Not Just Our Burden: Fighting Systemic Pressures on Student Finances

By Becca Andrews
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September 2, 2015
The average college student faces a lot of stress already. Lately, however, a certain stressor seems to be on the rise: financial burden.
Going to a four-year college is more expensive than ever.
According to a report by the Institute for College Access and Success Project, the average debt for students after graduation is about $28,400, a 25 percent increase from $23,450 in 2008.
This increase is especially hard on low-income students.
Alex Hutchens, a sophomore receiving financial aid, said worrying about money is a big source of stress. One of five children, Hutchens is mostly financially self-sufficient.
“It makes you feel more tired, but I think it’s made me work harder,” said Hutchens, a sophomore creative writing student from Wilmington. “I’m going in debt just to go here, so I want to make it worth it. Either you give in and say, ‘I’m going to be poor for the rest of my life,’ or you go, ‘I’m going to try.’”
Only 9 percent of students from the lowest income group finish college, but 54 percent of students from the highest income group finish, according to an inequality study by Stanford.
The issue is exacerbated by America’s extreme income gap. The Congressional Budget Office found in the last 28 years that real incomes of the richest 1 percent of Americans almost tripled, while the real incomes of the median household increased by about 25 percent. The richest 1 percent holds approximately one-third of the nation’s wealth, while the top 5 percent claim over 60 percent.
It is hard for a student to bridge that gap, Hutchens said. It is unlikely they will graduate, and even harder for them move up.
According to the Stanford study, it is even harder as a minority. Of children born in the bottom income quintile, over half of black children remain there as adults, while only 31 percent of white children remain there.
It is also difficult if the student is going out of state. Halie Sanderson, a sophomore environmental science major from Athens, Georgia, needs financial aid to help with out-of-state costs. At UNC Asheville the difference is about $16,000.
“It’s way too much,” Sanderson said. “For the school itself, it’s really expensive. Tuition should be the same for everyone whether you are in state or out of state and financial aid would be less of an issue.”
The problem is worsened by the public school system. Keith Bramlett, a lecturer for sociology, said that public schools are funded by property taxes, and this is called the per-person expenditure. A school in a poor area will have a bad reputation because the PPE is substantially lower than schools built in high dollar area.
It is also found that schools in poor areas often employ teachers and faculty with less experience, according to the Stanford study.
“We can predict with frightening accuracy the number of prison beds we need by looking at third-graders,” Bramlett said. “Because, in the third grade we can predict with uncanny accuracy who’s going to be college prep, who’s going to drop out, and who’s going to be in a vocational track. At that age the most important predictors of what track you’re on are class, background and your race.”
These structural disadvantages against the poor are often dismissed. Capitalism thrives off the cycle of poverty and having someone at the bottom as a labor force, Hutchens said.
“When you are poor, you are going to take whatever is offered to you. I’m not taking advantage of any system, I’m getting help,” Hutchens said. “It’s weird that poor people are called greedy when people are giving them things, but then rich people, who have 60 percent of the wealth, aren’t greedy.”
A study done by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology reports that special programs such as direct job-creation benefit disadvantaged youth. Hutchens suggested making FAFSA and receiving financial aid easier.
“People have this misconception that if you are poor then you are automatically going to get into college and get all this stuff, but I am so really lucky to have this money,” Hutchens said. “I know people whose parents make less money than mine and they haven’t gotten shit from FAFSA.”
Hutchens said they would like to see a redirection of funds toward education. Sanderson said she recommends scholarships directed toward students who are going out of state, or business funding students, so they have better education in their workforce.
Bramlett said he simply aims for mutual respect.
“One of the things we need to do is respond to people as people,” Bramlett said. “Not ignoring their race, gender, sexuality, class background, but afford everyone the entitlement of respect by virtue of the fact that they are human beings. They deserve our respect and they deserve our understanding.”