A new normal lifestyle under rising higher education costs
In a drab technical communication lab on the third floor of the auditorium building, history junior Alex McCann works where there is no food, drink or skateboards allowed.
McCann spends up to 20 hours a week in the lab. Here, she helps anxious students with their projects, helps them build resumes and fits in time for her homework.
After lab time and class, her day is far from over. From school, she leaves straight for her night job as a server at Waffle House, where she also works up to 20 hours a week.
McCann’s story is typical of many University of North Texas students. For her and many others, they face a constant struggle between paying bills, working to stay in school and fighting for their futures.
“I want to be on my own,” McCann said. “I don’t want to depend on anybody. I want to be an adult for once. I just want to get a degree and be a teacher so I can start my life.”
According to the UNT financial aid department, approximately 28,000 students, or about 75 percent of the overall student population, received some type of aid for the 2016 year. In the same year, UNT gave about $142 million in grants and scholarships and about $156 million in loans, not including Parent PLUS loans, which require a parent or guardian cosigner.
But grants, loans and scholarships don’t pay all the bills for thousands of UNT students like McCann.
And so there are sacrifices.
There was a time when she lived together with her then-boyfriend in their own apartment. It was a time of convenience, before two jobs and a 30-mile commute both ways. They were together for five years, but that doesn’t matter anymore.
This was a relationship that meant more than words to her but is now just a memory. This was a relationship that her life was structured around, a relationship that brought on depression, insomnia, anxiety and exhaustion once it crumbled.
“When you think you’re going to marry someone and they just give up, that’s what it was like,” McCann said. “I was out in three days.”
Now she commutes from her father’s home in Carrollton and works in Denton. It’s crucial for her to structure her schedule efficiently.
For McCann, a normal day is: wake up, commute 30 miles for job No. 1 at the lab, go to class, go to job No. 2 at Waffle House, commute another 30 miles back home, walk her dog, do homework and finally, maybe get some sleep. Rinse and repeat. There isn’t time for much else.
At the end of the day, she is exhausted.
McCann takes four online classes and one on campus. She said it’s easier to take online classes because this allows for a flexible schedule, especially with a full 15-hour class schedule.
“Before, I didn’t really take money seriously,” she said.
Now she does, because now she has around $12,000 in student loans and works two jobs out of necessity.
Her focus is on a brighter future and independence. She works these hours at these jobs because there is hope in hard work — a hope that it will all be worth it in the end.
She’s not alone.
For the 2016-2017 academic year, the average annual cost of attendance for a Texas resident living on campus and enrolled in 15 hours per semester is $23,780, according to information from UNT department of admissions. Graduate students enrolled in 9 hours per semester living on campus will pay $20,352.
A Dallas Morning News report from April 2016 analyzed “all 37 Texas four-year public colleges and relied on federal data, which goes back much further than what the state maintains,” the report said. UNT collected $260,908,550 in tuition in 2015 — about an 851% increase from the $27,445,949 collected in 1993, the report said.
With this rise in tuition, students like McCann who can’t afford school outright often have to work side jobs like, such as being a server at Waffle House, just to survive.
“It’s always rewarding when I go home with $100,” she said. “It takes a toll on your body though.”
Harleigh Robinson, media arts sophomore
Media arts sophomore Harleigh Robinson strives to eventually be a director or producer in film.
“I want to be a part of that industry and make a change,” she said, noting whitewashing and historical inaccuracies in World War I documentaries. “They make some people seem better than they are and some worse than they are.”
Robinson transferred to UNT from Midland College, in Midland, Texas, her hometown.
In Midland, she remembers hearing of a time when the drug cartel killed two of her friends from high school. One of them was her neighbor and the other was her boyfriend. She remembers the bingo hall she worked at where retirees would drop $400 a night in the hopes of claiming some pointless prize, because these are the things that happen in Midland.
Her father dropped out of the 9th grade and later got his G.E.D. Her mother dropped out of college after her first year. Her older brother is studying to become a nurse.
She is a first-generation college student. Her family is betting on her becoming something more for herself.
“None of them have done it, so they want me to do it,” she said.
Her interest in film and storytelling is not something normally brought up in conversation in Midland.
For her, college is a rescue from stagnation. Getting a degree is the ticket out of small-town Texas, where not much happens and not so many people leave.
She graduated high school as a licensed cosmetologist. In high school, she worked three jobs as a nanny, a cosmetologist cutting and styling hair and at the bingo hall.
“I’m used to two jobs now,” she said.
She’s learned that her bills don’t wait because she has tests and homework. She’s also learned that her medications she took to cope with depression, anxiety and ADHD were not helping, and stopped taking them.
“That was so I could figure out how to live with my mental illnesses and still function in society,” she said.
