Let’s start here: College is expensive.
We see evidence of this everywhere–in the staggering amounts of student loan debt, in the never-ending flood of tuition hikes, and even in the rhetoric of the ongoing presidential debate.
This story, though, starts with a comparably small figure: $7,984.45.
That’s how much the University of Delaware told Jacki White she owed. Without it, the university said, White could not continue to the second semester of her freshmen year.
The information came in a letter that arrived at White’s mom’s house sometime around Christmas. It set off a family-wide panic that was still percolating when I visited White on Jan. 15, midway through her winter break.
Sitting in a darkened living room, White pointed to the figure on her laptop screen: $7,984.45. Below it ran a list of debits and credits. Some, like a $2,329 charge for the spring dining plan, were self-explanatory. Others–a “Federal DL Subsidized Loan” in the amount of $1,732–might as well have been written in Japanese.
White didn’t know why the balance put her nearly $8,000 in the red. She hadn’t recalled owing that much money the first semester. But college is expensive. And paying for it can be a painfully opaque activity, especially for a 19-year-old.
She supposed she did owe $7,984.45, which was a problem because she did not have $7,984.45.
“I did what you told me to do”
White’s mom works two jobs to keep the family afloat. The family recently scrounged together enough money to buy her the laptop upon which she now stared at the forbidding figure. Last semester, she wrote class assignments on her cell phone. Her mom, Alexis White, describes her financial situation as “overextended.”
I asked White how she reacted when she received the letter detailing her debt.
“I cried,” she said with a pained laugh.
“Yes. Actual literal tears. But what else is new. It’s college. Everybody cries.”
Her mind turned quickly to the last 12 years of her education. Despite attending seven different schools in a childhood defined by instability, White kept her sites on college. Her mom encouraged her. She did not waver. Now she’d reached the pay off, and it felt like a con.
“I’m scared because I don’t know what to do,” White said. “And like I’ve been boosted all this time. They’re like yeah you’re gonna go to college when you grow up. And I’m like, OK, I did what you told me to. Now what am I supposed to do?”
When White saw what she owed, she began to compile back-up plans. Maybe she could defer a semester and work? Perhaps she should drop out and learn a trade? A friend of hers was attending beauty school and apparently paying very little. Plus, White heard they gave every student an iPad. She’d already arranged a campus tour, she said.
White’s last hope, as she saw it, was a meeting with Imani Powell, a student adviser with the school. Powell works with students like White through a program called UD Scholars, which serves low-income, first-generation, and minority students. White hoped Powell would tell her she didn’t actually owe all the money right away–or that she could take some time off without losing her place at the university.
Their meeting would take place exactly one week later. Until then, she would wait.
The thing about money
In this series, we’ve focused on a lot of different aspects of the first-generation college experience. We’ve looked at academics. We’ve touched on preparation. We’ve tackled squishier concepts like belonging and inclusion.
But until now we haven’t addressed perhaps the most critical factor in determining a college student’s success: money.
A 2009 report sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation found the No. 1 reason students drop out of college is to “go to work to make money.” The number two reason? “I just couldn’t afford tuition and fees.” Academics, meanwhile, were the least-likely explanation for leaving school.
“Whenever you hear the term dropout it has such a negative connotation around it,” says Erin Knepler, a researcher with Public Agenda, which authored the 2009 report. “You think that they quit. And when you think of somebody that quits you think they couldn’t hack it.”
Though it likely clashes with our popular notions of the college dropout, students don’t typically leave school because they partied too hard or couldn’t hack it academically. They leave because they’re broke.
“The one thing I know, having been a low-income college student, the money matters most first,” said Rob Johnstone, a researcher and former community college provost. “Because at the end of the day that’s the condition for entry into the college.”
It doesn’t take much money, either, to trigger a crisis, Johnstone says. Even small debts–a thousand dollars here, a few hundred dollars there–can push students out of school.
“For truly low-income students it might not make a difference to them,” says Johnstone. “It’s more money than they have. They don’t have any social capital or resources to get that money.”
Analysis from the Brookings Institution shows that 70 percent of students in the highest income quartile who have above-average eighth grade test scores finish college. Among the lowest-income students who score above-average, the college completion rate is a paltry 26 percent.
That statistic reemerged in a 2015 report for the Lumina Foundation, which Johnstone co-authored. The report noted an increase in the number of low-income students who have leftover college expenses after accounting for financial aid. It also delved into some of the emerging tactics colleges have deployed to buoy low-income students.
Some want to better ensure students know of existing resources–both monetary and otherwise–that can keep them afloat in tough times. Others encourage better coordination between financial services and other departments, such as counseling. There’s even a recent push for schools to award microgrants–small sums that can sustain low-income students when crises hit. There are now at least 100 emergency aid programs around the country, according to a December 2015 survey from the University of Wisconsin.
