Precipitous Education

We Need to be Honest with First-Generation College Students

Veronica Mars

My 17-year-old brother texted me late last fall and said, “Guess what!?”

My first thought was, “Oh my gosh, he got into college!” He only applied to one, but he’s lucky and deserving; he must have gotten in. My next thought was, “How is he going to pay for it? What’s the financial aid package?”

Coming from a family whose federally projected expected family contribution toward our higher education has sat firmly at zero dollars for five years, it’s hard not to link college acceptance with my own bi-monthly visits to my school’s student financial services office over the course of my four years there. Even with scholarships and financial aid, an overdue and unforeseen balance relentlessly appeared on my account at the beginning of every semester. I made it through, though, and, certain that our Baby Boomer grandparents would highlight the impossibility of adequately financing his degree and possibly scare him away from school in the process, I prepared my “it will all work out” pep talk.

He follows my “what?!?!?!” message with: “I got a job.”

A job. Thank god.

It’s not easy being a poor kid, and it’s especially not easy being a poor kid fresh out of high school, college prospects or not. Frankly, I don’t know which is worse: being poor and entering an immobile workforce, or being poor and entering an institution of higher learning. I did the latter, but based upon the part-time jobs I held next to peers who largely chose the former, I can conclude that stress and anxiety and a series of never-ending calculations slowly kill you either way.

So, despite my preference for education as the proverbial door out of poverty and because I know he is actively pursuing that option as well, I’m filled with relief when my brother tells me he is employed, because now he’ll be able to build the reserves for all those surprise costs that blindside first generation college students.

When I applied to college, I was floored to find that, despite that my application fees and standardized test charges were waived due to financial need, I was expected to put down a $500 deposit to hold my spot in my program, and further, that I had to do so within about a month of my acceptance letter. Admission deposits, I learned that year, are not generally advertised during application season. In a post-recession economy, and one in which 47 percent of American consumers apparently cannot come up with $400 in case of an emergency, these surprise costs are an extra and enigmatic hurdle following an already costly process. Some schools will reduce or waive the admission deposit if need is demonstrated, but many do not or else don’t offer instructions for students who may need assistance.

Luckily, by the time I got my own acceptance letter and decided that that school was the one for me, I’d had a job waitressing for the previous four months and — child of poverty that I was — I had immediately opened a savings account once I took home my first week’s wages. When the time came, that cushion was there. I took out a money order and sent it in. But being able to afford that deposit felt like a narrow escape. There was no fallback plan, no rich uncles who might have helped me out, no grandparents watching over me from a distance in case of an emergency. It was just me and my parents’ empty bank accounts. Almost no one I knew had any disposable income, let alone an extra $500.

It didn’t stop there, though. The week he got his new job, I told my brother about how I showed up to school and literally everything cost money. By that time, I was working a retail job, which wasn’t as stressful as waitressing, but which paid significantly less. I spent nearly all of each paycheck paying to get to school on commuter trains. (Living on campus was far, far too expensive, even with financial aid.) Some weeks I didn’t have a dollar left over. And I had to pay for books, a cost that was unpredictable from semester to semester.

I wanted to join clubs. Those cost money, too, and lots of it if you wanted to participate in club activities off-campus. For example, in order to participate in Model United Nations, essentially a traveling debate team, I had to budget anywhere between $150-$200 approximately twice a semester. There wasn’t financial aid for that, but it was something I really, really wanted to do — and something I did well, setting school records for making high awards in competitions as a first semester freshman. But to participate, I had to work extra hours and set aside birthday money. Getting a second job wasn’t even a possibility between commuting, working one job, and having classes peppered throughout the week between Monday and Friday.

Then there was the added pressure of being in the city. I smelled coffee I couldn’t afford, walked past holiday displays of apple-scented lotions whose price tag equaled my last paycheck, and took what seemed like endless notice of everyone’s sleek, pressed winter coats. As a poor kid in college, it felt like everywhere I went, I was surrounded with things I couldn’t have, things I never encountered at my suburban high school. Worse still, the route to the train station was fastest if I cut through an upscale mall in Boston’s Back Bay. Consequently, at the end of each day, it was impossible to stop from focusing on a lifestyle I could experience only by proximity. I wanted so desperately to live that comfortable, warm, peppermint coffee-scented life that everyone else seemed to be living.

