02/21/2014 11:11 pm ET Updated Apr 23, 2014

An Unnamed Advantage: What it Means to Be Financially Disadvantaged at a Private Research University

I read fellow Northwestern University undergrad Audrey Cheng's Huffington Post College article, "What it Means to Be Financially Disadvantaged in College," and I love it.

Yet I wonder: is being economically disadvantaged at Northwestern what it means to be economically disadvantaged in college? Something more than higher tuition and fees gets added to the equation when taking on class specifically within private higher education.

At Northwestern, economic status means very different things to each student. For some we encounter it means not knowing what to do when a girl wants to pay for the first date, "but social norms say no." For others, they mean watching new lakefront construction build a better NU while calls for financial aid remain unanswered. Or, as Confession #146 on Northwestern's Questbridge Tumblr puts it, "Bought a $600 blender, literally give zero shits."

A much needed conversation on class is finally opening up at NU through a Stanford-inspired Tumblr, but so far it's been anonymous. And is there power in anonymity? For 513 (and counting) confessors, it seems so. The Tumblr is well peppered with thank you's and posts of appreciation for the newfound outlet to express themselves.

Others -- Confession 264 -- feel differently:

It takes the perfect mixture of poverty and intelligence to get as much aid as I, and many others, do. But projects like this make me feel as if I should be ashamed, as if I need to compensate for my upbringing. Yes, there are many things that do require compensations; different luxuries and such I didn't have access to growing up, etc. But my pride and acceptance of myself is not one of those things.

Poverty and intelligence are integral to understanding what makes our circumstances unique. While NU Class Confessions or sporadic heart-to-hearts with my roommates show me that empathy and power work above and beyond financial status, there's another unnamed black box lingering behind discussions of class at Northwestern: Northwestern itself.

Would I have been able to intern in Bolivia last summer after missing financial aid priority deadlines had I not been a Wildcat? Would study abroad program directors have been able to find an anonymous donor to fund my most life-changing and adventurous summer to date? Yes and no. Maybe. Yes, but only so long as it was still a private research university.

"Northwestern is literally sitting on piles of money!" I often say to my friends. What's surprising is how closely this statement sits to the literal: Northwestern has the 10th highest endowment fund in the country, nearly $8.2 billion as of August 31, 2013. The institutions with larger endowments? All private research universities, save one public research university, the University of Michigan.

While endowments may not correlate directly to financial aid, it does relate to the opportunities that conversations on class open up. My sister will never go abroad while studying illustration at art school in Chicago because her school's aid is heavily loan-based, and program grants are few and far between.

Here's where it gets hazy: if we push, prod and protest, will Northwestern take action because it should empower our students regardless of class, or because we go to a university that can empower its students regardless of class? To find out, it takes students standing up from that pile on which NU sits.

Being financially disadvantaged at a private research university is different than being financially disadvantaged at college in general. Asking why it's different opens that lingering black box in class conversations at Northwestern. It says "no" to just numbers and pushes us to question our specific advantage in higher education.

If we go strictly by the numbers, NU students have overwhelming funding support. Last year, Northwestern's financial aid revenue reached nearly $330 million, and President Morton "Morty" Schapiro is an economic tour de force: he's at the front line of NU's capital campaign that hopes to raise $4 billion.

Yet if we go strictly by the numbers, we're missing something. Take it from Morty:

The bad part of the discussion of "oh, just go to college" is it treats college as a commodity ... undifferentiated by quality. It's wood, it's steel, it's coal. But college is not a commodity -- there's a very big difference between our state flagship and other publics. Differences in wealth, differences in prestige, differences in educational expenditures per student, differences in graduation rates, differences in diversity.

So what do we do with this black box? We open it. We keep talking. We take names.

Like many of our relationships with money, what comes next remains up in the air. Let's do as NU Class Confessions asks: "Read, acknowledge, consider." And let's talk with and question and consider not only one another, but also our university. The conversation about class at a private research university is by no means private. It's not anonymous either.

My name is Aileen McGraw. I study Creative Writing and Communication at Northwestern University, and I rely on financial aid to cover over 85% percent of my education.