From the College Kid Who Believes College Should Be Free

From the College Kid Who Believes College Should Be Free:

Because your privilege was kind of just given to you.

I’m writing this response to Alexis Thrasher’s article From the College Kid Without Student Loans because I’ve been angry since I came across the article on my Facebook feed a few days ago. My anger is rooted in deep feelings about the struggles that students of lower socioeconomic status face in higher education, however, I know that others must be angrier, since due to a full scholarship to my institution, I am only taking out loans on room and board.

Let me say one thing to start: I am not better than anyone else because of the luck of receiving this scholarship. I know there are many more people I’m surrounded by immediately that have worked hard, even harder than me, and did not get the same privilege as me for one reason or another. Life happens. Life can make it difficult or impossible to focus on schoolwork or college applications or standardized tests. Sometimes it’s necessary to work full time in high school and take less of a workload. Sometimes, people grow up in situations that are not conducive to excelling in the educational system. It’s difficult enough to be a traditional college student – for the pieces to fall into place that allow for someone to sit in class for fourteen or more hours a week and to pay for it right after graduating high school, despite the pervasive attitude that people who have been given cars, jobs with family members, allowances, and networking opportunities have somehow worked harder than those of us without this social and financial privilege.

The Odyssey article deserves a rebuttal so low-income college students who have had to take out loans at no fault of our own understand that growing up with less privilege does not mean they have not worked hard. We are trailblazers. We have lost sleep, friends, and countless amounts of energy pursuing our dream of attending college (which was sometimes never even thought to be a possible path for us). We are grateful for unsubsidized federal loans, we are grateful for the opportunity to learn and grow through education. We deserve respect.

As a first-generation college student with an EFC of $0, along as a recipient of a full ride and other forms of financial aid, here are some things I’d like everyone to know:

  1. Being Low-Income Takes Time

My guidance counselor asked me how much I was sleeping, on average, every night. I told her four hours on the nights I worked, six on the nights I didn’t. My friends without parents who could support them at all were working even more and sleeping less.  I made time to fill out scholarship applications by not spending as much time with them.

Working minimum-wage, as most low-income high school students have to do, means that it takes more time to make the money we need to support ourselves and their families. This means less time to do things like scholarship applications that don’t bring in immediate income that can be used for current living expenses, which is usually more necessary than money to cover the possible future expense of tuition.

  1. Hard Work Isn’t Easy

I knew many people in high school that worked hard. As a self-proclaimed hard-worker myself, I was drawn to them. But let me tell you: they all aren’t in college now. Some work as waitresses or in the tourism industry in my town. Some are studying at the community college. Most, if they went the traditional route to college, took out loans.

  1. How Much Time You Have Outside of the Classroom Directly Correlates to Your Privilege

Scholarship committees usually do look at how involved you are in the classroom, in your high school community, and in your community at large. It is difficult to do volunteer work if you need to work to make money to survive without taking what people like you, Alexis, would probably call “handouts.” It is difficult to play sports when you can’t afford the equipment. It is difficult to be involved when you are low-income.

  1. Loan Debt Amount Signifies Nothing About Ones’ Work Ethic

How much you have to take out in loans is typically related to one factor – how much of your education your family can and is willing to pay for. If your family is low-income, if they insist you pay for school by your own means, or if you are an independent student, you will most likely have to take out loans unless you are incredibly lucky.

Most of us are aware of the importance of involvement, education, and hard work. Some of us are just not fully able to act on this awareness because of sacrifices we’ve had to make to survive financially right now.

I worked hard, and I was so incredibly lucky to be faced with a scholarship committee that, to an extent, understood that financial privilege was a factor when it came to choosing finalists. My journey was not based so much on my work ethic as it was luck, however. I could have very easily not have grown up in a town with one of the best Single A high schools in the state, with math and science teachers who were willing to help me with ACT prep before and after school, with English teachers who took me under their wing and helped me develop my writing and reading skills to a greater proficiency, with leadership opportunities with flexible enough time commitments that I could afford to take them and work as a dishwasher at the local restaurant at the same time. I could have not grown up with supportive grandparents who insisted I was going to be the first in my family to make to college. If one thing had fallen out of place – if I would have had to pick up more hours at work, if my incredibly supportive high school English teacher had left my sophomore year, if I had been offered a great waitressing job at forty hours a week that I felt it was necessary to take my junior year, I would not be here today.

Everyone’s higher education journey is different, and it’s definitely manifested itself out of some form of privilege. Instead of stepping up on our high horses and shaming our colleagues, acquaintances, roommates, and friends on this educational journey with us, let’s instead step back and attempt to understand and empathize with one another.