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

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

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

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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When Lauren Schandevel arrived on campus for her freshman year at The University of Michigan, she was struck by how wealthy all her classmates appeared to be.

LAUREN SCHANDEVEL: Just wealthy in ways that I couldn't even imagine.

NADWORNY: Nice cars, fancy clothes, very connected and powerful parents. Lauren had grown up in Warren, Mich., a suburb just north of Detroit. And her family was working-class. She was proud that she'd pieced together scholarships, grants and a few small loans to attend a top school; that even though she'd landed fair and square on the elite campus, something felt off.

SCHANDEVEL: From the beginning, I knew that I was a first-gen college student. I knew that I was different from my peers in the sense that, like, my - you know, my parents aren't doctors or lawyers or politicians, and my experience was different from them.

NADWORNY: When Lauren was a junior, the university's student government put out a campus affordability guide. It was written with the average U of M student in mind. It's worth noting that the average student, they have a family income of about $150,000 per year.

SCHANDEVEL: A lot of the advice was, like, fire your maid or sell your car to save some money.

NADWORNY: That advice, it didn't go over very well with the low-income students on campus.

SCHANDEVEL: I was frustrated by this guide; I was seeing other people who were frustrated by it.

NADWORNY: So she thought, let's make our own guide. Maybe she'd print it and pass out copies on The Diag, the open space in the middle of U of M's campus. Lauren had her own hacks - the things that helped her survive and budget - but there was also stuff she didn't know.

SCHANDEVEL: So I opened a Google Doc, and I made the sharing settings so that people could add to it or make suggestions.

NADWORNY: Hundreds of students started editing the document, adding their own take on how to navigate college when you're paying yourself.

SCHANDEVEL: Oh, my goodness.


SCHANDEVEL: I haven't been in this document in a while.

NADWORNY: Today, more than a year later, Lauren's crowd-sourced guide, titled...

SCHANDEVEL: "Being Not Rich At U of M: A Guide" (laughter).

NADWORNY: It's more than 100 pages. The first couple lines, which was actually the first thing that Lauren wrote, it gets right to the heart of the document.

SCHANDEVEL: So it says, you've been admitted to the University of Michigan. All your life you've worked hard and gotten stellar grades; this is finally the light at the end of the tunnel. And then you get here, and you realize that your socioeconomic status puts you at a significant disadvantage. This guide is for anyone who has ever felt marginalized on campus. In it, we lay out the issues with which we grapple most and their solutions, both immediate and long-term.

NADWORNY: And that - that's what we're going to do in this episode of LIFE KIT. It'll be our guide to navigating college and life and not stressing yourself out over money. So then you can actually focus on class. You'll hear from one researcher and a whole bunch of college students and recent grads - the real experts on all of this.


NADWORNY: I'm Elissa Nadworny, an education reporter at NPR. I've spent the last year talking with college students about how our perceptions of college - what we see in movies and pop culture - it doesn't really match what happens on campus. Sure, there are students with parents who are footing the bill. But a lot of students are paying for school themselves. According to the federal government, more than half of today's nearly 20 million college students are paying completely on their own.

Going to college, it's a way to climb the socioeconomic ladder - a path to a better job, a better life. But like Lauren wrote in her introduction, money issues don't end when you accept your financial aid; that is just the beginning. When you arrive on campus, there is so much more. Stay with us.


NADWORNY: Through social media, Lauren Schandevel's Google Doc started to make the rounds at other colleges.

ABEEHA SHAMSHAD: When I saw it, I was like, oh, my God, this is perfect.

NADWORNY: Abeeha Shamshad was finishing up her sophomore year at Ohio State University.

SHAMSHAD: Basically, it looked like my college experience put down onto paper.