Now, she’s working around 40 hours a week between selling books at Voertman’s and ripping tickets, sweeping and pointing to theaters at the Movie Tavern. This is so she can afford $600 a month for rent, $100 a month on her car payment, $20 a week on food and a little bit here or there on her cat, who she taught to use the toilet.
She’s always gone to school because if she wanted to leave Midland and become a movie director or producer, she’s had no other option.
“It’s not a passion, but it’s necessary,” she said. “Where I come from, there’s nothing like this here, so I was kind of taking a shot in the dark.”
Kara Jobmann, public relations senior
Kara Jobmann worked three jobs and an internship while enrolled in 18 hours of classes during November through finals week of last year, and maintained an overall 3.4 GPA. She’s since taken a step back to breathe from all of that.
“Some weeks I was working 20 or 30 [hours], others I was working 40 to 45,” she said. “It just depends.”
As a public relations and English double-major, working all these hours on top of school grew to be too much to handle. She keeps three planners stocked with dates and times to keep her schedule in line; one for work, one for school and one for social time with her friends.
Her parents are divorced and until this semester, loans were her only option to cover her expenses. Her mother is a school teacher, working on a teacher’s salary, and her father, who was “out of the picture” until this semester, made too much money for her to qualify for financial aid outside of loans.
This is the first semester she received help from her father, and also the first semester she didn’t have to take out any loans. Now, she only works an internship for a public relations firm in Dallas and is a campus ambassador distributing KIND granola bar samples across the university.
“I knew I was going to be in a lot of debt, so I wanted to further my chances of getting a good job,” Jobmann said.
Six months after she graduates this upcoming December, she’ll have to start paying back the $89,000 in student loans she’s taken out during her time in college. That is unless she finds a job and enrolls in graduate school before then.
If at that point Jobmann is in graduate school, she plans to pay off her accruing interest while pursuing another degree and working at the same time.
Post-college, she said she wants to be involved with public relations for a non-profit organization to advocate for the education of children in need.
“I’m one of those millennials that believes education is a human right,” she said. “I think a lot of problems in our society come from a lack of education or lack of knowing. People are afraid of what they don’t know.”
For her, going to school was an investment in herself. Investing in herself meant she’d later be able to invest herself into helping children receive an education.
Jobmann said she took on so much because when she gets out of college she wants a job that pays above the median wage in her field.
Focusing on herself often means time away from her friends, too.
“You need social interaction. Humans need love and affection,” she said. “After a while your friends realize that you don’t have time for them and so they stop asking.”
Samuel Coleman, sociology graduate studies
Samuel Coleman is enrolled in the pass-through master’s degree program at UNT. He’s working towards getting his doctoral degree and master’s degree in sociology at the same time. With this being his first year in the program, he’s got a few years to go.
Coleman took out just over $3,000 worth of loans between starting his undergrad degree program and now. His debt for now is minimal thanks to help from a Pell Grant and a McNair scholarship at Sam Houston State University, where he received his undergraduate degree. Without these federal aid programs, he said he would have gone to a junior college instead.
His ultimate goal is to be a professor teaching social stratification and race relations to college students interested in sociology. Right now, he’s getting practice working 20 hours a week as a teaching assistant in the sociology department.
On the weekends, he works 20 hours at Dillard’s to pay his bills —$420 a month on his car, $550 a month on his apartment where he lives alone and around $2,000 a month on food because he doesn’t cook too often and likes to eat.
“Obviously, you just need to pay bills,” Coleman said. “You have to survive on your own. Luckily, I have a job that works with my schedule.”
During his time as a graduate student, he will conduct research on his thesis and dissertation. Research is something held in high esteem in the sociology department. It’s a way to give back and show others what you have learned.
“That’s why everybody is here, to give back in some way,” Coleman said. “To give back to your discipline.”
But giving back doesn’t always happen when on the weekends he has to sell clothes instead of study about race relations in America. Regardless of whether he wants to work outside of school or not, he has financial obligations which won’t wait for him to write his thesis.
A new normal
McCann, Robinson, Jobmann and Coleman work two or more jobs to survive through school. Though their lives are different, they hold at least one thing in common with thousands of other UNT students.
These students are fighting for their future.
For these students, what matters are their post-college futures.This is true for millions of students across the country. For some dealing with rising education costs, the luxury of full-immersion in one’s education, without life or money getting in the way, doesn’t exist.
Throughout American history, it’s been normal to graduate high school and go to college. In 2017, the new normal for many is full-time work and full-time school.
But what matters more? Work, or school? And at what point does work get in the way of school, and vice versa?
Coleman, with 40 hours a week on top of his graduate studies, feels the effects of this new normal firsthand.
“There’s just no other option,” he said. “I don’t think that’s going to change much as long as there’s bills to pay.”
This piece is one of a series of pieces collaborating the different stories of students who work to financially combat rising higher education costs. If you would like to share your story on record, please reach out to Kyle Martin via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @Kyle_Martin35