Let’s Talk About Money: How Being Broke Means Being Out of Step at College

crop380w_empty_pocketsOne of the most important lessons I learned as a college student scraping to get by was that asking for help is not a sign of weakness – it’s a sign of strength. But that wasn’t an easy lesson to learn.

As someone who worked a part-time job and held internships while carrying full-time class schedule just a few years ago, I know firsthand how tough it can be to be. One of the most memorable moments of my undergraduate career was when a friend was upset that I couldn’t go out shopping and to a movie with her one evening. After telling her I was scheduled for a shift at work, I recall the irritable tone in her voice as she asked, “Why do you work so hard? Seriously. How is this fun for you?”

She didn’t get it. Why did I work so hard? Because I had to.

Growing up in a small western North Carolina town, my high school didn’t provide college mentoring programs or special advisers who helped you pick the right school. As a senior in high school, I was left nearly on my own to navigate a daunting higher education system. With determination and trial and error, I finally applied, was accepted, and attended college. I discovered Pell Grants, affordable student loan programs, and resources on campus to help students like me become successful – despite my economic background.

The resources were there. All I had to do was ask.

The struggle of higher education affordability is constant for students of low-income families. Low-income students often have a hard time making the leap to college – especially if it’s a selective university. The majority of low-income, high achieving students don’t even apply to selective colleges. In fact, just a third of these students attend one of the country’s 238 most selective universities.

According to a recent Brookings Institute study, widely used recruitment policies by higher education institutes such as campus visits and college mentoring programs are ineffective with low-income students. Many students don’t have the means to travel for campus visits. Parents in low-income families don’t know the higher education system, and some schools don’t have much more to offer in terms of advice. Often rural or underfunded high schools lack adequate college preparation programs that help students with navigating the application and financial aid process.

Even for the low-income students who make the leap to a college or prestigious university, campus life can be confusing and isolating. The majority of campuses are set up with the assumption that students enter with certain life skills – such as knowing how to set up a bank account, manage housing arrangements or navigate support from professors and teaching assistants.

The obstacles low-income students face in higher education can seem endless: Textbook prices in the hundreds of dollars. No money to spend a summer in the city for that unpaid internship that could give you a head start in the job market. Missing out on certain classes because your part-time job doesn’t afford you a flexible schedule. No study abroad trip with classmates.

In a recent guest article for the Duke Chronicle, one student discusses her fear of sharing an integral part of herself with her classmates – she is poor. Her struggle in four years wasn’t passing a class or picking a career path, it was being able to talk about her class identity openly.

It’s tough.

But the first step to overcoming the achievement and social gap is to spread awareness. Campuses must create environments where students don’t feel confused, isolated, or afraid to discuss economic inequality. My friend got irritated at me because she didn’t understand. She wasn’t aware that some of her classmates came from a different world, a world where the biggest worry wasn’t what bar to go to that weekend – but worrying about money to simply eat.

It is important that all students understand that success in higher education is achievable despite economic status – and it’s OK to ask for help.

Here are a few places to start:

Quest Bridge – This non-profit offers a college-match program designed to place top low-income students in one of its partner schools, like Yale and Princeton. Students accepted into the program can receive full scholarships and financial aid packages.

My inTuition – This program at Wellesley offers a financial aid calculator to help students and families quickly see an estimate of how much financial aid they could receive.

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – A few years ago, the foundation announced grants totaling almost $70 million to organizations helping low-income students earn a post-secondary degree. These grants went to organizations like The Future of Children, The Forum for Youth Investment, and YouthBuild USA.




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