NADWORNY: Abeeha had moved across the country, from Northern California, to go to Ohio State. She and her twin sister were born in Pakistan. Her parents wanted her to stay close to home, but She had her heart set on Ohio State, which meant paying for college was her responsibility. She got big scholarships to help cover a lot. But campus and all those extra things to buy was overwhelming. She was on her own, and there wasn't anyone to say, hey, you don't really have enough money for that.

SHAMSHAD: People go on social outings all the time. Movies are cheaper in Ohio, but if you see them, like, three times a week, it still adds up.

NADWORNY: The choices, the social pressure, the financial insecurity - it really stressed her out.

SHAMSHAD: It was, like, really fun until it wasn't.

NADWORNY: Which brings us to our first takeaway - when you're navigating the finances of college, take advantage of your school's free resources. There are perks to being a student. Lots of times, it's the stuff they brag about when you're taking a college tour but then don't actually point it out again when you enroll. By the end of that first semester, Abeeha was on a mission - to find those things - and she did. Many were buried deep in her school's website.

SHAMSHAD: Navigate the hell out of your school website. Those site maps span for thousands of pages, but they're there for you to read, and there's everything that you could possibly think of. And oftentimes, if you call, there's even more.

NADWORNY: Some of the things she discovered - that $25 Uber to the airport - turns out there was a free bus. About a mile from campus, she found a low-fee health clinic. And there was free mental health counselling and free visits with a nutritionist. Her findings eventually made it into her own not-rich guide for students at OSU. She says sometimes students don't even look for these resources because they think financial insecurity is just inevitable in college; she's adamant that is not true. And still, she acknowledges that free resources, they only go so far.

SHAMSHAD: Life isn't on hold while you're in college. You are still burning through money, so at some point, you do have to consider making money.


NADWORNY: So now, takeaway No. 2 - when it comes to working while in school, choose a job that will set you up for the future - one that helps you professionally, or at least one that doesn't detract from getting your degree.

KARL BERKEMEIER: Finding a side hustle that works for you and works for your schedule is hugely beneficial, especially for people who need that kind of liquid cash flow.

NADWORNY: Karl Berkemeier went to Michigan, where Lauren Schandevel went. He did ROTC, which covered tuition, and then he got a job as a dorm assistant that paid for his housing. But even with those two big expenses covered, there were other things he needed money for. To cover those things, Karl got a job in the science department.

BERKEMEIER: I was a guinea pig for science, kind of wryly and mostly joking, but I participated in a lot of research and got a lot of money that way.

NADWORNY: For one research project, the scientists covered him in motion capture dots while he walked on a treadmill. Another one - they gave him specific food to eat for a month while they monitored his health.

BERKEMEIER: I've gotten to see several studies, and you know, you kind of read through, and you see a part where they mention you, and it's fun. And it's - I loved being a part of advancing medicine.

NADWORNY: Plus, as a nursing major, Karl can put that experience on his resume, mention it in a job interview, use it to help further his career. For a long time, campus jobs were limited to dining services or cleaning, but that's changing. Schools are building in opportunities for students to work with professors on research or help in the marketing and admissions departments. In addition to having work that's complementary to a degree, those campus jobs can also be super flexible with your class schedule. Here's Abeeha.

SHAMSHAD: On-campus employers are almost always more forgiving of factors like, do you have finals coming up? They'll have specialized finals schedules that are so helpful.

NADWORNY: Of course, there are downsides to working - jobs take time; sacrifices get made; cuts on study time, clubs, socializing.

SHAMSHAD: It can be a huge plus for your banking account and a huge minus for your social life. But ultimately, you can make both work.


NADWORNY: Now that you're working and you have money coming in, there's a catch - you have to know what you're spending. So takeaway No. 3 - make a budget. Track what money comes in and track what money goes out.

LEWIS GUAPO: This is Lewis. It was always important for me to actually have - like, how much money do I have available?

ERIC LEE: Yeah. This is Eric. How is it that I can save money and, you know, really live better?

NADWORNY: Eric Lee and Lewis Guapo met their freshman year at The University of Texas, Austin.