Only the hope that my education would lead me to economic stability kept me going.

In nearly four years, my situation didn’t ever change. My luck picked up the last two years of college with an internship that paid twice what I made at my retail job. But even then, by that point I was living in my own apartment closer to school. The hours I could work to make rent were limited. Not for the first time, I considered getting a second job, working in the evening, after classes. But to do this, I’d have to give up my clubs, and particularly my position as editor of the school paper. Ultimately, I decided that the editor position was more valuable because I could maybe translate that into a job in the field after graduation. (I did.) So I ate canned soup and did what I had to do to get by, and not a single part of me regrets it.

These are the things I tell my brother as I fret over his still undetermined college finances. It feels important, breaking to him the truth that financial aid rarely covers everything, no matter how deserving you are of help. It’s not that struggling isn’t worth it; it’s that we should be honest with incoming students about the extent of the struggling they may well experience. It seems colleges don’t want to scare away prospective students, and many students who face the challenges I did are too embarrassed to talk about it because it can feel like complaining. Most of my friends were pretty well off, with parents who not only saved for their education but who could co-sign on private loans and give them spending money from month to month. If any of my peers were working full-time jobs or struggling to make ends meet, I didn’t hear about it.

Even though financial aid and scholarships make higher education possible for low-income students, academia is still largely comprised of the economic elite. Look at any senior week activities that cost students hundreds of dollars to participate, or look around at the other students on the college debate teams, whose parents are diplomats and businesspeople. Even if you get into your school of choice, I tell my brother, you may not be able to afford its culture.

I tell him about the trips to my school’s financial services office, where I had countless meetings with different financial counselors about my flat-out inability to pay what was left of the semester’s tuition. He should mentally prepare for these meetings, too. Prepare for ends he’ll seem to never be able to make meet.

I tell him he’s going to want to do things when he gets to school: he’s going to want to go out with his friends, and he’s going to want to go to the movies, and he’s going to need to buy things, like deodorant and toothpaste. All these things cost money. Even if he gets into a top-10 school, or one with a hefty and generous endowment, he’s got to save.

A lot of the people he meets will not come from the kind of family we come from. They will have parents with degrees, and maybe even grandparents with degrees; they will have parents who own houses, who saved for their college tuition; they will wear nice clothes and if you’re nice to them, they’ll ask you if you want to come hang out in their dorms and order Chinese food. You won’t want to say no, that you’re not hungry, that you’ve got to go home, that you don’t feel like Chinese food tonight, but thank you anyway, see you later. You’ve got to, and you’re going to want to participate. So you need to work now, and you need to work then.

He told me he’d been looking but it had been hard. So far, no one had responded to his applications. I remember those days: getting a low-paying, low-skill job was as much of a toss up as applying to entry level jobs in my senior year of college. No one calls you back. When they do, it’s the most elating feeling. And I was so, so happy for him when he texted me.

I don’t know if that new job was a result of my cajoling, and I don’t need need to know. I just worry so much about him going out there, out into the world as a poor kid with no fallback. Because first generation college kids are cut no breaks, whether or not your school throws you a few extra shekels or if your school has a special orientation tailored to students just like you. (Many colleges now do.) Because in my experience, they’ll do anything to make sure you don’t leave them for another institution, but next to nothing to ensure that you don’t just drop out.

And believe me, we try so hard to pass as average that we’ll go to great lengths to identify ourselves. Assimilate or perish. And so, many first generation college kids quietly make the hour-long trek to school and debate whether they can justify that coffee or that beer with their peers, and they walk through the urban malls and wonder what the next unforeseen financial roadblock will be.

Monica Busch is a journalist and essayist from Massachusetts. Follow her on Twitter: @somethingmonica.

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