Paying Your Way Through College

by: Alyssa Ruffolo

When you think of college, what do you think of? Do you picture a frat house, a guy in a crisp blue button-down shirt, khakis, a backwards hat, and a beer in his hand, laughing and having a great time at a party? Do you picture socializing, playing beer pong, and making lifelong memories with friends? Surely, most traditional students entering college hope to better themselves academically, but also to make some lasting memories and maybe even leave with a few crazy stories. Unfortunately, money plays a huge part in our social experiences in college, and may orient our four years either toward a more stressful, serious experience, or one that involves more free time to enjoy the activities/social benefits college brings.

To party, drink, have free time to go out with friends, and to participate in sports and clubs may not be a possibility for every traditional college student. All of these previously mentioned activities require one thing in common, and that is money. Or, some students may be busting their butts to keep an athletic scholarship which requires dedicating hours of time to athletics and in turn takes away from studying time. Is it physically and mentally possible to work, go to school, and take care of your health, while still having time to make college live up to your expectations of “fun”? Is it possible to participate in Greek life as a person who comes from a low-income background? Is it possible to actively engage in clubs and sports at school while juggling a job and paying your way through school? For those of us who are financially responsible for ourselves through college, many of us would say it is just not all possible.

I am a transfer student who was involved in Greek Life at my previous school. When I first considered joining, I knew I had a lot to think about. This was not going to be easy for me financially. While some students involved in Greek Life have help from family in paying for various expenses throughout the semester (group activities, events, clothing items, dues), I knew those expenses would be on me. Besides immediate financial costs, I also had an academic scholarship on the line that I could not lose by any means. However, I was always on sports teams and involved in clubs in high school and I missed that sense of belonging to a group and having a network of people and friends. So, I decided to join. Now, the university I was attending at the time was a medium-to-small sized school. Dues were not nearly as high as some larger universities. Nonetheless, I found it hard to pay them, even on a payment plan that allowed me to pay in installments. Other expenses that I hadn’t considered included any fines I received if I missed an event and purchasing nice clothes to wear out to events. I missed several meetings and mandatory events because I was working. I worked four days a week and was in school full time. It was very difficult to juggle all of these things, while being an individual has always been an athlete and health-conscious and goes to the gym about five days a week on top of all of this.

I fortunately was able to find rides or ride a bike to work this past summer so I could afford a car for the fall semester. However, if you consider an individual who does not have a car, this adds in to the disadvantage economic status causes for people trying to enjoy their college experience. Finding a job within walking distance (which was unsuccessful for me the previous year before I bought the car) and making it to Greek life events would be much harder in that case. I currently work at a restaurant in the suburbs of the Philadelphia area, and many of my co-workers take public transportation from the city to get to work every day. I can’t imagine the sum of time this transportation process takes away from the time those individuals are then able to work. Do my co-workers who commute an hour to work every day even have time to take classes if they are taking a train or bus for at least an hour to get to and from work every day?

For many students who pay for an apartment/living expenses, books, and maybe even the full cost of classes as well, is there much time to be developing friendships and going out and having the expected “college life”? Do professors understand this lack of free time when assigning work? Does anyone understand the necessity of mental down-time at some point in the day? I can say from personal experience that most do not. I transferred to Delaware Valley University this semester, and for financial reasons I need to graduate on time if at all possible. I cannot afford an additional year or even semester of college. So, in order to achieve that goal, I am currently taking seven classes. I am lucky that I commute and I am fortunate enough to live with my parents at the current time, but even still I have many expenses to pay for that require me to have a job. I have a phone bill, car insurance, gas, and food to pay for through school. I work at a restaurant when I am not in class, and I am also training to be on the school’s track and cross country teams. Besides having a love and passion for running, I also would like to participate in sports because this can possibly help me financially if I can earn an athletic scholarship. However, this is also a catch twenty two; it has been a recent struggle for me to find time to train for the sports team because I am constantly at work or doing school work. At times I find it physically impossible to complete all of the tasks I set out to in any given day of the week in my current schedule. This is just one situation (and much more fortunate than most) where money creates an issue and affects a student’s grades and social life.

Is this fair? Could we say the system is unfair when we think about a student whose parents can afford to pay for her/his car, books, recreational expenses, and possibly even tuition (no loans/debt stress)? Won’t that student with those economic privileges ultimately have less stress and a greater possibility of academic success in college? Students whose parents are able to financially provide for them have more relaxation/down-time and probably less physical and emotional strain in a given week at college than students who do not have that financial support. Not to mention, many times these students’ parents may have gone to college and are of more assistance academically than other parents might be. Entering college as a freshman whose parents did not go to college is difficult and confusing. Figuring out student loans as well as how to sign up for housing, a meal plan, etc., can be very difficult without parental help. And so, in many ways the struggle of these flaws/injustices in college reflect the injustice in the real world. Money ultimately affects our social life, our grades, and most importantly, our mental health. College is designed for people who are financially stable. Student loans are great, but unfortunately they do not cover all expenses, and some college students are paying for it – literally.

originally posted: 2/17

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