GUAPO: We're, like, complete opposites in many ways.


NADWORNY: But there's also a lot they have in common - their faith, they both play the stock market, and together, they helped create UT's version of Lauren's document.

LEE: Yeah, we're looking through it right now. There's - oh, there's so much (laughter).

NADWORNY: They mention tricks for sticking to a budget, like using a mobile app to keep track of spending. And they've listed little things that help keep spending down. A big section in their guide - food. Food can be really expensive and a real source of stress and insecurity.

Recent research from Temple University's Hope Center for College, Community and Justice found that nearly half of student respondents from about 100 colleges said they had been food insecure in the past 30 days. Campus food pantries have sprung up to address this issue. In addition, Eric wants to make sure you don't miss out on the free food on your campus. Some free food is better than others. According to Eric, the business school at UT Austin is the best.

LEE: Not, like, low quality - like just pizza. But there's, like, high quality - like chips and queso and guac, and bean and cheese quesadillas and - oh, my favorite thing is, like - there's chocolate-covered strawberries that they serve and it - they serve it en masse.


NADWORNY: Abeeha, over at OSU, was more into cheap eats. She found a grocery store that sold burritos for 25 cents; that's four for a dollar. But she has a warning about this hack.

SHAMSHAD: I think a lot of students fall into the trap of getting four-for-$4s every day after class; I did, of course.

NADWORNY: What is a four-for-$4?

SHAMSHAD: So a four-for-$4 has a junior bacon cheeseburger; it has a small frosty, fries and a soft drink (laughter).

NADWORNY: All for $4.

SHAMSHAD: All for $4. Who could say no to situational poverty-induced unhealthiness. It's just a great deal. And it is not good for you at all.

NADWORNY: (Laughter) Wow. OK, so the free food is great because we have a lot of folks who say, like, look for the free food.

SHAMSHAD: Yes, absolutely.

NADWORNY: But maybe think about nutrition at the same time.

SHAMSHAD: Absolutely.

NADWORNY: Karl, the ROTC cadet from Michigan, he has another idea on how to cut corners.

BERKEMEIER: I consider myself a professional thrift shopper. My entire wardrobe is comprised almost exclusively of Salvation Army finds.

NADWORNY: During his time at Michigan, he figured out where to go and when. One tip - get that winter coat in May.

BERKEMEIER: When I was little, I wore a lot of hand-me-downs.

NADWORNY: He'd watch his mom sew, altering clothes so they could fit him. He was always a tall guy; he's now 6'4". Someday, his mom would say, he's going to be doing this by himself, and sure enough...

BERKEMEIER: It's easy to take down a hem; it's easy to take up a hem - a little seam work. You can get great quality clothes and alter them slightly to fit you for a great price.


NADWORNY: Of course, sometimes there are situations where being thrifty isn't enough, which leads us to our takeaway No. 4 - small federal loans can be good. Many students take out some loans, even if they've gotten a full-tuition scholarship. And recent research has shown that small federal loans can actually help you graduate. That's because loans are designed to give you money to help you get a degree; that degree ultimately allows you to get a job that earns you enough money to pay back that loan. That's how the system was designed and often does work.

Of course, that doesn't diminish the fact that folks who took out loans and didn't get a degree are really hurting, having trouble paying back their loans. And there is a ton of student debt in America. Last I checked, it was about $1.6 trillion. But Lesley Turner, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Maryland, co-authored a study that found not all loans are bad and, actually, a small loan can be really helpful. Turner and her co-author Benjamin Marx followed community college students who had taken out a couple thousand dollars in federal loans to cover expenses beyond tuition, additional expenses like housing and food. Those students...

LESLEY TURNER: They attempted more courses, they earned more credits, and they had higher grade-point averages.

NADWORNY: That's Turner, who did the study. The other big outcome...

TURNER: There were also sizable increases in the likelihood of transferring to a four-year public institution, to a bachelor's degree program.

