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The hidden costs of success are too high for low-income students

There’s a price to pay to attend university; there’s another to pay to succeed once we’re in.


University is expensive. Rising tuition rates, the cost of living independently, textbooks, health plans, bus passes and meals all quickly add up. There’s a hefty price tag on education that everyone can see and everyone is talking about. But this amount is not where the calculations end for many students who are already facing financial strain.

Low-income students are privy to a set of additional academic costs that remain unmentioned in the prevailing discussion of university expenses. These costs are intrinsic to the achievement of academic success, yet they are set apart from the balances in our student accounts. These costs are more difficult to quantify and are therefore beyond the scope of our student loan and financial aid applications. There’s a price to pay to attend university; there’s another to pay to succeed once we’re in.

There are two kinds of additional financial costs to academia that I call “success-costs.” The first is the cost required if one wants to engage in the social atmosphere of the discipline, in other words, “social” costs. These include paying for event admissions, society membership fees, travel costs for conferences and for food and drinks at informal social gatherings. The second kind of success-cost is the loss of income or opportunity when there’s inadequate time to both earn a living wage and earn extracurricular and volunteer experience, in other words, “time” costs.

Both social costs and time costs are necessary expenses if one wants to achieve academically – in other words, becoming a successful member of a particular discipline by developing familiarity and confidence with your peers and becoming a successful candidate for scholarships and further study by participating in and engaging with additional projects. Developing peer relationships on informal grounds within your academic discipline helps you to solidify your standing as a member of that discipline. You’re able to learn from the experiences of the department, discipline and relevant people involved. Moreover, establishing yourself as a member of the informal social community carries over into establishing yourself as a member of the formal academic community. Being socially familiar with your classmates grants you more confidence to speak up in class discussions, offer critical commentary and opposing perspectives, participate in study groups and collaborate on additional projects.

Given the straight-forward expenses of university, many students work during the semester. Some students put in more than 30 hours on employment, often with multiple jobs, while balancing a full course load. But the kinds of scholarships, awards, grants and recognitions that low-income students would most benefit from require a competitive record of volunteer work and club participation. In other words, things that don’t pay. Similarly, participation in societies, events, conferences and workshops all require that a student has a certain amount of free time to devote to these activities, where “free” means that they are able to give away their time without financial compensation.

This presents the student the choice between working for income or working for opportunity. One option provides the means for rent and food and the other provides the means for academic success. Often, for low-income students, these options can be mutually exclusive.

In virtue of the hidden nature of success costs, their influence on academic achievement goes unrecognized, along with the merit of many low-income students. The world of the academy is built for people of leisure, and this remains an unacknowledged yet intrinsic part of established success in academia today. The reality is that many students with a high degree of potential do not come into university with the luxury of expendable time and income to allocate entirely to their academic endeavours.

The first step towards awarding successful low-income students the recognition that they deserve is to identify the distinct challenges they confront from their socioeconomic position in academia. This means identifying those success costs that can be said to significantly impact the potential for low income students to succeed. The second step is to make these challenges an open and explicit component of our conventional dialogue about the cost of education. This means acknowledging that success costs are relevantly tied to our more general concerns about the price of tuition and textbooks.

Discussing the cost of a university education is important. Yet, our discussions seem to end at the price of admission. Imagine scrounging up just enough money to buy a pass into an amusement park, only to realize that you can’t afford to do anything once you’re inside. Similarly with academia, we don’t want to merely get in – we want to do well once we’re here.

Ms. Fogarty is a master’s student in philosophy at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax.

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  1. First Year / March 25, 2015 at 9:46 pm

    This article perfectly summarizes how I feel after my first year of university. Especially social costs, most of the time I never buy anything when I have to go out for food or drinks to meet with people as part of clubs or the student council. I’d rather starve and wait until I can go home and make my own food for cheaper.

