College Connect Spring 2019: Hard financial choices lead to grit and determination in college

By Crystal Cox

In my first two years at college, I’ve had to make a decision that my high school self could not have imagined: go to class or be able to afford to eat. This is the reality that I, and many students who come from low-income families, face. Having to work 40 hours a week at an entry-level service job is difficult, but having to do so while being a full-time college student is beyond exhausting. Since being introduced to the economic concept of opportunity cost, I’ve thought a lot about how school and work are opposing variables in my life.

School has always been the most important thing to me. I’m ambitious and goal-oriented, and I want to be a successful journalist more than anything else. That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning. However, I’ve come to realize that being goal-oriented isn’t enough for someone like me who grew up in large family with little money to spare. My parents are unable to support me financially, so that means that college, housing, utilities, groceries, gas, and entertainment expenses fall entirely on me.

Because I am a working, full-time student, there’s not enough time in a day to complete every task that I need to complete. Therefore, I have to weigh my options carefully and decide which has the greater opportunity cost. For example, say I need to attend class at 8 a.m., but my employer calls me into work that morning. I know that I could use the extra hours at work because my utility bill this month is over my budget, and it would help me to break even. However, I also know that I will lose participation points in the class for that day, which can lower my grade. Most of the time, I choose to work because I can still pass the class without that day’s participation points, but I can’t live efficiently without my utilities, which include electric, water, sewage, and trash. My landlord will also evict me if my utilities aren’t paid, thus rendering me homeless.

However, lost participation points begin to add up and my GPA decreases. With a lowered GPA, I’m at a greater risk of getting kicked out of college, not because I don’t have the determination or intelligence, but because I’m simply not as privileged as my peers. In my experience, professors are either extremely understanding of my predicament or they’re not. I theorize that the professors who aren’t willing to let a working student make up participation points have been financially privileged themselves and therefore cannot relate, or they are required not to allow such leniency by school policy. The latter is highly problematic, as educational institutions and the professional field itself tend to create a greater divide in class structure. Low-income students are the most likely to drop out because entering the workforce makes more sense in a society where they are discouraged from the professional field. For instance, they are discouraged with high profile, but unpaid internships. Low-income students are unable to afford to work without pay, so they can’t participate. Consequently, they have a harder time networking and get less experience. This sets them back in the eyes of future employers who look for such qualities, and can be detrimental to a successful career.

Overall, being a working, full-time student feels like a contradiction, but I’m still determined to succeed. I would like to become a professor myself one day in order to help change the classist structure of colleges. I believe that if low-income students were given better resources and opportunities to flourish, then the professional field would be changed for the better. I’m also grateful for the opportunity to take an Economics class such as this one that will help prepare me for such endeavors.


Cox is a junior studying journalism at the University of Missouri.

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