Written by Zamaria for the CSULA Coalition Quarterly
“Go to school Mij@, so you don’t have to work a hard as your Ma.”
Whether it’s from a family member, friend, or close loved one, we all have heard it before; that obtaining a college diploma is the key component to economic stability and prosperity. It is believed that a college diploma will increase if not guarantee students’ ability to qualify for a well-paid job. However, pursuing a college diploma is very different for students who come from working class families, who aside from taking college courses, clock into work to make ends meet. For a majority of students who come from working class backgrounds, their financial conditions dictate (how) their journey to obtaining a college diploma will look like.
Working Class Students
College students who come from a working class background are expected to become the next breadwinners for their families. They are often expected to both provide financially for themselves and for their families while attending school. This reality exists because of the widespread idea of what role education plays when applying to jobs. But most importantly, this expectation is a result of economic necessity. That is to say, there is an absence or already existing struggle for financial stability at home. Precisely because of the financial hardships and responsibilities students face is the reason these very same struggling students make up the growing number of students going into debt.
Is this a Coincidence?
No, student debt begins when a large pool of students do not have the financial means to pay tuition up front with their meager wages, and their families can not foot the growing costs of education. For working class students, loans are one of the main if not only options to afford the increasing cost of public college education. Still ,access to these state loans do not alleviate students completely or even immediately from the financial burdens they might face. While scholarships may be available, these resources are accessible for a few select minority and not the majority. So what options do working class students have when pursuing a college diploma?
– Take out some loans and still work part time in order to pay basic living necessities (i.e. clothing, housing, food, gas, etc.) and attempt to pay off the loans (which increase due to interest rates) upon obtaining their college diploma and hopefully finding a decent job.
– Take out an increasing amount of loans in order to go to school full time without having to worry about immediate living necessities and attempt to pay off the college loans after graduation.
– Apply to scholarships, which are usually merit based or sometimes on financial need but only available to limited students who qualify. ***Also it is important to note that full residents take full priority over undocumented students, who are among those struggling most to access to higher education.
Either way, the two main options available for the majority of students do not include the option of being free from economic burden. On the contrary, the options reinforce the need for students to work, pushing them to become a slave to the wage, in order to pursue a college diploma.
In addition to having to choose between limited financial options to support their education, students often lack the option to choose their major of interest. Because of the financial reality of struggling to support oneself in an economy suffering from a lack of job availability and well paid jobs, students are often discouraged from studying what they really want. It has been reported by Bureau of Labor Statistics that “there are still 3.1 million Americans who have been unemployed for half a year or longer and are still actively searching for work…[and 32% of this unemployed] fall into this long-term unemployed category. [Also,] the average length of time someone has spent unemployed is now more than seven and a half months, almost double what it was before the recession.” The numbers reported are conservative estimates since the Bureau of Labor Statistics do not account for those people who do not claim unemployment or the undocumented community who constantly lack job security and who often get paid significantly less than minimum wage. Precisely due to these unemployment rates and low availability of well-paid jobs, students are more likely to choose a major they think is in high demand for employment or will provide a better income. This would explain why Business Administration and Management/Commerce has ranked as the number one major for college students, followed by Psychology as number two, and Nursing as number three. Meaning that for the majority of working students or students who come from working families, college becomes less of a journey in pursuit of a true education and more of a journey in pursuit of employment.
So do students work to go to school or go to school to work?
This is the vicious cycle of contradictions that many working class students find themselves in. (S)he pursues a college diploma with the clear goal to use it to financially provide for themselves and/or their families. But because (s)he does not have the financial means and more often than not already struggle to make ends meet, they must resort to loans in order to afford that college diploma. Loans inevitably tie working class students to large sums of debt. In 2012, the average student debt was over $29,000 that has only increased with the rise of tuition and student fees. These loans often bring students back to a similar if not worse financial situation than at the start of their college experience. College graduates must now pay off loans in addition to affording the basic expenses of everyday living. This vicious social and economic cycle makes it clear that for the majority of working class students the prospect of obtaining economic stability- much less prosperity- after obtaining their college diploma is very low.
Further, despite the popular idea that a college diploma will get you out of poverty and determine if you get a well-paid job, the U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics show that 48% of recent graduates have jobs that “require less than a four-year college education. Eleven percent of employed college graduates are in occupations requiring more than a high-school diploma but less than a bachelor’s, and 37% are in occupations requiring no more than a high-school diploma. This just reveals how this popular idea of college diploma = stability and success is based on deceit and false ideologies.
Will it ever be possible for students to pursue a college degree without falling into this vicious cycle of debt and having to be slaves to their job?
For as long as public education remains underfunded and tuition continues to rise, as seen across the country with tuition increasing “400 % between 1985 and 2005, with costs doubling over the last decade,” the economic burden to afford a college diploma will continue to fall on the backs’ of working class students. For this very reason students must unite and organize to demand that public education becomes prioritized in state funding and that there is a complete freeze on all tuition and student fees immediately! Governor Brown supposedly froze tuition but student fees are not considered as part of tuition fees. These so called student fees, which are advertised as “revenue for initiatives that improve student success and completion rates,” currently range from $200 to $600 and since 2008 have increased more than 50 % for full time students. So unless there is a freeze that extend to all fees, the high price for public education will continue to empty students’ pockets.
Further, unless the majority of students have a say on how and where state money is used on campuses, funding will continue to be used on expensive and unnecessary projects. So democratizing campuses and universities where students and their allies- faculty and staff- have a say on how things are run is key in abolishing this cycle.
Since an overwhelming amount of students are already drowning in college debt, to prevent students from financial suffocation, a clearance on all college debt immediately is necessary. Without getting rid of college debt, public higher education will remain a scheme that enslaves students to work.
Working towards ending this cycle of never ending debt and work also requires an increase in wages for all workers. Students are forced to work long hours, struggling to make ends meet because the minimum wage of today, $9.00, is not sustainable. Only an increase in wages will allow people to work less without as many financial burdens. People would then be free from the social pressure to pursue a college diploma simply because it is the only way to climb out of their social condition.
So students and workers must unite to demand:
-Prioritization in-state funding for public education!
-A freeze on tuition and student fees!
-End student debt for all Now!
-Worker and Student Democracy on Campuses!
-Living wages, not poverty wages!