline the offer.
“On one side, parents tell their kids that you can be anything you want, and everyone believes that they can follow their dreams,” he said. “But at the same time, they do not see the other half of the equation of the debt that they carry and the job that they can find. There has to be the right ratio of the college cost to income level to be successful and happy. I walked her through the decision to make it wisely, but then I let her see the real financial issue. I told her to keep in mind the final goal of being a doctor.”
College and Career Specialist Angela Feldbush said students cannot be forced to attend a college if they can’t afford it.
“Whenever somebody is considering signing a binding early decision contract, they need to be very aware of what they’re getting into,” Feldbush said. “But Johns Hopkins’ opinion about what your family can afford may not be the same as your family’s decision about what they can afford. It’s very personal to invest large amounts of money into an undergraduate education. So even if somebody technically could afford it, it doesn’t mean that that’s what they should do. The important thing in cases like that is to really communicate with the school and let them know what’s going on.”
For those who do not qualify for need-based financial aid, options from Johns Hopkins include monthly payment plans, part-time work opportunities, private scholarships, unsubsidized federal loans and parent loans.
“My financial adviser said my only options were to do a monthly payment plan — which is $8,000 per month — to have my parents take out a loan or pay out of pocket,” Thien-Nhi said. “There are a few scholarships for residents of Maryland and Washington DC, and then there’s the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps scholarships. Realistically speaking, looking at all these scholarships, it’s extremely difficult to get around $80,000 every year. Even if I just got $50,000, it is still a lot in terms of grants.”
Feldbush said tuition should not be a deciding factor between whether somebody can go to a college.
“[Colleges] have so many other funding sources and endowments, so we’re really going to continue to put ourselves at a disadvantage if we can educate only the really rich or the really poor,” Feldbush said. “Most people in this country are middle class, and a lot of those people could benefit from an education at a highly-selective school. But, especially given the recent Supreme Court cases with affirmative action, I think we’re going to see a real shift in the landscape of how colleges are choosing to accept kids because the graduates from highly selective schools need to better reflect the diversity of the nation rather than just those people who can afford to pay the tuition.”
According to Johns Hopkins’ website, first-year students receive an average of $60,000 that is need-based, while 54 percent of students have need-based scholarships.
“When I was looking at the cost of attendance per year, we probably needed about $50,000 to be able to afford going to Johns Hopkins for four years,” Thien-Nhi said. “Unless my financial situation changes drastically, I’m likely not going to ever be eligible for financial aid. When I asked Johns Hopkins about their website’s claim of students having low loans, they said that was the case because either parents took out federal loans, they paid the price out of pocket or the financially needy couldn’t meet their price and got assistance.”
Feldbush said highly selective schools are less likely to give merit-based aid.
“If you’re applying to schools like Harvard or Princeton, some of the Ivy League, the assumption is that everybody has merit,” Feldbush said. “If everybody has merit, the aid then is limited to people who have financial need. Again, it’s the people in the middle that really get squeezed because even though technically they might be able to afford it, there are other expenses that they have to account for. There are a lot of considerations that the financial aid formulas don’t take into account.”
Thien-Nhi wants to attend medical school after receiving her undergraduate degree. If she were to attend Johns Hopkins, then the total cost translates to $344,260. She said it is not worth it since she “should not be incurring more debt than her starting salary as an oncologist.”
“That cost is a whole house, and that’s not even accounting for medical school yet, which will be even more expensive than that,” Thien-Nhi said. “I’d come out of school with a minimum debt around $500,000. An oncologist salary ranges from $250,000 to $320,000, but already my undergrad cost would be more than that. That would definitely take more than a year to pay off, even if I don’t spend money on anything else.”
Feldbush suggests more merit-based scholarship opportunities and a hybrid formula for determining financial aid versus ability.
“I understand why the aid is limited to need-based aid, but there should be a hybrid formula where you can still qualify for some scholarships and some aid even if your need isn’t as great as people who qualify for Pell grants and really need a lot of aid,” Feldbush said. “Even if you don’t qualify for financial aid, it doesn’t mean you can afford to spend $80,000 a year in tuition.”
Thien-Nhi said the system of collegiate financial aid should be more accommodating of middle-class families like hers.
“I understand that the reason why they charge us a lot is probably because those who are less fortunate are more financially needy,” Thien-Nhi said. “However, colleges also have really large amounts of endowments, and I’m not sure what that goes towards. Of course, when you look at my family’s tax papers, we don’t look financially needy. But I think that a lot of middle-class families probably face the same financial situations that I do in terms of not being able to pay for college.”
Feldbush said applying through an early decision contract is a difficult choice for those who do not know if they will be eligible for financial aid.
“Especially this year, because of the way the FAFSA has been delayed, most people who aren’t very rich or very poor are at a disadvantage,” Feldbush said. “If you’re really rich, it’s easy because you know that your family can afford it and they’re not going to miss the tuition money. If you’re very poor, it’s also really easy because you don’t have money and you’re pretty sure you’re going to qualify for financial aid.”
Thien-Nhi said that she does not think “the college system sees students as people.”
“Colleges are businesses,” Thien-Nhi said. “In the same way, I have to be a business for myself and know my worth, my values and how much I’m willing to pay. If I’m in business, I don’t want to lose money coming out of me to another. It’s all risk and reward as well.”
Thien-Nhi said she finds it devastating that financial aid is the only factor limiting her from going to Johns Hopkins.
“They accepted me, but because of my inability to pay and their judgment that I can pay, I cannot go,” she said. “In all other circumstances, I would have been able to go. They would turn away a perfectly good student because they can’t pay, and they’re not seeing the potential of that student to improve their school.”