First-gen students struggle to balance college and a paycheck

First-gen students struggle to balance college and a paycheck

First-gen students struggle to balance college and a paycheck
March 21
21:16 2019

By Yolian Ogbu | Contributing writer

When I said I would miss the biggest party of our first year of college, my friend was dumbfounded. I had to go to work, I explained. “Just skip it,” she said, brow furrowed as she struggled to process my misguided priorities.

I have been a working student since I was 16 years old. That wasn’t going to change when I signed up for student loans. Whether it was teaching math to 10-year-olds, performing manual labor or clocking hours in customer service, jobs were as much a part of my college life as textbooks and study sessions. As it turns out, I was in good company. One in four full-time college students is simultaneously a full-time employee, according to a 2015 report from Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce.

My jobless peers weren’t the only ones who thought I was doing college the wrong way. Well-meaning professors and administrators showed the same lack of understanding for the plight of the working learner. Just this year, an academic advisor warned me about the dangers of taking a full course load and working two jobs. “You aren’t going to pull this off,” he said, “I’d strongly advise you to prioritize your education.”

I was given an extremely classist response to an epidemic plaguing thousands of working students. As a first-generation African American college student coming from a blue-collar family, I didn’t have the privilege of not having to live paycheck to paycheck, and I know that I’m not alone. Like me, many first-generation students struggle with taking care of their family and themselves, but it is our labor that seems to go unnoticed.

It is extremely important to begin a conversation about student labor and how important it is to this university.

UNT prides itself as an inclusive institution and the proportion of minority students has been rapidly increasing, making minority students the majority of the undergraduate student body and reflecting the diverse population of communities of North Texas. Because of the school’s diversity, it shouldn’t be this difficult to be a student at UNT.

According to the U.S. News & World Report, in-state tuition and fees for public universities have risen 243 percent during the past 20 years. Textbook and housing costs are consistently increasing while the federal minimum wage has remained $7.25 for nearly a decade, according to the U.S. Department of LaborThroughout the country, people have been championing the idea that $7.25 is not a living wage anymore and an increase in wages is long overdue.

This wage issue is also about the people who clean the libraries and dorms and drive the buses at night. Aside from receiving lower wages, a lot of these workers are marginalized in other ways. Many are immigrants, refugees or women of color. We can’t have class unless someone cleans the University Union and the classrooms. It is because of our need for these workers and the university’s prosperity that this school has the duty to change the narrative regarding livable wages for student workers and beyond.

Students are often told to “take out loans” and “go to a school that gives you scholarships.” We are doing both, but those are only partial solutions to the nuanced problem of college accessibility. Some loans and most scholarships only apply to tuition, so even if you get a full ride, you’re still on the hook for necessities including food, housing and textbooks.

It is time for students to not only realize the value of their labor and the labor of the campus staff but to also urge the school’s administration to reflect us and our needs and recognize the inhumanity of the current state of student wages on campus. Student workers are human, too.

Featured Illustration: Chelsea Tolin

About Author

North Texas Daily

North Texas Daily

The North Texas Daily is the official student newspaper of the University of North Texas, proudly serving UNT and the Denton community since 1916.

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1 Comment

  1. B
    B April 05, 11:45

    This describes the struggle I deal with so accurately. I work full time and I attempt to go to school full time too, however with increasing pressure both from work and from my classes I had to drop to 9 hours. I am working as hard as I can and still falling behind. My student loans cover less than the amount of my tuition and books, therefore leaving me on the hook for the full amount of books and about another $250 left over in tuition if I was to take 12 hrs/semester. I had to choose my livelihood over fast tracking my degree, therefore leaving me in more debt over a longer period of time. I can’t live without my paycheck, I can barely make it between them. I wish there was more of a balance.

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