Students

For Some First-Generation Students, Fee Waivers Don’t Go Far Enough

February 17, 2017

AP Photo, Steven Senne
Viet Nguyen, a senior at Brown U., leads a network of first-generation students at Ivy League colleges.

First-generation college students face a well-known set of obstacles, from financial to social, before ever stepping foot on campus. A coalition of student groups from elite institutions, in coordination with 1vyG, a first-generation college student network, is setting its sights on removing just one of them.

On Wednesday, the coalition announced the "No Apologies" initiative, with a statement signed by student-body presidents and student groups from Ivy League and other elite institutions including Stanford University, Northwestern University, Emory University, and the University of Chicago. The initiative urges universities to adopt an automatic application-fee-waiver policy — rather than requiring students to request waivers — for first-generation and low-income applicants. The coalition argues that, for many, the request can be a demoralizing task, and that by removing the application fee institutions can take a major step toward mitigating socioeconomic disparities within student populations.

Several student leaders at coalition institutions are already taking action to push the project by meeting or making arrangements to meet with university officials. Matthew Indimine, the vice president of Cornell’s Student Assembly, said he plans to meet with Cornell officials on Friday, along with the university’s first-generation student group. And at the University of Pennsylvania, the vice president of the student assembly, Sola Park, said she plans to meet with the director of admissions on Tuesday.

Viet Nguyen, executive director of 1vyG and president of Brown’s Undergraduate Council of Students, spoke with The Chronicle about the thinking behind the No Apologies project and what the coalition hopes it will spark across the country.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q. What was the inspiration for creating this coalition and launching this initiative?

A. This idea has been in my head for a while. In the fall, I read that Bowdoin and Trinity College removed application fees for low-income students and that got me thinking, Why aren’t other institutions following suit? So when thinking about how to launch this initiative, we didn’t just want to look at one school, and how we get this change at one school, but how do we change the way that admissions is done at a series of schools. And so we thought one of the best ways to do that is to look at already existing relationships between schools — what institutions already have partnerships. The most accessible, from my position, was to look at Ivy League schools.

We targeted both low-income groups and student-government groups because it doesn’t make sense to talk about issues regarding low-income and first-generation students without having the students from the schools that the policy affects in the coalition. And having the student-body presidents really sends a message that this is not just an issue that affects poor students, it is an issue that the entire student body cares about. This is not just important to a certain subpopulation, but it is vital to the vibrancy of undergraduate communities.

Q. The coalition chose to announce the initiative with a personal narrative written by you. Why did you choose to announce it that way?

A. Oftentimes, when I discuss this issue with other students, frequent responses I received were ‘There are already fee waivers’ and ‘Students can just ask for waivers.’ By writing the statement from my personal perspective, I was able to talk about the intangible barriers that I couldn’t explain in a more straightforward policy statement. I think it was more effective in getting people to understand the nuances of having to email a random person that you’ve never met and explaining your entire financial circumstance.

Q. Aside from automatic application-fee waivers as a first step toward socioeconomic equity in the student body, what are the long-term goals you have for the coalition?

A. We look at it in three phases. We first look at how we get first-generation and low-income students into our schools. We then look at how we support first-generation and low-income students in graduating from these institutions, because beyond financial barriers, there are a lot of social and academic barriers as well. And finally, we look at how schools transition students outside, because I would argue that there are similar barriers to applying to college as there are in transitioning out of college, whether that’s applying for graduate school or knowing how to find a job.

Q. What do you expect the response to the No Apologies initiative to be?

A. I think that administrations across the country want to do what is best for their student populations and are always looking for ways to expand access. We are excited to work in collaboration with administrations to explore this particular way of increasing access. Brown’s administration has been wonderful in terms of supporting low-income and first-generation students. Just this past year we opened a center for first-gen and low-income students. We look forward to working with administrations across the country to see how we can push the boundaries of how we support students of these socioeconomic backgrounds.

Adam Harris is a breaking-news reporter. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHSays or email him at adam.harris@chronicle.com.