Here is a snapshot of my past 24 hours: It is now 9:11 pm and I’ve just finished dinner. I got home at 8 from a half-hour commute after a 2.5-hour class. Before that, I spent a few hours filing and shredding for the professor I work for, which was after a counseling session from 1 to 1:45. Counseling came after my commute to campus, and my preparation for that 2.5-hour class. Before that I was coordinating my calendar, sending out internship applications, submitting essays to publications. Now I am annotating a chapter on writing across discourse communities, and after this I must translate a couple hundred lines of House of Fame from Middle English to Modern English before reading a couple of articles from the New York Times to be discussed in my Features class at 10 am. If I want to get enough sleep, I need to finish all of that in the next 49 minutes so I can tuck myself in at 10 in order to wake up at 6 am and make it to my 7-to-10 shift at a coffee shop. I will not make it to Features on time and I will not get enough sleep.
Wednesdays are my easiest days. On Tuesdays and Thursdays I have three consecutive classes with 15-minute breaks in-between; on Mondays and Fridays I run downtown to put in hours at a small weekly for my second internship. Half my nights are filled with schoolwork while the other half are spent at my on-campus job. I’m currently curating a departmental discussion series and working on two major writing projects as well as an ongoing research project to be proposed this coming February; I constantly gussy up my resume and portfolio for graduate school applications next fall.
At home, I live alone with my father. There’s no Internet access and I can’t remember the last time I ate a fresh vegetable. Most days, we’re both gone for 12 hours apiece, as he leaves at 6 am or earlier and I return at 10 pm or later when he’s asleep. Our household exists in that little sweet spot where we don’t quite qualify for government assistance but still need it. We make do without.
In reality, to be a highly-functioning, high-achieving poor high school student is to be, in a word, perfect. tweet
I’m not particularly fond of my university. They don’t put much funding or attention into my field, and while the schoolwork is manageable it still manages to be a bit much for a 20-year-old working two jobs. Sometimes I look at transferring to Hopkins, but unfortunately they charge $50+K a year. I can barely afford $10K.
The average tuition cost of a public four-year college is $9,139 in-state and $22,958 out-of-state while the average private four-year college costs $31,231. There have been a thousand and one articles and essays detailing how damaging these costs can be for middle-class households—including Adam Davidson’s “Is College Tuition Really Too High?”, Adam Levin’s “5 Ways Student Loans Hurt Middle-Class Kids” , and and Paul Campos’s “The Real Cost of College”—but they can take a much greater psychological toll in the bottom-rung students in particular. For example, Maryland is the richest state in America, and its lower-middle class averages at about $48,322. The University of Maryland at College Park (UMD) costs about $9,996 a year—not including dorm fees, books, and meal plans. If a family of four below the national poverty line—earning approximately $24k a year—were to send one of their students to this particular university with no financial aid, the cost would be over a third of the family’s income.
Seeing as Johns Hopkins’ $50k tuition was out of the picture, my second best bet would have been UMD, but only if offered full tuition, considering my parents are ineligible for PLUS loans. The school does offer the Banneker/Key Scholarship, what it calls “Maryland’s most prestigious merit scholarship for academically talented Honors College students.” This scholarship can cover a student’s entire cost of attendance, but these scholarships so often fall to those from stable, upper-middle class households who could afford to devote half of their lives to study. Gaining the grades necessary to compete for this scholarship—and thus, attend and afford a competitive education—in an unstable household, on the other hand, requires a student that functions at such a level that they can essentially take care of themselves. Instead of being able to meet these impossible standards, I settled with the University of Maryland, Baltimore County because it’s right in my backyard.
My struggles reflect both those of college students and high school students aspiring to college. A high school student suffering from mental health issues such as depression and anxiety — both famed impediments to academic achievement, not to mention financial stability — or a hungry or unhealthy student may be unable to concentrate in their classes. Lead poisoning in children from low-income areas taint their psychological development, leading to hyperactive behavior, attention troubles, and delayed intellectual abilities.
In reality, to be a highly-functioning, high-achieving poor high school student is to be, in a word, perfect. It is to eat healthily despite your grocery budget and remain completely ignorant of your family’s financial situation. It is to be in tip-top mental health because you can’t afford therapy. It is to supplement school with work to afford school supplies or healthy foods or sports equipment or whatever else looks best on your resume. It is to push yourself to function higher than your wealthier classmates because you aren’t offered the same resources. And, most importantly, it is to strike that fine balance between school, work, and yourself as you try not to throw yourself out of equilibrium.
