This essay expands on an article by the author that originally appeared in the EAB Daily Briefing.
When I was a sophomore, a professor held up an extra copy of the textbook and offered to lend it to "anyone poor" for the semester. My mind raced with questions. Do I take it? Do I reveal that I'm "poor" to my peers and my professor? Will I have to prove I'm too broke to buy my own copy?
I desperately needed that textbook. But my body froze and I couldn't bring myself to raise my hand. Later that day, I spent an hour in the library searching for the textbook and replaying that moment in the classroom. I couldn't find the book, so I didn't read it.
Like many low-income students, I felt embarrassed about my finances and unsure how to ask for help. I received a Pell Grant and some additional financial aid—but it wasn't enough to cover living expenses like rent, food, and textbooks. And while purchasing a textbook for one class can seem like an isolated challenge, I didn’t realize until after I graduated the toll this took on my time and attention span—precious resources for a student hoping to succeed in college.
For low-income students, time is a scarce resource
Time is a limited commodity for everyone. But when low-income students struggle to juggle work, family, and school responsibilities, they will likely experience "time poverty," says Lindsey Cruse, a researcher at the Institute of Women's Policy Research.
For a wealthier student, it may take fifteen minutes to find the text in the campus bookstore, wait in line at the register, and walk out with a new purchase. For me, finding one textbook for a single course could take as long as two weeks—if I could track it down at all.
I would first search for a free copy of the textbook online. If I couldn’t find one, I would check to see if the library had an older version. If I was lucky and they had a copy, I could check it out for two hours at a time—but the book had to stay in the library. Photocopying chapters could buy me some flexibility, but I had to wait in line at the photocopier to scan each page, every single week, cutting into precious time that could be spent studying.
When I was unlucky, the library didn't have the textbook. So I had decide if I could pass the class without the book. If I couldn't, I had to wait until I or my family could afford to buy it. Sometimes, it took weeks to scrounge up enough money.
I repeated this process every single semester for every course I took.
One unexpected bill away from derailing my degree
Even students who hope to save money by choosing a community college wrestle with unexpected costs. The average community college student incurs $17,000 in annual expenses beyond tuition, according to one estimate. When the cost of college is that much more than tuition, at-risk students don’t just eat ramen—they often don’t eat at all, writes Meacie Fairfax for EAB's Community College blog.
Related: Why federal financial aid isn't enough for students
Low-income students also experience physical, emotional, and academic stress due to their poverty. In their book Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, behavioral economists Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir observe a phenomenon called "tunneling." When a person’s financial resources are scarce, their focus starts to look like tunnel vision, paying heightened attention to the most immediate crisis at hand. This leaves scarce mental bandwidth to tend to the other obligations; for a low-income student, that can mean neglecting academic, social, and extracurricular commitments.
When I worked 30+ hours a week on top of a 17-credit course load, I didn't think I was stretched any thinner than my peers. Many of my classmates spent late nights in the library. I realize now that many of my peers were mainly concerned with their assignments or their next internship. I was worried about those things, too. But other worries would surface during lectures and late at night, like whether I'd make rent this month and when could I replace my broken backpack. Even with financial aid, I worried that the next unexpected bill could derail my degree altogether.
As a student, I spent a lot of time wondering if I was doing something wrong because my college experience wasn't going as smoothly as it seemed to go for my better-off peers. I didn't realize until I started working for EAB covering higher education news that my experiences fit into a larger conversation about low-income college students.
How you can make the college journey smoother for low-income and first-generation students:
Set up an emergency fund: Some schools, like Brown University and Haverford College, have set up emergency funds program to help low-income and first-gen students cover academic and nonacademic costs, like laptop repair fees, winter coats, or plane tickets home.
Establish a support network on-campus: Florida State University offers first-generation programming that coaches students through their first year and beyond. They focus not just on academic support, but providing a sense of community during times like Thanksgiving break, when first-gen students can’t afford to fly home like their more affluent peers.