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NYU Apologizes For Telling Low-Income Student They Probably Can't Afford Grad School

"If $65 is a hardship for you how will you be able to pay the tuition of $60,000?" an administrator asked, in an email the school says was "wrong and unfortunate on many levels."

Posted on December 21, 2015, at 6:42 p.m. ET


New York University has apologized after an admissions adviser suggested a low-income student should reconsider their graduate school application until they could afford the school's sky-high tuition fees, with a spokesperson saying the employee's email was "wrong and unfortunate on many levels."

The admissions officer's advice came in response to a request by the prospective student for the school to waive the $65 fee required to apply to NYU's Tisch School of the Arts.

"Please do not take this the wrong way but if $65 is a hardship for you how will you be able to pay the tuition of $60,000?" Dan Sandford, director of admissions at Tisch, wrote in an email to the student, Joshua Jackson. "Maybe you should give yourself a year off looking at ways to fund your graduate education."

@NYUTischSchool Let me tell y’all a story about a lower-income Artist of Color trying to apply to your Arts Politics MA Program.

The email, which Jackson tweeted screenshots of, struck a nerve with NYU's critics, who said it was a sign that NYU does not do enough to help low-income students — even though the university has said in recent months that it is working to increase diversity and inclusion on campus. While the school is well-known for both its high fees and its limited financial aid, rarely do admissions officers admit it so candidly to applicants.

The email, Jackson said in a statement to BuzzFeed News, was "disrespectful and oppressive."

"The institution's public response does not match the very real lived experiences of people interfacing with the institution," Jackson said, adding that NYU students and alumni had reached out to share their experiences in the wake of the incident. "It's clear that the school doesn't care about me, and I urge people to look at their treatment of their students and faculty and staff who are calling out diversity and specifically class-related issues."

Rebecca Karl, a professor of history at NYU, said the exchange "exposed very clearly that there is a person behind the curtain saying to students, 'No, you do not belong here because you are poor.'"

"It was really that bald-faced. 'You can’t pay? You shouldn’t even think of coming here,'" Karl said. "That’s something that many students learn about NYU later on, only after they’ve taken up a lot of debt."

In a series of tweets, Jackson, a senior at Brown University, criticized NYU for the "audacity shown by a clearly privileged faculty member to tell me what I am capable of before ever meeting me. This shows how out of touch you are with the very communities y'all claim to work with."

"The exchange between a graduate admissions officer at NYU's Tisch School and a potential applicant for admission was wrong and unfortunate on many levels," said NYU spokesperson John Beckman in a statement to BuzzFeed News. "We handled our communications with Joshua Jackson badly."

The Tisch School's policy had explicitly stated that it did not provide fee waivers to students, a practice that is common for other, similar programs. Beckman said the policy would be revised to say that waivers were available.

An analysis by ProPublica earlier this year found that of the country's wealthiest colleges, NYU provided the least assistance to low-income students. Its graduate students take out more debt to finance their degrees than at almost any other school in the country — nearly half a billion dollars in loans last year, putting it just below the University of Phoenix, a for-profit giant, on a national ranking. For undergraduate students, the university's financial aid is often ranked among the worst in the country.

In the wake of protests at the University of Missouri, Yale, and elsewhere, NYU said last month that it would appoint a "Director of Global Diversity" and increase funds for the university's multicultural center.

Tressie McMillan Cottom, an academic, told the website Inside Higher Ed that the email was indicative of a broader problem with elite graduate education. "The director of admissions at the Tisch School is saying that they 1) offer little funding, 2) are very expensive and 3) rely on application fees for revenue," she wrote. "That is not only true for Tisch, but it isn't often that it is so blatantly stated, much less to a possible applicant.”

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.