Affording a 4-year private liberal arts education is difficult for many students. For Weslie Wilkin, it was nearly impossible.
After working 20 hours per week nannying, enrolling in 18 credits each semester and sometimes sleeping three hours a night, Wilkin plans to graduate this December with her degree in political science from Wheaton College: a degree she will have completed in just two and a half years.
Wilkin streamlined her degree by taking dual-enrollment classes, which count for college credit, all through high school, and loading up on 18-credit semesters once she came to Wheaton in 2021.
Her path to college was never guaranteed. Her family and community in her hometown, Lynchburg, Ohio, expected her to settle down and have kids and “that was it.”
“But I started to reject that,” Wilkin said. “I had the teenage girl mentality, ‘I’m going to change the world.”’
Her father didn’t go to college and her mother was the first in her family to go to community college. In Lynchburg, 13.7% of the population holds a bachelor’s degree, according to DATA USA.
When Wilkin expressed her desire to go to college, her parents tightly controlled where Wilkin could apply, and which colleges she could research. Wheaton wasn’t initially on the list, but one day she saw an ad for Wheaton on Instagram and showed her mom the tagline: “For Christ and His Kingdom.” Her parents were hesitant, but eventually approved.
Purchasing a plane ticket to Chicago or taking the time off of work for a weekend visit often wasn’t feasible for her family. While Wilkin’s initial decision to attend Wheaton put a strain on her relationship with her parents, she’s come to realize her parents didn’t want her to leave their close-knit community out of a sense of protection.
She also understands that their inability to contribute to paying her college tuition wasn’t a punishment. It was just unfeasible.
“A lot of the financial difficulties were not my parents withholding money as a ‘We don’t support you,’” Wilkin said. “If they had the ability to help, they would have.”
Wilkin said it’s been difficult to relate with fellow students who don’t know what the FAFSA is or have never visited the Student Financial Services Office.
“I’m so aware of what’s happening with my payments all the time, and other students in my financial bracket are so aware of this all the time,” she said. “It’s hard to go through the stress of college and relationships and still have time to work and go through the whole process of going through the FAFSA every year.”
Graduating early is often a financial consideration that, for many students, is becoming more appealing. Data shows that college is growing more expensive, despite scholarships and aid, especially for financially independent students like Wilkin. The net price of college has risen more for the lowest-income than for the highest-income students at nearly 700 colleges across the United States, including Wheaton, according to research by the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.
For students at Wheaton College with a household income of less than $30,000, the net price of tuition, which is the institution’s cost of attendance minus grants and scholarships, increased by 47% from 2011-12 through 2020-21, according to Hechinger’s data tool. For students with a household income of more than $110,000, there was a tuition net price increase of 1%.
Chief Enrollment Management Officer Silvio Vazquez said the tuition net price increase of 1% was “probably a typo,” and the correct increase in that net price for that grouping is 12%.
Last academic year, 90% of Wheaton students had a discount on their tuition, whether from financial aid, scholarships, or a mix of both. Karen Belling, director of Student Financial Services, said in an email to the Record that both the amounts of academic-based scholarships and the number of students awarded those scholarships have increased since 2014.
When Wilkin came to Wheaton as a first-year student, she was excited to do it all. She wanted to make the most out of her time at Wheaton, initially planning on graduating just a semester early. She wanted to leave the hurt behind and grow deeper spiritually, make meaningful friendships, excel in her classes and join lots of extracurriculars. In her first semester, she was assistant poetry editor of the Pub, joined Workout, the theater troupe on campus, spent many late nights with friends and worked the night watch shift in campus buildings. But it was harder than she expected to balance everything.
“I convinced myself I had narcolepsy because I would just fall asleep randomly sitting,” she said. “I was just so sleep deprived.”
To pay for college and strike a healthy balance between studies, work and life, Wilkin has since had to become less involved with extracurricular activities. This semester, she isn’t involved in any on-campus groups. She mostly nannies and goes to class. A large portion of her college career has been spent finding ways to afford the next semester. This summer she worked 50 hours a week back in her hometown in Ohio, and all of the money went toward affording her final semester at Wheaton.
Wilkin said the hardest part of her Wheaton experience has been paying the tuition bill. This year, Wilkin received the least amount of money in financial aid of any semester, even though her financial situation has only worsened at home.
“Why are they giving me less if my parents’ income hasn’t changed?” she said. “It’s decreased.”
She’s tried the financial aid appeals process in the past, combing through thousands of dollars in medical bills and doing paperwork to verify her parents’ income. When she appealed her first year, she was given around $1,000 more. But that was only about 15% of what she needed to make another year at Wheaton viable.
“Do they not believe me?” Wilkin remembered wondering.
Belling declined to comment on the specifics of Wilkin’s case for this article for privacy reasons.
While struggling to make ends meet, Wilkin also recalls lows of her Wheaton experience while navigating chronic pain. She has Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS), a genetic condition that affects skin, joints and blood vessels. It makes her prone to getting injured, falling ill and often experiencing migraines.
During her first year at Wheaton, Wilkin was struggling with her health and couldn’t work enough to pay for food.
“I went to Professor Black and I was like, ‘I don’t have enough money for food. I need help,”’ Wilkin said.
Amy Black, professor of political science, conferred with other faculty members and eventually connected Wilkin to some scholarship opportunities. Black said she’s grateful that God provided in a very distinct and unique way in Weslie’s circumstance, but that isn’t always the case.
“Sometimes students don’t get the money, and they don’t come back,” she said. “Weslie’s story isn’t always the story.”
In Wilkin’s case, an anonymous scholarship donor provided just enough money for her to stay another semester. Contributors who made a gift during the college’s annual giving day last March could nominate a student to receive a scholarship, and two students were randomly chosen and awarded $5,000 each. Last year, Wilkin won the award.
“It was a life changing gift,” Wilkin said with tears in her eyes. “I really hope that one day I can do the exact same thing for somebody.”
The scholarship made a way for Wilkin to stay and finish her degree, but Black notes that sometimes scholarships don’t come in for every student.
“We realize not everyone can come to Wheaton College, and that is a source of lament,” she said. “Faculty, staff and administration are all thinking of ways that we can help reduce the financial burden on students.”
After graduation, Wilkin is preparing to move to Texas, nanny full-time, and marry her fiancé in March. When asked whether the constant doubt and uncertainty of being able to afford another semester at Wheaton was worth it, Wilkin mentioned her faith.
“The way that Wheaton has shifted my views on God and being a Christian — that’s not something that I would give up,” she said. “That’s priceless.”
Philip Kendall and Noelle Worley contributed reporting to this story.
(Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that 45% of Wheaton students received a discount on their tuition last year. The corrected number is 90%. The Record regrets the error.)