Educational Inequality: Dismantling the ‘Broke College Student’ Myth

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“I want this, but I’m so broke,” you say, wistfully, looking at a sweater that caught your eye. Being in college makes frivolous purchases much more of a luxury, but are you truly broke? Does your definition of “broke,” the one you just sighed about in exasperation, match up with the definition of those struggling to pay their bills? Probably not.

The “broke college kid” myth is one perpetuated by media representation of college students and societal views on those in college. It is no secret that the graduation rates among students who come from wealthy families are much higher than their poor counterparts, about eight times as high according to one University of Pennsylvania study.

When the wealthy are already overrepresented in any institution, it makes the contrast for truly disadvantaged people greater.

College is a time for many when they are still not working, or at least not working enough to be supporting themselves in any capacity. It makes sense that during this time your own personal bank account will not look too exciting. This lack of direct personal income does not, however, reflect true financial strife for most college students. Many of the purchases that exceed the means of a college student are provided through another distinct and vital source of income: their parents.

When parents decide to draw the line on a certain purchase, it is then that students fall back on the broke college kid narrative. This phenomenon is truly grating for students like me who do not have a parental monetary pipeline.

While that sweater you are pining over might be out of reach, a summer course you need to graduate probably is not. Students coming from families who can and will allocate funds based on prioritization of what is and is not necessary to succeed in postsecondary education are not truly “broke.”

Using myself as an example, no matter the urgency or significant need I might be in for a certain amount of money, if I myself do not earn it I do not have it. There is no benevolent guardian in my life that can alleviate a dire straits situation for me. I may desperately need a summer course to graduate on time, but if Sallie Mae does not approve me for another loan, I will not be graduating on time.

A piece of advice given to most freshmen is to spend your first year in college jobless and completely focused on your studies. This was a piece of advice I laughed off. I have maintained several steady jobs since I was 15, and I knew spending a year unemployed was simply out of the realm of possibility for me. While balancing a job and a full-time course schedule can be challenging, I made it work my freshman year and continue to make it work now. When you have no one to depend on or turn to in times of hardship, self-reliance comes naturally and resilience is the only option.

I have many friends in the same situation as me.

We have been broke, truly broke, way before college started. Living austerely was not a change to our lifestyles, and in fact, for many of us living on campus, the amenities as well as the dorms themselves are much nicer than what we were accustomed to. A washer and dryer that I didn’t have to drive to, a parking spot and my own bed were things completely out of reach prior to coming to Ramapo. I am incurring major debt along the way – thousands of dollars of loans all in my name – but without these loans I would not have the opportunity to even go to school here.

I understand college can be a tough transitional period for most, and I get not being at home may make money seem scarcer than it ever was before, but I would like my fellow peers to recognize the privilege that they ignore every time they grumble out an “I’m so broke.”