‘I can’t afford to be here’: Economic disparity riddles UM’s student body

Photo credit: Reese Putnam

Freshman musical theatre major Ainsley Nelson has fallen in love with the University of Miami: her friends, her professors, the campus. Now, she has to leave behind it all.

Denied on-campus housing and unable to afford the prices of off-campus options Nelson has been forced to apply to transfer. She is not alone.

“It’s not worth the amount of debt and the amount of stress that I face,” Nelson said. “I think that if I had gone back and known this was my situation, chances are I may not have come here.”

Housing is one of the many hardships lower income students like Nelson face at UM, where there is a wide economic disparity among the student body.

In 2017, The Equality of Opportunity Project published a “Mobility Report Card” on the University of Miami covered by The New York Times. The report stated that 36% of the student body at UM is in the top 5% of annual income, with 13% from the top 1%. Additionally, 5.5% of students were from the bottom 20%, evidencing the large amount of economic diversity at the university.

“It’s a very different set of values,” freshman architectural engineering major Blake Gomien said. “There’s just a lot of disconnect.”

On-campus housing for the 2023-2024 school year was limited for many students, and put an extra strain on students who could not afford the high housing costs off-campus.

“I can’t afford to be here because of how my financial aid package works,” Nelson said. “The school has done nothing to help. They’ve done nothing to increase scholarships in order to help students afford on-campus housing. It really feels like they don’t care.”

Form 990 for the fiscal year ending in 2020 reported that a total of $458,243,503 in grants and other assistance were given to domestic individuals. U.S. News stated that “The average need-based scholarship or grant awarded to first-year students at University of Miami was $30,859. Additionally, 49% of first-year students received need-based financial aid in fall 2020.”

Nelson applied to be an Residential Assistant (RA) on-campus and has spoken to multiple administrative members about her situation, but has not yet been able to find a solution to her case.

“I first applied to be an RA and I got on the alternate list for that, which was good,” Nelson said. “But I had to get on-campus housing in order to stay here and they took no priority for people with financial needs.”

Nelson has financial aid that goes toward her tuition at UM, which made coming to school here cheaper than her in-state tuition in Michigan. However, the housing options off-campus are not covered by her financial aid.

“There needs to be more affordable housing options,” Nelson said. “It shouldn’t be a war to get housing on-campus. Housing is a basic human need and 18-year-olds shouldn’t be expected to go find apartments off-campus simply because the school refuses to house them.”

Gomien grew up in a military family and is attending UM fully paid for by the Post-9/11 GI Bill. UM accepts education benefits offered by the Department of Veterans Affairs, which includes the Post 9/11 GI Bill and Yellow Ribbon Program. Not all private schools accept these programs, which is ultimately what led Gomien to choose UM.

“I knew that I could afford almost anywhere because I wasn’t having to pay for it,” Gomien said. “When my friends and I were applying to Lakeside, we had to do the suite style because people in my group couldn’t afford the actual apartments.”

The newer housing options such as Lakeside Village and the upcoming Centennial Village freshman dorms, are expensive even for middle-class students.

The new housing developments have also caused the university to raise tuition. The estimated cost of attendance for undergraduate students on-campus has risen from $78,640 in 2022-2023 to $88,938 for the 2023-2024 school year, according to UM’s website.

“I think that especially if we keep raising tuition costs, people aren’t gonna come here,” Gomein said. “It’s just gonna be even more rich kids.”

Gomien expressed feeling out-of-place at Miami, as he grew up among lower-class military kids, who are uncommon to find at the university.

“No one’s grown up here,” Gomien said. “No one has connections to you. No one from my background or lower classes really comes here.”

Nelson also has experienced difficulties within her friendships, as people’s budgets for going out differ greatly from her own.

“A lot of people I know and a lot of my really close friends have this disposable income that they can just buy stuff and go places and I’m often like ‘I can’t afford the uber, I can’t afford to go out ot eat, I have to save money’,” Nelson said. “I pay for all my own stuff and I feel like I have to keep up with that.

Nelson said that she struggles to keep up with her social life at a school where many of her classmates don’t have to worry about money as much as herself.

“A lot of people here lack empathy for people with less money,” Nelson said. “They’ve always grown up around people with lots and lots of money. Sometimes I felt ashamed because I haven’t been able to do stuff or pay for things.”

Due to the lack of support Gomien has felt from administration at this school, it has caused him to think of transferring himself.

“It doesn’t feel like the school cares about the students and our needs as much as they care about profits,” Gomien said. “I’ve thought about transferring a good five times. I almost applied to transfer to UF but they don’t let you apply until you’re a junior.”

Nelson hopes the administration shows more empathy and transparency in the future as they deal with lower-income students’ stresses in areas like housing.

“We’re not just checks, we’re not just money,” Nelson said. “We’re actually humans and deserve to be taken care of and respected and understood as humans. Even those of us who have less money, that doesn’t make me worth less in terms of being a student.”

The Miami Hurricane reached out to UM Admissions, who failed to respond with a comment.