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.