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The Blatherings Of A Blitherer

Can we revisit the mythical bootstraps college student thing?


Buster Blonde of Persephone Magazine did a really great take down of the mythical college bootstraps studenthere. I want to drive it a bit further into the ground.

"not the 99%"

In case you can’t see the image or read the hand written text, it says:

I am a college senior about to graduate completely debt free. I pay for all of my living expenses by working 30+ hours a week making barely above minimum wage. I chose a moderately priced, in-state public university and started saving money for school at age 17. I got decent grades in high school and received 2 scholarships which cover 90% of my tuition. I currently have a 3.8 GPA. I live comfortably in a cheap apartment, knowing I can’t have everything I want. I don’t eat out every day, or even once a month. I have no credit card, new car, iPad, or smart phone- and I’m perfectly OK with that. If I did have debt, I would NOT blame Wall St or the government for my own bad decisions. I live below my means to continue saving for the future. I expect nothing to be handed to me, and will continue to work my ass off for everything I have. That’s how it’s supposed to work. I am NOT the 99% and wehther or not you are is YOUR decision.


I graduated high school in 1997. Like the anonymous sign holder, I also went to an in-state public university and had savings from high school jobs. My senior year, for instance, I worked over 30 hours a week every week at a restaurant where the owner literally threatened me with a knife, because I knew my parents would be unable to pay for my cheap in-state public university tuition. Instead of padding out my college applications with extra curriculars, I worked and saved money. I was accepted to every college I applied to, and was courted by several I didn’t apply to as well. They all offered me scholarship money… thousands of dollars worth (one college offered me over $10k, which wasn’t enough). None of it covered the cost of tuition let alone books, fees, and living expenses which is why I enrolled at my shitty state university.

I should note that I went to a college preparatory high school. In theory, every single teacher and guidance counselor and staff member was there to promote college attendance, to help and guide students in selecting and applying to colleges, find financial aid and scholarships, etc. In practice, a lot of students (myself included) fell through the cracks. Overwhelmed and immature, not sure what to do or how to do it, we also had the “bad” guidance counselor who was more interested in coaching softball than guiding students. My educational experience was incredibly privileged and I still was unable to find ANY scholarships other than ones offered by schools. (If the internet, and search engines, had existed then things might have been different; instead I leafed through binders and catalogs with no idea what I was looking for). There are a LOT of kids, a huge amount of kids, graduating high school and interested in college who have no idea how to find scholarships and no guidance counselor to help them. The fact that this person allegedly got 90% of their tuition covered by just two scholarships implies that they had a LOT of help. Most people aren’t so fortunate.

I also worked as a student and rarely ate out. My final year of school, before my nervous breakdown and suicide attempt(s), I was working 3 part time jobs and still barely able to pay my bills… bills which consisted of telephone and credit card payments for text books and housing and basic clothing purchases… underpants, a sweater that fit, nothing extravagant. I punched into my first job at 8am, then went to class, then went to my second job, then went to class, then went to my third job and didn’t get done with that until almost midnight. It was a grueling and stressful existence and an appalling way to live. I was constantly “on,” short on sleep, and busting my ass for SIXTEEN HOURS A DAY. I made slightly more than minimum wage and still had a hard time paying the bills for my cheap-ass in-state shitty university education.

Smart phones did not exist at the time, but I currently have one. It’s possible to get an iPhone through my phone company for free, and the basic data plan is not much more than a regular phone plan. Poor people squandering money on smart phones as proof of their not-really-being-poor/making-bad-decisions is a shitty strawman argument that I wish would die in a fire. Credit cards enabled me to enroll at the start of the semester and pay it off over the course of said semester, as UIC did not offer payment plans. You paid all at once or didn’t go to class. I especially leaned on my credit card the semester UIC lost my financial aid payment, leaving me several thousand dollars short (but don’t worry, they found it a year later and gave it to me! Wasn’t that nice of them?). There’s this pervasive rumor that people in the USA have massive credit debt because they are buying frivolous things and are too stupid to make good financial choices. This lets people without credit card debt feel smug and superior and ignore the fact that most credit card debt is to cover emergency situations, like groceries while unemployed or surprise medical expenses or super fun sudden car repairs or tuition or the like. I also had no car at all and continue not to have a car, but I live in a city with pretty great public transit. I do not NEED a car to get to work or the grocery store (although it’s great when my husband can give me a lift places). There are places not-where-I-live where if you don’t have a functioning car you can’t get to work. You don’t go to work, you don’t get paid. You don’t get paid, you can’t pay your bills. A functioning car is necessary in some places, in most places. It’s shitty to sniff down your nose at people for filling a legitimate need.

College tuition and fees have been going up more and more each year while state and federal financial aid have been going down and down. College tuition, even at affordable in-state institutions, is getting out of reach of MANY people in a country where a bachelor’s degree has become the equivalent of a high school diploma, a requirement for the most basic untrained work. Sure, there’s community colleges… assuming those colleges are at all decent. One of the community colleges near where I grew up lost accreditation and didn’t regain it for several years, although people continued taking classes there. A friend of mine put in 4 semesters at a community college, spending time and money and learning things, only to find that most of his credits wouldn’t transfer to a traditional 4 year university because LOL COMMUNITY COLLEGES, AM I RITTE? Further, part of the reason we have the current problem with the housing market and foreclosures is that banks encouraged home owners to take out mortgages to fund their kids’ college educations, to invest in their kids. Which is great in theory, but helped prop up the skyrocketing cost of college tuition while shutting out people who didn’t own homes and couldn’t take out mortgages, and which also affected the people who held the mortgages when their interest rates shot up 10% overnight. WHOOPS. I don’t know about you, but banks that aggressively fuck people over while the government sits back and slashes funding to educational opportunities sounds like a pretty sound thing to get riled up about.

