A new normal college experience
He starts to see customers file in, sporadically, around 11 pm. Most nights, he listens to sitcoms in his headphones to pass the time. Tonight, he’s got “Seinfeld” on his mind.
Because he works the cash register from 10 pm to 6:30 am six nights a week at two different gas stations in Denton, regular customers walk or stumble through the storefront and remember his face, just as he remembers theirs. They’re here to buy sugary and salty snacks, energy drinks or beer before midnight. Most commonly at this time of night, people buy cigarettes, and now he just does the math in his head, having memorized most of their prices.
This particular international graduate student’s identity, now to be referenced as The Student, is kept anonymous in this story because he attends the University of North Texas on a F-1 Student Visa, and on scholarship. The Student, his wife and child, who are living with him under F-1 Dependent visas, immigrated from their home country in Southeast Asia to Texas so that he may pursue a graduate degree. With the degree, he hopes to provide a better future for his family — better than anything that was there for them in their home country.
“If someone finds out, they will deport me. Definitely,” he said.
He is here in the U.S. on an F-1 Student Visa and by law is not legally allowed to work outside of his campus employment. However, with a wife and a five-year-old son to provide for, he and his family cannot afford school and living expenses for their one bedroom, 750-square-feet apartment on just what he makes from the university working for $22 an hour for 20 hours a week on campus. On top of school and his campus job, he averages around 50 hours a week as a cashier for the two different gas stations in Denton.
“I didn’t want to go [to America] without [my family],” he said. “It doesn’t make sense.”
Because of his odd schedule, he said he only gets to see his family for about 10 hours a week, sometimes less.
“Take a job, that’s the only plan,” he said. “Nothing else. Yesterday I spoke with someone, a customer at the other store. He comes there all the time. His step father has a company, I gave him my [curriculum vitae], [and] we spoke over the phone. If he likes me, I’ll get an internship over the summer. If it’s unpaid, I’ll work it two days a week. I need money.”
The Student lives a new normal lifestyle under rising higher-education costs and immigration crackdowns by the Trump administration. He’s in a dangerous predicament working toward his degree: he must either work illegally to provide for his family and risk deportation or don’t work and risk sending his family back anyway because he can’t afford to keep them here. And he can’t go back to his home country, not yet at least, he said, because of what he escaped by coming to America.
“At the beginning it was tough,” The Student said. “ I was in an accident. One day I came out of a bank, seven people took me into a minivan. Shoulders twisted, torn ligaments. Took all my money. I requested [for them] not to shoot. I was handcuffed.”
Reserved, but steady, he recalls being robbed of about $50,000 at gunpoint years ago in his home country. In a third-world country, this amount of money could convert to over a million dollars in local currency.
Over there, he said he was a professor at a university. But after the incident, he escaped and is here now as a part of $36 billion contributed to the 2015 U.S. economy by foreign students, according to Time’s Money Magazine report from March. He’s here to fight for a better future, just like the hundreds of thousands of other college students in America. He’s also dealing with rising higher education costs just like the rest of them, too, working full-time just to survive school.
Finding a financial compass
Cole Oliver, a 2016 UNT graduate with a Bachelors of Science in economics, had a much different experience than that of The Student.
“I thought it was going to be a non-stop party,” Oliver said, who graduated high school from Northland Christian School near Houston. “I wasn’t treating UNT like Harvard, I was just here for academics.”
Oliver comes from a well-to-do family. They were well-off enough to have the means to put him through college out-of-pocket, at least. Graduating with zero student loan debt, he made it through school without living paycheck-to-paycheck and without a family to support.
Without student loan and financial aid pressures, which over 75 percent of UNT students are under, Oliver birthed an idea out an economics class project during his junior year that led to him founding CHDR Financial, a demographic-data-driven financial management service he thinks will help curb woes struggling college students face.
“I noticed friends who couldn’t do the things I could,” Oliver said, who served as treasurer of the Alpha Tao Omega fraternity at UNT. “That’s not because I’m insanely on top of my budget. That’s because of my parents. When you’re the treasurer of a fraternity, you’re kind of the de facto guy for all financial questions.”
CHDR Financial has executive positions, a board of directors, over 20 advisors and eight investors. Two years, thousands of hours and over $105,000 have gone into developing CHRD into a free phone application. On this app, users will be able to consolidate all of their existing financial information and accounts, including student loans, credit and savings accounts.
Using specific algorithms and real-time financial data from an account aggregator, the Envestnet® | Yodlee® Aggregation API, the app will provide users with financial suggestions and records of how, why, on what and when users spend their money.
Should the app gain traction and be used successfully by the widespread public, the UNT graduate will have established a sort of “financial compass” for users to help navigate their way through living paycheck-to-paycheck, as it will provide reactive, real-time financial statistics, accessed easily and at all times via their phone or mobile device.
The app could go one to help students and families better understand their financial situations as they change day-to-day. It could definitely help families like the Baumann’s.
A new normal
When Connally Baumann graduated from UNT in 1989, tuition revenues collected by the university were less than $28 million. More recently in 2015, during his son’s sophomore year studying emergency management at UNT, revenues were up 851 percent, sitting at almost $261 million.
With his son in the UNT system and his daughter a soon-to-be high school graduate looking to go to college, the Baumann family is feeling firsthand the effects of rising higher education costs. His family is now required and will continue to pay more for a college education than ever before.
“I think there’s a debate there on whether you actually need a four-year degree, depending on which direction the kid wants to go,” Baumann, 51, said.
He now works for a retail broadband company. After the economic recession in the early 1990s, he went back to school to get a different degree to work in the telecommunications field.
“I think a lot of schools are possibly getting greedy,” Baumann said.
Baumann said he worked 30 to 40 hours a week while in school, as many do today, but he had no need to take out anywhere near the amount of loans students average while in college now. Instead, he worked hard and paid for school as he went, graduating debt free with a liberal arts degree.
“Instead of keeping things small and manageable, they get too big,” Baumann said. “You get too big and you stop focusing on the student.”
For now, the Baumann’s will take their financial ups and downs as the go. His son lives at home to save money by commuting to campus and working part-time on the side, hopefully saving up money to pay off the $7,000 and counting of student loans he already has as a junior.
Like The Student, like Cole Oliver and like thousands of other college students across Texas, the Baumann’s will continue their lives under new, normal financial pressures and hope for the best; but financial and economic futures continue to remain uncertain as higher education costs and student loan debts continue to rise, year after year.
While times are changing, the requirement to pay thousands of dollars and take out even more in loans will be the new normal for years to come.
“I think school have done a great job of misdirecting kids into thinking that there are jobs for them,” Baumann said. “ I don’t think these jobs are really out there.”
Julia Falcon (@falconjulia22) contributed to this report.
To view the rest of the New Normal series, click here.
Featured Image: Since 1993, UNT has increased tuition revenues by 851 percent and ranks sixth in largest monetary tuition revenue increases across public colleges and universities in Texas. Such tuition increases have led students to live a new normal lifestyle than generations before. Some students even face possible deportations out of America just to meet financial obligations. Kyle Martin
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