Over the past few years there has been increasing exposure to the harsh reality of what it is like to be in college while facing financial hardship. I remember beginning my career in student affairs admiring my supervisor for stocking the office kitchen with rice, beans, peanut butter, bread and pasta for students to take with them if needed. You would think that this would be met with praise, right? However, it was an uphill battle as other administrators thought that financial aid covered enough for all students to make ends meet, despite students being open about their situation.
While I recognize that some of my own struggles were due to poor financial management skills, and that I was fortunate enough to have enough financial aid — I had many peers who were helping their parents while in college, or simply did not have enough aid or financial support from family. Reflecting on this, I engaged in a conversation with my closest friends and asked what were some of the unspoken ways they would try to save money.
Here are some of the things we discussed:
- There was a laundry room at a particular dorm that had the payment machine wires exposed. I distinctly remember the advice from older students on how to mess with the different wires and buttons so that the system would reboot and not charge for laundry. We would find a friend who had access to the building and do laundry in pairs — one person would stand outside the room to make sure facilities staff or RAs were not around while the other person programmed the machines.
- Household essentials. The gyms had bathroom tissue and paper towels easily accessible in the locker rooms. Students would take their gym bags and stuff it with these household items even though the paper towels felt like sandpaper and the toilet paper was one-ply. Garbage bags were frequently taken too. Whole rolls of garbage bags were commonly left in the garbage cans under the current bag in use. I remember cramming a midterm paper in a classroom one night when a student I had never met simply walked in, grabbed the garbage bags, and left.
- Books for class. When you are taking 4 classes, and each have about 5 or more books required, you can easily be expected to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on books. Some books may be on reserve in the library — but only one copy. Given that some classes had at least a hundred students, the likelihood of being able to use that book in the library was slim. Students would simply buy the books, spend a whole day scanning these books carefully into PDF files before returning these books back to the store. This alone helped a friend afford their security deposit and first month’s rent of an apartment they needed to secure since living off-campus was more affordable.
- Despite the efforts of my supervisor stocking a food pantry, many students did not want to out themselves with being hungry. Other strategies I crowdsourced were: sneaking fruit, snacks and other food outside of the dining hall, especially right before a major break when the dining halls were closed; creating an email listserve that had all the open events occurring in the day that provided food; and carrying around containers in case you come across left-over food from meetings and events.
The pattern became clear to me — we relied on some form of theft. Pirating textbooks, stealing from the university, finding ways to avoid payment on things like laundry were all strategies we employed in order to “get by.” Interestingly enough, all of these strategies were recommended by more senior students who knew where it was best to do these things, and how to get away with it. Most of my peers admitted that they felt no guilt or shame about it then, but that it is not something they are proud of or something to brag about.
This isn’t something to be proud of, nor am I trying to give students ideas. However, I think it is important to point out what I know some of us did because we felt like we had no other option. We knew that the added stress of burdening our parents with our financial hardship would bring on more guilt and shame. It was either feel guilty or shameful for our actions while creating a façade that all was going well in college, or feel guilty asking for more support from family that were already working longer hours for us to thrive in college. Some friends feared that they would have to take a leave of absence because their parents would not be able to help them anymore.
As stories of food insecurity on college campuses and the skyrocketing costs of higher education continue to become more commonplace, I wonder what other strategies will students come up with to get by?
Andrew Martinez is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and research associate at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions. You can follow him on Twitter @Drewtle