“Money is probably the biggest shock here.”
In short, money matters. And for first-generation college students from low-income families, it matters a lot. The five students in our project have mentioned money more times than I care to count.
Sometimes it manifests as a social delineator. Cierra Jefferson, a freshman at Wesley College, found it difficult to assimilate on a campus where many students bonded over costly trips to the mall. Swarthmore College freshman Jada Smack recounted with disbelief the story of a student who asked her dad for two thousand dollars over the phone without a second thought. Meanwhile, Smack went much of her first semester without a functioning phone or laptop.
“The fact that people can–some people, not everyone–can call their parents and just be like I need two grand. And they’re like OK and will hand it over is the most shocking thing to me,” Smack says. “I think money is probably the biggest shock here.”
For others, money drove them to college. In his initial audio diary entry for the project, University of Delaware freshmen Sean Ryan explained why he wanted a bachelor’s degree, and, after a cursory nod to academics, laid out his core argument.
“I want to be able to live my life care-free, debt-free and enjoy luxuries such as vacations to Mexico and foreign countries,” Ryan said. “I also want to be able to support my mother because she worked her a– off living paycheck to paycheck for my brother and myself. She supported us our whole lives so I want to support hers in the future.”
More bad news
Of course those goals are contingent on finishing college, not just attending it. And after one semester at the University of Delaware, Jacki White already felt her grip on college loosening.
On Jan. 22–a little over two weeks before the spring semester began–White crowded into a small office with her aunt, Jessica Jordan, and an adviser named Imani Powell. White hoped Powell would tell her she didn’t have to pay $7,984.45 debit listed on her student account–or at least not right away.
Powell explained White wouldn’t be able to register for second semester classes until she paid the bill. He double-checked with a representative at the university’s financial aid office, who offered the same assessment.
For over an hour, he detailed White’s seemingly narrow list of options. She could file a financial aid appeal. Perhaps she could get on a payment plan, though that would probably have to wait until next semester. She could, of course, somehow come up with $7,984.45. Her aunt offered to canvass family members, though all involved seemed to think that was an unlikely remedy.
At one point, Powell left to get his boss. It felt remarkably similar to the moment when a nurse fetches a doctor to break bad news–and the patient is left lingering in the waiting room. Sensing the mood, Aunt Jessica offered a pep talk.
“You have to find what your focus is,” Jordan said. “Mine’s making sure my kids are safe, healthy, happy, fed, loved, all the stuff. I have a very easy target. You gotta figure out what that is. I hope that you know that that’s you. I hope you know that’s your future. And I don’t know that you have been told that in those plain terms. You are worth this.”
Her niece nodded and mustered a determined look. But the words–nice as they were–didn’t change the facts. White didn’t have $7,984.45. And she wouldn’t magically come upon that sum in the next two weeks.
Saved by an e-mail
The story would’ve ended there if not for an e-mail White’s mom, Alexis, sent three days later on Monday, Jan. 25. She addressed it to another financial services staffer at the university, one she’d corresponded with in the past. The bill seemed high, she said–way higher than expected given Jacki’s financial needs.
“This doesn’t seem right,” she wrote. “Can you look into this?
Two days later, on a Wednesday, the financial services specialist wrote back. Alexis was right. The bill wasn’t wrong. But it was misleading.
Jacki did owe a little over $1,400. But because it hadn’t been paid and she hadn’t registered for second semester classes, some of her financial aid was automatically withheld. If Jacki could pay off the $1,400, it would unlock the second-semester scholarship and cancel out the rest of the balance.
Jacki didn’t have $1,400, either. But she did have an option. Alexis could apply for something called a Parent PLUS loan, the specialst said. If Alexis was denied, it would qualify Jacki to take out more unsubsidized federal loans to cover the $1,400 balance. It would likely take 48 hours for the government to determine Alexis’ eligibility.
Alexis put in an application.
“Forty eight seconds later we’re giving high fives beause I was denied,” Alexis said.
“We’re like, “Yes! We’re poor,” Jacki added.
Dreading what could’ve been
In 24 hours, a problem that had hung over a family for almost a month disappeared. But it still left them uneasy. As Jacki moped around the house for most of winter break and talked of things like beauty school, Alexis had flashbacks.
She remembered her own mother, who’d had her at 21. She remembered her own younger years, and how she gave birth to Jacki when she was 20. Now she looked at Jacki, age 19, and could see another young life unraveling at the precise moment hers had unraveled.
“It’s like, no, we’re not repeating this cycle,” Alexis said afterward. “Like, no…”
Jacki’s near-dropout experience highlighted the fragility of her aspirations. It was a cruel reminder that 20 years of hard work can vanish in an instant. And that the cycle isn’t broken–not yet.