“How many of you must have a job while in college?” my professor asked on the first day of class. To be honest, I thought the question was unnecessary; certainly every hand would raise, save for a particularly well-off student or two. As I lifted my arm, though, I was shocked to find only one-third of the class doing the same. With complaints of tuition expenses and incessant remarks about being a “poor college student” running rampant, it’s hard to believe there are so many students who don’t need a job. In fact, being a poor college student has become the new vogue. Rather than bonding over the rigor of academia, we share stories of empty bank accounts. It is no surprise that I was confused about the lack of raised hands, then. If we’re all talking about money—or lack thereof—how are some of us free to be unemployed? That is not a rhetorical question. Frequently, the answer is “because my parents pay for it.” This is where the divide between faddish college poverty and reality begins. Growing up, I went to the food shelf more than the grocery store. If I wanted to go to college (which I did), I would have to pay for it completely on my own. I attended a community college because I could get a degree online—necessary for someone with a fulltime job. And frankly, I’m not the only one; this is a vital schedule for many students.
This is not to dismiss the struggles that middleclass students go through. College costs are rising every year and the only viable solution seems to be taking out more student loans—not a far cry from selling our souls. It is undoubtedly jarring to go from a comfortable life to one in which the burden of expense is a personal responsibility. Hardships in life are relative, as anyone who has uttered the phrase “first world problems” can attest to, but the primary benefit of being middleclass is the safety net—often in the form of parents.
However, when the label of “poor college student” is assigned to every college student, those who are truly struggling are treated less seriously. We assume that all students who complain about money have that safety net made of cash held by their parents, just waiting to catch them. Yet when a genuinely impoverished student worries about paying rent, it is not something to be taken lightly because they could ultimately be evicted. And it’s not just rent and tuition college students are stressed about. We have WiFi bills, groceries, pet expenses, insurance, medicine, and even the occasional trip to Starbucks to pay for. This is no small feat for any student.
As a student who grew up fluctuating between poverty and working class, it is unsettling when everyone assumes college students are middle class. During college we fall into the mentality that we’re in the same boat. The reality, however, consists of one group sinking with the Titanic while the others float away on lifeboats—a rocky trip, no doubt, but safe. I hate to generalize (there are many degrees between lower and middle class, after all), but when the experiences of a few become the truth for all, it can be incredibly polarizing—particularly for the minority. There is not an easy solution for this situation, but I hope that by sharing our stories we can try to answer the question: what does it really mean to be a poor college student? Perhaps we can even swap some ramen recipes along the way.
BY APRILL EMIG firstname.lastname@example.org
ILLUSTRATION BY JOE FRASER.