Students struggle to balance financial and academic success in the wake of hardship

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Struggling with depression and anxiety among other mental health concerns, junior elementary education major Emily Lanagan has always battled with affording proper health care. After her Medicaid plan came to an end when she turned 19, Lanagan described using the Affordable Care Act website to determine her eligibility; what Lanagan found was disappointing.

“I made $6,000 the year before,” Lanagan said. “I didn’t qualify for a tax credit and would have to pay out of pocket. The cheapest one I could find was $250 with $50 copays on normal visits.”

Beyond normal visits, Lanagan would require a psychiatrist to prescribe medication for her mental health, adding $75 per visit to her monthly bill. With medications, Lanagan said she would be paying over $500 a month for healthcare — an amount that can be nearly impossible to pay with rising tuition costs.

Frustrated, she canceled her health insurance. Now, Lanagan has been uninsured for over a year.

Lanagan’s experience is not an isolated one, and the problem extends beyond just a lack of health insurance. According to Forbes in February of 2019, the student debt crisis has hit $1.5 billion nationally, affecting students both during and after their collegiate experiences, and the length of time required to obtain a degree is not aiding the problem.

While the dream is to graduate debt-free, health insurance, housing and a lack of awareness surrounding resources are just some of the factors that impact a student’s ability to balance school and work, often resulting in longer graduation times and a decrease in self-care.

Projecting student success

Diving into school work and extracurricular activities from day one is the ideal college experience. For some, however, the options for involvement are not quite as endless. 

Leslie Webb, Boise State’s vice president of student affairs, explained that a student’s course load may directly impact their investment and success in academic careers — in the earliest stages, more credits are better. 

Students who take a full course load, or 15 credits per semester, have a higher retention rate and are more likely to graduate faster, according to Webb. Considering oneself a student first in this regard, Webb explained, is a means of becoming more deeply invested in the university experience.

Although this may be true, students who are both full-time students and full or part-time employees, unable to take advantage of a full credit load or immerse themselves in extracurriculars and clubs, are left out of the projected success.

“I do consider myself a student first; I think school is the most important thing you can do for yourself,” Lanagan said. “I find school kind of a break. It has become my only social obligation other than work. It makes me feel like I know I’m not alone in this struggle.”

According to a 2019 report titled “The Condition of Education,” 41% of full-time undergraduate students at four-year universities are employed nationwide. Unfortunately, jobs that students need to afford living expenses while in school are not always geared towards the majors or careers that students are pursuing.


For Lanagan, this means managing a McDonald’s franchise.

Webb explained that students in Lanagan’s position, though not directly related to her English education major, should analyze their situations to find crucial skills for future employers. 

“Many of our students need to work,” Webb wrote in an email. “What type of part-time job [are they looking for], and how do you make the most of that experience by being able to articulate how that part-time employment is contributing to the knowledge and skills for which an employer is looking?”

Senior marketing major Joseph Bowers has a common, yet frustrating problem: his parents do not make enough money to pay his tuition, but just enough to prevent him from getting necessary financial aid. 

As a result, Bowers has worked consistently since beginning college at the College of Western Idaho nearly six years ago, finally anticipating to graduate this spring.

Working at a coffee shop, however, has not done enough to prepare Bowers for life after college — at least, not in the traditional sense.

“I should have probably looked more into internships or a job that directs me more towards my line of work, but sometimes it’s hard,” Bowers said. “It feels like I don’t have time to apply and look for those things. The only skills that I’m really learning from working at [the coffee shop]are management and interaction skills with being able to work as a team.” 

While interpersonal skills are crucial to almost any job on the market, students who are unable to complete a professional internship because of other obligations may be at a disadvantage. A small study completed at Southwestern University in Texas reported that those who participated in just one internship during their undergraduate years were 13% more likely to land in a full-time job post-graduation.

Bowers certainly wants a full-time job in marketing, but he needs funds to finish his schooling. Although the trade-off can be frustrating, Bowers recognizes the need to make his finances a priority.

“I’ve told my friends and many family members that, ‘Oh, this job works for now because it’s flexible with my schedule so I can go to school and work,’” Bowers said. “And because of that, I don’t see any reason to leave it, and it makes enough money that I can barely scrape by.”

To put it simply, college jobs are not always intended to project career success. Nonetheless, a heavy workload both at work and in academics means trouble for students struggling to balance both — especially those who intend to graduate in four years.

Closing the resource gap

Lanagan spends much of her time outside of school at work, but she also spends nearly two hours a day in her car. A Boise State commuter, Lanagan makes the daily trip to Boise from Mountain Home, just under 40 miles away via the Interstate.

