Over the past few years there has been increasing exposure to the harsh reality of what it is like to be in college while facing financial hardship. I remember beginning my career in student affairs admiring my supervisor for stocking the office kitchen with rice, beans, peanut butter, bread and pasta for students to take with them if needed. You would think that this would be met with praise, right? However, it was an uphill battle as other administrators thought that financial aid covered enough for all students to make ends meet, despite students being open about their situation.
While I recognize that some of my own struggles were due to poor financial management skills, and that I was fortunate enough to have enough financial aid — I had many peers who were helping their parents while in college, or simply did not have enough aid or financial support from family. Reflecting on this, I engaged in a conversation with my closest friends and asked what were some of the unspoken ways they would try to save money.
Here are some of the things we discussed:
The pattern became clear to me — we relied on some form of theft. Pirating textbooks, stealing from the university, finding ways to avoid payment on things like laundry were all strategies we employed in order to “get by.” Interestingly enough, all of these strategies were recommended by more senior students who knew where it was best to do these things, and how to get away with it. Most of my peers admitted that they felt no guilt or shame about it then, but that it is not something they are proud of or something to brag about.
This isn’t something to be proud of, nor am I trying to give students ideas. However, I think it is important to point out what I know some of us did because we felt like we had no other option. We knew that the added stress of burdening our parents with our financial hardship would bring on more guilt and shame. It was either feel guilty or shameful for our actions while creating a façade that all was going well in college, or feel guilty asking for more support from family that were already working longer hours for us to thrive in college. Some friends feared that they would have to take a leave of absence because their parents would not be able to help them anymore.
As stories of food insecurity on college campuses and the skyrocketing costs of higher education continue to become more commonplace, I wonder what other strategies will students come up with to get by?
Andrew Martinez is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and research associate at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions. You can follow him on Twitter @Drewtle