How To Survive College When You're Paying Your Own Way Money issues don't end when you accept your financial aid. Paying your way through school can be stressful, but lots of folks have made it work and they have advice for how you, too, can navigate your years in college.
NPR logo

How To Survive College When You're Paying Your Own Way

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/729906856/731877305" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
How To Survive College When You're Paying Your Own Way

How To Survive College When You're Paying Your Own Way

How To Survive College When You're Paying Your Own Way

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/729906856/731877305" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Shannon Wright for NPR
Paying your way through college can be stressful, but lots of students and recent grads have done it — and share their advice.
Shannon Wright for NPR

When Lauren Schandevel arrived at the University of Michigan for her freshman year, she was struck by how wealthy all her classmates appeared to be.

"Just wealthy in ways that I couldn't even imagine," Schandevel recalls. Students had fancy clothes — and, it turns out, well-connected and powerful parents.

Schandevel had grown up in Warren, Mich., a suburb just north of Detroit. Her family was working class and she'd gotten scholarships and a few loans to make attending the prestigious state school a reality. When she got to campus, she didn't think much about her status as a low-income student. Sure, when her bill came due, she'd have a bit of panic — would this be the semester the financial aid fell through? But it wasn't really part of her identity.

Then, during Schandevel's junior year, the university's student government put out a campus affordability guide, written with the average Michigan student in mind — but it's worth noting that the average student at the school has a family income of about $150,000 per year.

The advice didn't go over well with low-income students on campus.

"A lot of the advice was like, fire your maid, or sell your car to save money," says Schandevel. "I was frustrated by this guide, and I was seeing others frustrated by it."

She decided to make her own affordability guide, and she fired up a Google doc and titled it, "Being Not-Rich at UM: A Guide." She added her own hacks — the things that helped her survive and budget. But there was so much she didn't know, so she left the sharing settings open for other students to jump in and edit the online document.

It took off. Hundreds of students started adding their tips about how to navigate college when you're paying your way through.

Today, a year and a few months later, Schandevel's crowd-sourced guide stretches more than 100 pages. It includes advice about jobs, housing, mentors, financial aid — even a bunch of great tips on where to find free food on campus. The doc's popularity helped her embrace her economic status and start to feel empowered.

"Economic status is such an invisible identity, and there are no places on campus where we can really find each other, says Schandevel. "So I feel like that was also a huge component of the guide. It brought together people who had experienced this before, and students knew they weren't alone."

Through social media, the Michigan Google doc started to make the rounds at other colleges. Students at schools across the country made their own "Not-Rich" guides based on Michigan's version. And from contributors to the guides at Ohio State University, the University of Texas at Austin, and Pima Community College in Arizona, we landed on these takeaways:

  • Find out what resources your college offers for students — you might have to do some digging.
  • It's OK to get a job, but try to find one that's related to what you want to do.
  • Make a budget. And don't miss out on free food!
  • When being thrifty isn't enough and you have no more hours for a job, talk to the financial aid office about taking out small federal loans.
  • Don't be afraid to ask for help.
  • Take care of yourself. You've made it to college: You belong there!