Sororities and clubs, late-night pizza runs, two-for-one Wednesdays at the on-campus bar … it’s all part of the fun of college. But while the beer may be cheap, the life—and the textbooks—aren’t always so much. And for the two-thirds of full-time undergraduate students at American colleges and universities who received some form of grant aid in 2010, figuring out how to fund a four-year private education (which costs an average of $26,273 per year) or even a public one (at $7,020 per year, up 6.5 percent from last year), balancing college life with the bills can present a struggle.
Obama’s recent signature on the student loan bill allocates billons of dollars toward increasing college access. And as a growing number of students across the nation opt for a four-year education, more are also faced with those times when being a poor college student isn’t always so easy. Shaimaa Abdelhamid, a University of Southern California junior who is financially independent from her parents, and Andrea Lipiec, who transferred from community college to Bowling Green State and now works as a housekeeper, know the deal.
University of Southern California, class of 2011
Hometown: Monrovia, CA (“a diverse suburb”)
Major: History, Political Science
Lover of: singing, knitting, social justice, women’s rights, traveling, Africa
Current jobs: on-campus office worker, $9.50/hr ($500/month)
Her Campus: So how’d you end up at University of Southern California? What kind of role did money and the financial aspect of the equation play in your decision to attend?
Shaimaa Abdelhamid: USC was my first choice university and the first university I was accepted to. The same day I received my acceptance letter, I received a letter from CalGrants with an estimation of how much aid the California government would give me. I decided to attend once I got the letter, and once my financial aid package—with federal aid as well as my university grant— came in, it was a done deal.
HC: How exactly is your tuition covered? What about your housing, food and other basic expenses?
SA: My tuition is covered through federal grant programs, California state grants, work-study, a huge grant from USC, a scholarship I won my freshman year, and … loans. I basically pay my rent with the financial aid I receive and pay other bills (cell phone, credit card) with my work-study job.
HC: How would you describe your spending habits?
SA: When do I not think about budgeting? Since being on my own, I'm less inclined to go on shopping sprees, but I'm not completely frugal. I shop, but I never buy any one thing over $20, and everything I do spend on has to be worth it to me. I always ask myself, “Do I really need this? Am I going to get my money's worth?” I know how much money is in my bank accounts, and I think in terms of my bills. I make sure I have enough for rent, phone, and credit card bills, and then see what's left for food, and then see what's left for me. But to be honest, I never balance my checkbook.
HC: Can you think of any specific times where you’ve felt limited by your financial status and ability to fork up cash—be it for textbooks, events, fees or just generally times where you didn’t feel like you could do something that your friends or other students were doing?
SA: Textbooks are a huge thing. Since being on my own, I have not once bought every book I needed for a class, so I often have to settle with picking a spot on the bookstore floor and doing my reading. I also always buy my books used … online because they're more affordable that way. Events… I can't go to [the music festival] Coachella. But on a broader scale, I always have to think in the context of “Can I afford it?” no matter what it is.
HC: Has your mentality about money changed at all from your freshman to your junior year?
SA: From one extreme to another. I was living with my dad my freshman year of college and commuting from Monrovia. That is of course different because I was only paying my phone bill, and had no rent to pay, no groceries to buy, and could spend all the money I earned on what I wanted. But now that I support myself, I have to find a way to make everything work out.
HC: What’s the biggest challenge that comes with your having to be conscious of money?
SA: Always having it at the back of my mind. Sometimes, as much as I'd love to let loose and spend every dollar I have to my name, I can't. It's not an option. At the beginning of this semester, the money that was leftover in my bank account after my tuition was paid was an amount larger than I've ever had. But I had to keep it there for rent. Money is just something I have to worry about all the time, especially when the end of the semester draws nearer and my funds decrease. Of course I'd like to be less constrained. I'd love to use that money to travel. But it's okay. I'm definitely not unhappy.
HC: To what extent do you feel like a lot of your classmates are in the same situation? Obviously a lot of kids are on scholarship, but do you ever feel singled out? Did you expect to?
SA: I know a lot of kids who have everything paid for by their parents. That's cool, but I'll take the struggle any day, as hard as it is. I embrace the poor-college-student lifestyle completely. We're adults, or at least as close to adulthood before we're thrown into the real world as we're going to get. I feel more prepared, because after graduation, it doesn't get much more different. I'll still be working, I'll still be supporting myself, but I'll have three years experience of doing so. That, to me, is more valuable than having my college experience an easy ride. Besides, things are much sweeter because I have to work for them.
HC: What’s something that you would want other college students who aren’t necessarily so concerned about money to know?
SA: During last winter break, I had the amazing fortune of taking part in a humanitarian trip to Mali in West Africa. It was not a cheap trip, and for the majority of the fall semester of planning, I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to go. A $2,000 plane ticket was definitely not in my budget. But I wanted it so badly and through fundraising and research grants, my entire ticket was paid for … To me, the most important thing I want to teach is that even though you may be putting yourself through school and working for everything you have, you are never limited by the amount of money you have. The opportunities are out there. Especially for strong, independent women who work hard.
Bowling Green State University, class of 2012
Hometown: Painseville, Ohio
Major: AYA Integrated Languages Arts
Lover of: films, reading, Bruce Springsteen
Current jobs: housekeeper, $10/hr
Her Campus: Can you tell me a bit about your path to Bowling Green?
Andrea Lipiec: To be honest, I never thought about money so heavily until my father’s business went under between 2003-2004. When we were forced to move out of the “white suburbia” [of Mentor, Ohio], I felt a harsh whip of reality. I got a job when I was 16, mostly because of my mother telling me that I needed to learn to pay my way for things I wanted or needed. So when the time came to look at colleges, I wasn’t even sure what I wanted to do, and I wasn’t about ready to waste away 20K on education right off the bat. In attending [Lakeland Community College], I was able to pay off all of my books, classes and other expenses based on grants I had gotten and from working as well. By living at home, I reduced costs on meal plans and sleeping arrangements and could come and go as I pleased.
HC: How do you afford Bowling Green?
AL: In a nutshell, my first year at BG is covered by loans, both government and private. When I filed my FAFSA, I ended up getting royally screwed. After government loans came through, I was short $13,000 and took out two loans through my bank to cover them. However, the upcoming … year is proving to be more hopeful. Because of my grades, I received a substantial grant in addition to other government loans- no private loans and no interest, THANK GOD. In terms of meals and housing, I was required to live on campus my first year because I was deemed a freshman and not within commuter residence distance. I had to purchase a meal plan and other expenses were paid by the little money I received from other family members and Christmas gifts.
HC: And what kind of work experience do you have?
AL: I have worked at one official job in my life, and that was with Panera Bread. I started in July of 2005 making $5.50 an hour and I stayed with the job for four years. The wage never went where I wanted it to, and with the money I made I paid for car insurance, a phone bill and basic feminine hygiene I have to maintain on a daily basis … When I came to BG, I began to work as a housekeeper for a wealthy family with payment under the table. I make about $10 an hour and it has benefited me so much in terms of knowing that I have something to rely on.