If you want to get really depressed, look at how many European countries subsidize their population when it comes to higher education. Spoiler:¬† a LOT of them do, while also providing decent, qualitative health care and in general taking care of all their citizens and not just the ones who make six figures or more¬† a year. The USA is losing vast amounts of money every single year by not taxing the top 1% of earners and not taxing huge businesses. We could stop slashing education and health care and social programs, we could repair our falling-apart roads and bridges and deteriorating infrastructure, we could subsidize higher education and training programs… or we could continue letting a small handful of people go swimming in their giant vaults of money or whatever the hell it is they do with it.

It’s incredibly depressing how many people are at best just barely getting by and at worst actively failing (the dude working 12 hours a day 7 days a week while dying from cancer springs to mind. The American Dream, am I right?) and defending to the death their right to suffer and languish and stagnate while a tiny fraction of people continue soaring to great heights. This person, with their 90% scholarship and their never eating out and their barely scraping by on minimum wage… it’s great that you’re self sufficient but is that honestly all you want, all you aspire to? To barely scrape by while working your ass off? To have no savings and no safety net and nothing to fall back on, no guarantee of employment and no vacation days or sick days? I’m sure you imagine that if you just WORK HARD! and LIVE BELOW YOUR MEANS! and SAVE FOR A RAINY DAY!!!!! you’ll join the ranks of the 1% but let’s face facts: you’re graduating into an employment market with, in some areas, 9% or more unemployment. There is a LOT of competition for jobs, much of it from highly skilled, experienced people. How long will your rainy day savings last you when you’re unable to find a job because companies once based in the USA are moving more and more of their facilities (including office jobs, not just factory jobs) to other countries? When you realize that you’ll need to get an advanced degree to get employment or a promotion, and tuition is higher and state and federal aid lower? When your rent and groceries and gas and taxes (and your boss’s pay and bonuses) keep going up but your paycheck stays the same or even is reduced, as many state employees are finding themselves faced with having to accept pay cuts to keep their jobs?

Baby, you’re part of the 99%, and they’re fighting to protect you and your interests. They’re trying to make the world a better place for you. I’m sorry you can’t see that.



2 Comments to

“Can we revisit the mythical bootstraps college student thing?”

  1. On November 2nd, 2011 at 8:10 pm mioche Says:

    I sat down with a calculator the other day to figure this out. My state has one of the highest minimum wages in the country– it was about $8/hr when I was in school. Maybe just under. So if I worked full-time, never taking any time off for holidays, I would be making $16,640 a year.

    Tuition at the University of Washington is ~$10,000 a year now. It was probably about a thousand less back then. Books and supplies can be up to $1000 a year– I probably paid at least $100 a quarter, and up to $250 depending on the books I needed and their second-hand availability. So let’s say $600 for the year.

    I live in a major city with high rent costs. Room and board on campus is basically the same price as tuition, so I wouldn’t be able to afford that working full-time. Instead, I would get something off-campus. One bedroom apartments and studios start at around the same rate– $650+. It’s rare but possible to get a very dingy one for cheaper– I paid $450 for mine at first. It went up about $20 a year for the years I was there. So let’s say I’m lucky and land a studio for $450 (this is about what you’d pay for a room in a house, too– that tends to span from $300 at the very very low and hard to find end, and up to $700). That’s, what, $5,400 a year in rent.

    That leaves me with $640 a year for food and utilities and transportation. That would be $53/mo for all of those things. Which is, I would like to point out, not tenable, even if I didn’t turn the heat on until it reached freezing, walked everywhere, and relied on school internet.

    Now, college me could definitely eke out a living on that if I didn’t have to pay tuition (assuming, of course, that I don’t run into any uncontrollable expenses, like a medical condition that needed to be diagnosed– oh, wait. I had one of those). But it would basically take an alternative reality for me to attend school with 90% tuition covered. And I was a 4.0 student in high school, with a couple clubs and a part-time job to my name. Those scholarships aren’t nearly as available as people think.

    I am very fortunate that I didn’t need to try to do that– my mother had to pay her own way after 18, after seeing her other siblings’ education paid for by my grandparents, and she decided that she would make sure her children wouldn’t do that and my family was luckily able to make it possible. Because, well, it would be impossible, and my parent’s very average middle class income would mean I wouldn’t really be able to avail myself of financial aid until I was the age I am now.

    Brigid Reply:

    I routinely had textbooks that cost over $100 a pop… one psychology text that was printed anew every year with addendums and errata cost $250 (I was not a psych major, this was a psych 101 class to fill a humanities req). Maybe it’s very different now for students who are able to use electronic versions of texts, which makes me wonder if an iPad is a frivolous expense for this student, but a kindle is a-ok.

    If I had lived at home and commuted, state aid AT THE TIME would have totally covered my tuition and fees (but not books) (and I should note that tuition and fees have literally DOUBLED since I was a student). But I also would have had a 90 minute commute each way, which cuts into time one can spend working, studying, learning, etc.