Low-income, first-generation high school students are left behind as they try to navigate the jagged journey of college applications. I was never taught the secrets of getting into college until it was too late. Extracurriculars, advanced courses, leadership positions, volunteer experience—I was even left in the dark about how to apply for financial aid because I was a first-gen student.
Once working-class millennials reach a four-year university, they face enough socioeconomic anxieties to fill a Kafka novel: from choosing a reasonable and comfortable career path to figuring out the work-life balance that’s rumored to exist to feeling the increasing weight of loan debt sinking into our backs, today’s college students are, in a word, stressed. Where will I go after graduation? Can I even graduate on-time? Am I supposed to find my spouse here? What are taxes? How can I enjoy my youth and succeed in my field at the same time? These questions differ from individual to individual, but generally surround some early-life crisis in which everyone’s panicked and nobody has the answers. However, poor college students feel the added stress of paying for tuition and/or maintaining their scholarships, paying egregious textbook prices, and facing the increasing academic rigor of higher education.
The working college student must find the work-life balance where “work” is a double-whammy consisting of a full-time course load and a job. Those who just want to get by can most likely float through university with their health intact, but in 2015 “getting by” will not guarantee a job in a field that pays, as more college graduates between the ages of 21 and 29 succumb to low-wage work. This means the working college student must incorporate various extracurriculars and academic honors in order to appear competitive. Write and publish research papers; get the highest marks on the GRE. Perfect your portfolio; become a president or editor or chairperson or curator or coordinator or director or organizer. And for working college students time is not only of the essence but a pervasive darkness that hinders them as they amble through competitive fields without a compass.
Deep down, how hard I work in relation to how much I receive in return feels almost like a cheat. I may excel, but I’m always behind. tweet
And yet, in the end, college can be entirely defeating. “Translating a college degree with an associated major and GPA depends so much on parental capital and social resources,” Laura Hamilton says in the 2013 Forbes article “Are We Setting Up College Students to Fail?” “Take two students with a 3.9 GPA and the same major. The student from the more affluent family will have two unpaid internships on her resume when she graduates—maybe one that her parents helped her get.”
There are programs in place in order to help poor students navigate college application season from as early as the seventh grade, and there are also undergraduate programs to guide low-income and/or first-generation students to graduate school. However, for every empathetic AmeriCorps volunteer, there are seven old white men waving their left fists at Affirmative Action while clutching their bootstraps with the right. The growing stressors of college can be so detrimental to low-income students that about only about one in five low-income students earned a Bachelor’s degree (by age 24) as opposed to 99% of students among top-earning families.
At 20 years old I’ve experienced everything stress-related from chronic migraines to hemorrhoids. During midterms I had a panic attack and, thus, mentally checked out of all of this for a week. I share this with you because this is the life of the poor girl who succeeds. It is a life in which the upper echelons of professional life feel just out of your grasp, even when you’re told it isn’t. It is looking out towards a murky sea from a pier and seeing the faint outline of a ship that’s been promised to take you home, but the ship hasn’t docked yet and you’re not even sure if it’s really there.
I’ve found that what saves you is a mixture of intelligence, circumstance, and pure serendipity; most, if not all, rags-to-riches tales are centered around an individual who had the means to spin the charred remnants of their lives into gold.
Being underfunded in university is a daily challenge that often turns hard assignments into harder ones. As of right now, I can only afford a fraction of my textbooks and, thus, accessing the coursework itself becomes a separate assignment. Though I’ve found solace in interlibrary loans and Thriftbooks.com, sometimes the books are nowhere to be found and my grades inevitably suffer.
Deep down, how hard I work in relation to how much I receive in return feels almost like a cheat. I may excel, but I’m always behind. Each day I’m reminded of the have-nots: Drugstore cosmetics become a luxury while feeding myself throughout the day becomes a creative exercise. Weekend outings depend on a bus pass and an imagination. Clothing is bought cheap but meant to last long. Generally, the work does not equal the payoff, even though I’m one of the lucky ones. Not every poor student has a girthy support system or meticulously-filled day planner. Some students pay for all of their own expenses out-of-pocket, others haven’t developed the skills necessary to pay attention due to a lifetime of living without. In short, the playing field is not equal.
College is supposed to open the doors to the American Dream. Why are poor students still locked out?