With only one car shared between Lanagan and her partner, the commute has become a burden particularly, she explained, when class projects are involved.

“Classes often depend on group work, and currently, I am in a Shakespeare class where I have to do group performances which means we all have to meet outside of class to get that done,” Lanagan said. “Obviously, I live in Mountain Home and work full-time, and I only have one car that commutes to Boise and my boyfriend who also uses the car works in Boise, so I can’t come on days that I don’t have school because I don’t have the means to do that right now.”

Lanagan’s commute has been a constant challenge for the two and a half years she has spent at the university, creating obstacles for her both in class and in her involvement on campus.

Lanagan described her frustration that although Boise State Housing and Residence Life touts on-campus living to be the best option for first-year students and beyond, accessibility is a huge barrier, especially for students whose parents are not involved in the college experience.

“They paint it as this wonderful experience for you, but it’s so expensive… I don’t have the parents that can afford that for me,” Lanagan said. “Even after I did get my own apartment and then had to move back home due to other circumstances, I thought about just moving on campus. Because it was too expensive, I had to share a room with my little brother with a bunk bed and my stuff in my car.”

Bowers shared this sentiment, going as far as calculating the financial difference between gas on his 30-minute commute from Meridian versus living on his own with Boise’s ever-growing rent prices.

If students are hoping to foster a stronger balance between money and academics, on-campus living may miss the mark. Finding a balance, however, did not require a year in the dorms for Lanagan and Bowers. 

Rental assistance from the university is often nonexistent for students, but additional resources on campus may solve problems for living expenses beyond housing.

Just last year, the Office of the Dean of Students introduced a campus food pantry intended to stifle food insecurity concerns for those affected campuswide. After developing partnerships with related organizations and promoting outreach to students, Dean of Students Chris Wuthrich has seen an increase of student use.

Although the pantry is the office’s most publicized effort, Wuthrich wants students to know that food insecurity is not the only hardship the team seeks to solve. From short-term emergency grants to licensed social workers ready to strategize financial plans, getting financial help on campus can be as simple as asking for it.

“Recognize that no one is really beyond assistance,” Wuthrich said. “If you don’t ask, no one will know. I would promote to everybody, whether they think their problem is a small one or a large one, they should ask. That can be asking a faculty member or asking a friend; making their needs known is important. With regards to obtaining effective assistance, that’s where you want to connect with folks who understand the resources and understand how to identify challenges, and that can be people in this office.”

Bowers explained that, although he believes he could do more searching, the resources do not feel accessible when he does not know where to find them in the first place — a common barrier for students. And, despite the growing problem of food insecurity on campus as a result of already tight budgets, the overarching solution for financial hardship is not one-dimensional.

Striking a balance

The struggle to make change in the “broke college student” stereotype is an age-old issue, and the problem has only taken a turn for the worse in recent years.

Business Insider reports that, since 1996, the average net worth of an American between the ages of 18 to 35 has decreased by 34% as a result of student loan debt and the current financial crisis. In turn, students are pushing themselves to earn more while in school to avoid maxing out loans, creating tension in the work life balance.

Bowers knows this struggle all too well, but acknowledges the necessity of taking a little “me time,” despite the demand to work in overdrive.

“It is definitely a struggle balancing academics and school, but I don’t think they are everything,” Bowers said. “I think you need to have a little personal life. I know people say you should just go to college and get it done, power through. But if you don’t have any personal life, it would be pretty depressing to do work, school, the end.”

Although many students feel as though there is not enough time in the day to accomplish their many tasks, the free time does exist outside of academics — it is just a matter of analyzing its best use, according to Webb.

“We are working on messaging to students far before they start college about all the aspects that need deeper consideration, and this is as important for current students,” Webb wrote. “For example, what is the true calculation of living off versus living on? If there are 150 plus hours during a week that a student spends outside the classroom, how can this time be maximized?”

Despite this sentiment, both Bowers and Lanagan find themselves losing sleep and slacking on academic projects because of their packed schedules. This problem is common among the college community, with one study reporting that 60% of students have poor sleep quality and 27% are at risk of a sleep disorder.

Clearly, neither of these students is alone — the fragile balance between work and school is not an easy challenge to overcome. Although resources exist, creating a deeper understanding of where students may go to seek help, as well as being transparent about the reality of life while earning a degree, may be a tool in supporting students through the college experience.

“College was painted to me as something where I would just have to go to school, and my classes would be the most stressful thing about it, but that’s just not true,” Lanagan said. “Do I want to work part-time and take out $3,000 in loans, or do I want to be debt-free and just work my butt off all the time and go to school all the time? That’s not told to you when you come to college at all; they don’t tell you it’s going to be this hard.”

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