Why the “Broke College Student” Stereotype Is Offensive

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.

Think about the typical college student. You might think of the party-goers. Or people who are in frats or sororities. Despite these different stereotypes, the socioeconomic status of these students remains the same. Everyone imagines the broke college kid barely living off of the minimum wage, eating ramen, and living in a tiny apartment. Most people assume that if you are a college student, you are more than likely struggling financially. But what if I told you that this stereotype (for the most part) is exaggerated and even harmful?

Going to college is (unfortunately) a privilege

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Don’t get me wrong. I’m guilty of calling myself broke often. But the fact of the matter is, unfortunately, it’s a privilege to go to college in the United States. A recent study from the World Socialist Website has shown that lower-income students are unable to afford 95 percent of colleges. Some students who go to college have to give up basic human rights such as housing to afford to go to school. Some students have to choose between eating and paying for an education.

I’m fortunate enough to be one of these college students who has housing security, the means to access food, and the ability to pursue a Bachelor’s and (hopefully) a Master’s degree. I, like a plethora of college students, have a support system that is willing to help me in a pinch. Although I describe myself as broke, I’m really privileged not to be.

Some students who are well-off also call themselves “broke”

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I’ll never forget the first time that I realized other students were in a different social class than me. There was a girl that I used to know who would buy Starbucks every day, buy clothes on a whim, and go out to eat for every meal. She lived in one of the most expensive buildings on campus, went on trips for spring break, and didn’t work in college. She still claimed the title of being broke.

As a person of middle-class privilege, I found myself embarrassed that I couldn’t keep up with her lifestyle even while working two jobs. There wasn’t an opportunity where I could tell her that we are in two different social classes and that her claiming to be “broke” actually offended me. However, my embarrassment means nothing when compared to college students who are actually in need.

Just because you aren’t able to live a life of luxury doesn’t mean that you are broke. If you are like me and can only afford a few luxuries, you still aren’t broke. Being broke means not being able to afford necessities and having to actively worry about your finances.

So why does appropriating the word "broke" matter?

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Appropriating the word "broke" gives off a perception that all college students are on the same financial level. No matter a college student's actual socioeconomic status, they are able to claim the title of being "broke" despite how far from the truth it may be. Well-off students calling themselves broke allows public perception to believe that all college students are faking it and don't need financial assistance.

This proves to be dangerous because politicians actively try to cut funding that would help students repay student loans or be able to afford their education. The appropriation of poverty takes away the possibility of critical discussions of how the educational system actively puts students in financial distress. 

People who are actually financially struggling need to be able to talk about their experience with financial insecurity. There needs to be an understanding that there are different levels of socioeconomic status in college and that there are way too many students living in poverty. The fact that well-off college students are claiming to be "broke" and struggling through college while still experiencing financial stability is offensive and harmful to students who actually are in financial distress. Financially stable students like myself need to take the word "broke" out of our vocabulary and instead inform ourselves about the realities of financial instability on college campuses.  

So I can’t say that I’m broke anymore?

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...Kind of. I think that over-exaggerating is part of our culture. It’s okay to joke around that you are broke. But, if you come from a place of privilege, it’s important to acknowledge said privilege instead of pretending it doesn’t exist. The cost of college impoverishing students, and a lack of resources to support college students financially, are real problems. It’s important to bring awareness to students who need financial support instead of pretending to be one. Changing the rhetoric surrounding the “broke” college student stereotype won’t completely fix the problem. But, it’s a start.