NADWORNY: And she has an idea about why this is happening.

TURNER: The most likely explanation, we think, is that this loan allowed students to work less, that they would have had to work to pay for their living expenses, to pay for their transportation.

NADWORNY: The loan may have freed up time in their schedule to take more classes, to study, to finish their schoolwork. Of course, the important part of all of this is you've got to graduate. For most students, completing a bachelor's degree makes you far less likely to default on your loans. And there are lots of different kinds of loans, and they're not all created equally. You can learn all about the different types of student loans in the first episode of this guide. For now, just remember that if you're taking out a small federal loan and it helps you graduate, that can be a good thing.


NADWORNY: And now takeaway No. 5 - don't be afraid to ask for help. Start first with the financial aid office, the folks who can answer your questions about the loans and scholarships and grants. One high school English teacher in Washington, D.C., often tells her high school students that when she was a college student, she brought a photo of herself to her financial aid office. On the back of the photo, she put her name and a phone number and email. She asked the staff member to keep it on their desk so that they'd be reminded of her whenever more grant money became available.

Sure enough, at the end of her freshman year, they were able to add more money to her financial aid package.


NADWORNY: But advocating for yourself and sharing that you're in need can be a challenge. Here's Lauren from Michigan.

SCHANDEVEL: You know, I think there's this assumption that poor folks are poor because they're not spending their money properly or they're spending frivolously, when the reality is that we don't have money, you know?

NADWORNY: She says that makes it really hard to ask for help. And we heard the same thing from Avee Oabel, a junior at Ohio State.

AVEE OABEL: Being an independent student, it kind of - I feel different than other students because they're not necessarily, like, worrying about all these sorts of things all the time.

NADWORNY: During her sophomore year, she had a falling-out with her family and took on paying for college herself. It was a hard transition. She had recently decided to pursue an architecture major, which meant she'd had to buy a ton of extra materials.

OABEL: I had a very expensive assignment that I needed to get done, and it just wasn't feasible for me at that moment. So I emailed my professor and talked with them, and they were very understanding.

NADWORNY: The professors let her do the assignment digitally, instead of printing it. And Avee was kind of shocked - first, that she had actually said something, and then, second, that it had worked.

OABEL: Honestly, I don't know how I got myself to do it because I am a fairly, like, timid person. Like, I don't necessarily like to speak up all that often.

NADWORNY: But after the success of that first ask, she developed a personal pep talk.

OABEL: All it takes is that five seconds of courage, even though you might not want to do it in the moment. If you think about it, really, the worst that could happen is they say no, or they're going to direct you to the people that can help you.

NADWORNY: This fearlessness, she says, should also be applied to the way you approach the financial aid office. She's found there are always additional opportunities for extra grant money, emergency funds, even scholarships, that folks just don't know about. All you have to do, she says, is apply.

OABEL: Even if they seem, like, super competitive, like, you have a shot.


NADWORNY: All right, let's take a step back. Everything we've been talking about here, all five of these takeaways, this is all happening on top of actually going to class, studying, writing assignments and getting good grades. And it's important to remember that navigating all this when you're on the hook for the money can be really stressful and sometimes socially isolating. Abeeha at OSU, she struggled with this because her experience wasn't what she had imagined or seen on social media and in movies.

SHAMSHAD: I have far fewer friends than I see maybe people around me having, and at times, that's kind of been like, darn, like, who's going to be a bridesmaid at my wedding? Who am I going to invite to a spur-of-the-moment trip to Mexico in seven years?

NADWORNY: She remembers times heading to a shift at work, missing a football game or a party, where she felt left out or down on her situation.

SHAMSHAD: It's made me feel a little alienated and isolated from my peers. But I also have to remind myself that just because I've been told that these four years are where it all happens, that doesn't mean it has to be the four years where it all happens.