    The worst part is when professors offer bonus marks to students who attend literary events (from poetry slams which cost 10 dollars to enter to literary festivals which cost at least twenty five dollars per ticket). Needless to say, I scour the newspaper to find free events to attend instead. Even in psychology I have to spend three hours doing research studies, which might go over that, to get three percent bonus marks.

    Time and money are both necessary to improve/maintain social connections and receive good grades. I am glad someone is finally pointing this out.

  2. GB / March 27, 2015 at 8:24 am

    I worked nearly full-time during the duration of my university career to pay for my tuition and housing. I did socialize, but it was clear that scholarships and other opportunities were not designed to allow me to take part. In my first year (in 2000) I stopped going to Comp Sci classes because back then you still had to line up to use a computer in order to do assignments. I couldn’t afford my own, and the time it took to wait and then do the assignment guaranteed that I would have to miss shifts at work. Eventually I found some service opportunities that were flexible and which I could do around my class schedule and before I had to work in the evening (weekends were always blocked off for work). Eventually I also found a more flexible job (though I took a massive $ per hour pay cut), but that allowed me to free up additional time for for other school related activities, that was just pure luck. In general though my experience was one where it was abundently clear to me thta universities are places for people with money, and those who don’t have it will have to miss out or work significantly harder than others in order to take advantage of anything beyond regular course work.

  3. JS / March 27, 2015 at 10:57 am

    Thank you for writing this. I think more people need to understand how difficult it is. My supervisors keep telling me that i need to go to conference to network if i want to find a job and it is frustrating. I just want to scream “okay then give me the money up front so i can do that”. Even if i will be reimbursed, it is just not possible for me to make that initial investment.

    There are other social costs too. Most people that i have met in graduate programs are from academic families. They grew up in the culture. They understand all the social rules, and have more connections. I do not. I constantly struggle making a fool of myself just to figure out how to fit in. When i am not working a ton of extra job, or squeezing in time to work on my dissertation, i am reading books and blogs on academic culture to try to figure out how to act.

    I kinda feel like a fool for ever thinking i would be accepted.

  4. Steph / March 27, 2015 at 10:58 am

    I am so glad someone is finally pointing this out. I got a lot of flack from people (friends included) for working so much (3 jobs). I was told I was choosing to opt out of social and academic opportunities, even though I pointed out to them that I could not afford to be at University if I quit my jobs. At the end of my degree, all I had was my degree. No service etc., which meant there were many jobs and even further educational programs for which I was not competitive or even eligible. Teachers college is a prime example, in Ontario. The standard number of volunteer hours required for an application is 300, I would never have been able to afford to stay in University and work 300 hours for free. This continues in grad school, to a much larger degree, where things like conference paper presentations are very much a requirement for future employment or education and are extremely expensive, with decreasing financial support being given by universities for attendance.

  5. Nicole / April 1, 2015 at 2:09 pm

    I echo the thanks of other comments! During my undergrad I raised 2 babies and worked part-time – so my choice of classes was determined largely by scheduling around childcare and work, and transit costs. Social time and volunteer time was a luxury that took away from family time. Group assignments were particularly frustrating as they were often inefficient and extremely difficult to schedule – the learning experience was more often than not a dread and resentment of “team” work. The privileged position of professors and a large % of peers meant that they had no understanding of pressures and anxiety that their choices and demands triggered. Pride more often than not compelled me to dig a little deeper, work a little harder and suck it up. It had a cost for me that today we might recognize as a mental wellness impact, maybe. With all the efforts underway on campuses to address mental well-being (kudos for the good intentions!) I hope that awareness of low income situations as a contributing factor will be recognized. I now teach and see first-hand the anxiety of holding down jobs, supporting family (including aging parents), and cashflow issues that make buying textbooks and web-based access codes so difficult. Empathy and tolerance is an easy choice for me to make. It’s more than a little frustrating dealing with some teaching peers who seem to believe that all students are lazy and entitled. Thanks again for the voice!

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