Being Broke in College: The Effect of Socioeconomic Status on the College Experience

| October 16, 2017 | 3 Comments

College is often painted as the “equalizer” in the playing field of life, in relation to the socioeconomic status you are born and raised with. However, when taking statistics gathered from research and real life experiences of students into account, this is not the case.

There are greater obstacles in the path of college students who come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds that are not always taken into account when depicting this “American Dream” of opportunity that college supposedly provides for students who “work hard enough.” In an article I recently read, three perfectly capable, intelligent women go off to college to pursue their dreams of escaping what seemed to be their fate of leading lives filled with dead-end jobs and unfulfilled hopes, living paycheck-to-paycheck, as their parents had done before them. Instead of this, they found themselves, four years later, without the diploma they had seen as the key to a better life, and thousands of dollars in debt. Why is this? Students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds often need to juggle academics with one or more jobs in order to sustain themselves with basic necessities and pay for college.

The temptation to drop out of college does not stem from a lack of desire to learn or effort to be put in, but from having to work multiple jobs while trying your best not to fail out of school, staying involved in extracurriculars, creating relationships, networking for future job possibilities, and trying to sleep for more than two hours a night, all while attempting to maintain a stable state of mental health, making every day a battle that you have to fight and hope to get through. The amount of early mornings and late, late nights they are subjected to see are more than is good for them, and these things begin to take a toll on you. On top of this is the relentless, pressing guilt one feels from taking very much needed money from your family in order to help fund your education.

photo credit: amyjutras 041 via photopin (license)

photo credit: amyjutras 041 via photopin (license)

For students from lower socioeconomic families, their time spent in college (and the resulting cost) are not viewed as necessary next steps in life, rather as an investment in the future financial situation of the family. When you’re not getting straight A’s in classes that you know are only adding to the financial strain on your family, it becomes difficult to see college as a worthy cause for this suffering. It’s then easier to convince yourself that maybe you’re just not cut out for it.

Aside from financial barriers, students of lower socioeconomic status face greater dropout rates due to a lack of motivation or desire to be in school. In an excerpt from Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Coates paints a picture of what it is like to be a young, black boy from a lower income background going through the education system. With greater daily fears such as food insecurity and the constant threat of bodily harm from drive-bys or other instances of simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time, it is difficult for him to connect with what he is learning in school, which seems so detached from the life that he lives. As a result, school is not as much of a priority for him and other students like him, who consequently drop out of school to get whatever job they can get to support their families. There is no time to set aside four years of your life to invest in an education that, although it may aid in attaining a higher-paying job in the future, does not even guarantee this proper payout. Life is lived day-to-day, just striving to get the next meal of the day on your plate. When you live a life based on financial insecurity, you do not have the luxury to go out and create stable structures off of your shaky foundation.

After reading this, you may be wondering, “this really blows, what can I do to help?” The answer is that there is no definite cure-all answer (at least at the individual level, Bernie Sanders would beg to differ at the institutional level). A small step that, although does not end this epidemic, may help lessen the blow a bit for those facing these challenges, is to take this information into consideration and understand that some people are going through tougher things than you may be able to tell at the surface level. This is sort of a universal way we should be living, but it specifically applies to the accessibility of social outings. Making outings that are more cost-friendly to a range of socioeconomic backgrounds helps in making socializing a bit more of an inclusive environment. There are a number of free things to do around Boston; not every outing has to be to a $40 brunch to boost your insta aesthetic.

As far as changes go, use your voice. It’s a powerful, underutilized tool in the academic setting. If you see something you don’t like at your school, speak up about it. As students who pay to go to this school, you have a much greater impact than you think you do. Educating others and forming groups to voice your concerns can help create change towards actually affordable college experiences for a greater range of people. This isn’t an overnight solution scenario, but we can all do our small part in making this possible. If you have any other suggestions for ways to help mitigate this problem, leave a comment below and share the knowledge.

Featured: photo credit: investmentzen Student Loans Wall Street Sign via photopin (license)

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Category: Boston, Campus Culture, featured, Social Activism

Virginia Roa

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Salty and brown. Mildly afraid of butterflies. Lover of fashion, books, and the power of words.

Comments (3)

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  1. Rhiannon Pabich Rhiannon Pabich says:

    It’s important, too, to acknowledge the intersectionality of the issue– this morning I read a story on the huge disparity in student loan debt and earning potential between black and white college grads (, and the in-college disparity you point out here is definitely a part of that equation. It’s not enough to just ensure that people of color are enrolling in colleges like BU– there needs to be conscious support for them when they get there so that they can maximize the experience in terms of future career prospects, etc (thanks, HTC)!

  2. Rhiannon Pabich Rhiannon Pabich says:

    thank you for this post, Virginia! Beautifully written and incredibly well-researched. As a BU alum who grew up in a low-income family, college was the first time I truly began to understand how real income disparity was, though I think that the many resources BU offers– dining halls, on-campus entertainment, student health services, free or reduced costs at Boston merchants, events, or publication subscriptions– made it much easier for me to feel like a part of the community, even if my family made significantly less money than the families of many of my peers. I definitely agree that knowledge-sharing is an important first step, and would love to see BU do an even better job of advertising to incoming students how many incredible free resources you have access to once you become a Terrier.

    Another action step I’m working on implementing in my own post-grad life is to stop defaulting to experiences that cost money when I want to hang out with someone. The zeitgeist makes us think that if we’re catching up with an old friend, it has to be over $4 coffees or $10 cocktails or too-expensive appetizers and dinners. We could also take walks along the waterfront, or sit in my living room and make our own coffee or pour our own wine, or flash our BU ID’s (not that we still have them ;D) to go to the MFA fo’ free!

    • Virginia Roa Virginia Roa says:

      Thank you for your comment! I completely agree, outings can be so much more affordable and could put less pressure on people who are already financially struggling. It takes being aware of this and implementing it into our lives even if you’re not personally struggling.

      I love your point on intersectionality, that is definitely a big issue within this one. Thanks for the article link, such an insightful read. We need to look out for each other within the BU community and beyond.

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