NADWORNY: Abeeha's experience helps us get to takeaway No. 6 - take care of yourself.

SCHANDEVEL: Like, everyone talks about housing and food security and finances, which are obviously very important. But I think, like, a huge component of it is, like, that sense of belonging.

NADWORNY: Lauren experienced that. In addition to feeling stressed about money...

SCHANDEVEL: There were moments where I was like, maybe college isn't for me.

NADWORNY: But making the not-rich guide, it was a big turning point for her.

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


NADWORNY: Karl Berkemeier graduated from The University of Michigan and is now a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army in San Antonio, Texas. And there's one thing he wants you to remember.

BERKEMEIER: It's really important to know yourself and know that you're here for a reason. You got here because of who you are, whether it be your intelligence, it could be because of your work ethic, it could be because of your abilities, your athletic abilities or whatever it may be. You're here for a reason, and you belong here, and you can't let whatever degree of social isolation happens or whatever feeling of otherness you get interfere with that self-identity.

NADWORNY: Lewis and Eric, they graduated from UT Austin, and they're now heading on a road trip to Michigan and Canada.

GUAPO: Just to hang out as friends and just try to venture out a little bit.

NADWORNY: Eric has a job lined up at a startup in the fall, and Lewis is fielding offers. Lauren Schandevel has temporarily moved back in with her parents in Warren, Mich., while she figures out her next steps. She's working part time at Wayne State University and for a nonprofit called We the People. Avee Oabel is heading into her senior year at OSU. She signed up to work in the dorms and, in exchange, her housing will be paid for. She's also planning on taking one day a week, or maybe just an afternoon, to relax and do something she enjoys. Her final piece of advice...

OABEL: Take care of yourself. Even though you're working hard, even though you might have a lot to do, at the end of the day, like, you're not going to be very productive and you're not going to be happy at all if you're just forcing yourself past your limits.


NADWORNY: So now it's time for a quick recap. First, find the resources your college offers for students. You might have to do a bit of digging.

SHAMSHAD: Navigate the hell out of your school website.

NADWORNY: No. 2 - it's OK to work, but try to find a job that relates to what you want to do. On-campus jobs can fit that bill. Plus, they're more flexible, and they work with your schedule. Takeaway No. 3 - make a budget and don't miss out on that free food.

LEE: Not lot, like, low quality - like just pizza. But there's, like, high quality - like chips and queso and guac.

NADWORNY: Takeaway No. 4 - when thrifting isn't enough and there are no more hours in the day for a job, talk to the financial aid office about taking out loans. No. 5 - don't be afraid to ask for help.

OABEL: All it takes is that five seconds of courage.

NADWORNY: And the worst they say is no. And finally, takeaway No. 6 - take care of yourself. You've made it to college. You belong there.


NADWORNY: Before we go, here's what's next for Abeeha Shamshad.

What things are you looking forward to going back your senior year?

SHAMSHAD: Senior year - I'm definitely looking forward to graduating (laughter). Also, very much looking forward to working on my credit score because that's something people seem to forget about. So try to be on top of that. But yeah.


NADWORNY: For more NPR LIFE KIT, check out the other episodes in this guide. There's one about all the loans you can take out and another about paying all those loans back. If you like what you hear, make sure to check out the other LIFE KIT guides at And while you're there, subscribe to our newsletter so you don't miss anything. We've got more guides coming out every month on all sorts of topics. And here, as always, is a completely random tip - this time it's from listener, Stacey Prada (ph).

STACEY PRADA: Avoid mildew and stains on shower curtains altogether. Clip a bottom corner of the shower curtain to an organizer near the shower spout so that it hangs freely and dries between uses. I live in a very humid climate, and if I don't do this, the bottom will mildew within a week. Doing this after each use keeps my shower curtain clean for months.

NADWORNY: If you've got a good tip or a topic you want us to explore, please let us know. You can email us at I'm Elissa Nadworny, and thanks for listening.

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