There are many stories to be told about students of color in college, and as I wrote in a column for Inside Higher Ed, finances are often the main issue for these students. For example, when I was an undergrad at Stanford University, it was a struggle for me financially. As someone who was a low-income, first-generation college student, I am painfully aware of the financial issues that students face when they arrive on a college campus.
When I started at Stanford in 1983, there were no special programs for first-generation students, and I didn’t know much about how to pay my bills. Things have changed since then, and I doubt many students get lost trying to cash their checks as I did on my first day dealing with the bursar’s office. However, in many ways, the challenges are the same. I watch students go through the same struggles that I did, paying off the Fall semester with the Spring semester’s grants and loans, and waiting until the end of the summer to pay off the Spring semester with the wages they have earned working full-time during the summer.
My parents never paid their share of my tuition bill, so I worked extra hours above my work-study. One year, that extra work led to me losing my Pell grant — I had no idea that could be an issue. I made sure I turned down the Pell grant in the future, so I could work enough hours to cover my bills. I was lucky that I had relatively minimal student loan debt that I was able to pay off before I started graduate school.
Even for students who come from families that have a tradition of going to college, the road can be difficult. Students who aren’t first-generation may not feel like they can use the resources that may be designed for first-generation students, yet they are likely to have similar issues with the transition to college, and the need for financial guidance.
For another perspective, I have asked my colleague LeRon Barton to share his experience as a year 2000 graduate of Coleman College in San Diego:
In my life, college was always something that was expected of me. I was a pretty good student in high school; I believe that I graduated with a 3.2 GPA. It would have been higher, but I was also a daydreamer and as I entered my senior year, attendance and getting good grades was not as important to me. When I graduated, my family wanted me to go to the University of Missouri. So many uncles and cousins were alumni, but I wanted to do something different and go against the grain. After looking at many different colleges out of state, I decided on a school in San Diego — Coleman College.
Before I even stepped foot onto the Coleman College campus, the issue of paying for school was at the forefront of my mind. Being raised by a single mother, we did not have a lot of money. I didn’t take school as seriously as I should have, so I did not qualify for any scholarships. My mother and I ended up taking out student loans to pay for school. While a Pell grant made up the remaining balance, it was incredible to me how much it cost to attend college.
Going to school out of state, in a city that was many miles away from home (so far that it may as well have been a million miles) was another challenge. I was 19 years old and learning how to take care of myself. How to shop, budget money, work — and all the while attending classes. San Diego also had a different learning curve than Kansas City, Missouri. There were times I felt alone, far from home. That is the one thing people don’t tell you about attending school out of state — you are not around family or anyone you know, which can be isolating and lonely.
Coleman was not your average school, but a place that was specifically for people who wanted to learn about computers and associated technologies. The classes were fast-paced and packed with knowledge. I had to keep up and develop a way to study different theories at the same time. It’s not all that different from your standard university, but for a freshman, it can be daunting.
One of the toughest challenges I faced while in school was paying for my apartment and feeding myself. This was my life: I was going to school eight hours a day and had a large amount of homework, and trying to carve out time to study, while at the same time supporting myself financially. Finding a job was not difficult, but balancing everything else was. Sometimes I would miss class in order to work, and sometimes I would get fired because I had to go to school. It was hard for work and school to co-exist.
I began to sleep less and lose weight, due to my diet of microwaved burritos and Top Ramen. Having gone through this, I don’t think students should work while they’re in school if they don’t have to — but that is not realistic for many Black students. We are in a situation where many of us do not have the money to go to college, and even if we go, it can be a challenge to keep us there. I was already in the hole with student debt before I graduated, as I was struggling to finish my degree. It was a very tough time for me, and there were moments that I had to muster up the strength to continue.
When I finished the program, I knew that I had accomplished something special. I had started a task and completed it. When you attend college, you learn about the academic subjects you study — but also how to interact with others, how to multi-task, deal with pressure, deadlines, unexpected problems, and disasters. Those lessons have helped me throughout life. For that alone, college was worth it.
Although I have been able to deal with the debt that I took on, many students struggle after college to keep up with student loan payments. It is important that students take into consideration how they will deal with college finances as they decide which schools to apply to, and it is important that admissions officers and college administrators help low-income students to develop strategies and programs so that they can succeed. Focusing on first-generation students is important, but there are many other students, including working adults and students who are parents, who need assistance. I hope my story helps to highlight those needs.
About the authors
Dr. Terri E. Givens is the Founder and CEO of The Center for Higher Education Leadership (CHEL). She was the former Provost at Menlo College in the San Francisco Bay Area; Professor of Government and European studies at The University of Texas at Austin; Vice Provost overseeing undergraduate curriculum and spearheading global initiatives as its chief international officer. She formed CHEL to provide academic leaders with information and a supportive community for improving management and leadership skills in an environment of changing demographics, financial challenges, and advances in educational technology. CHEL was born of Terri’s experiences navigating these fields and learning along her journey through academe, from professor to vice-provost and provost at universities in Texas and California.
LeRon L. Barton is a writer and speaker from Kansas City who lives in San Francisco, Ca. He has authored two books “Straight Dope: A 360 Degree Look Into American Drug Culture” and “All We Really Need Is Love: Stories of Dating, Relationships, Heartbreak, and Marriage. LeRon has also published essays and articles about race, mass incarceration, politics, and dating. He has appeared in Al Jazeera, TEDx, Salon, Your Tango, Black Enterprise, The Good Men Project, and Raconteur. Watch his TEDx speech here.