Shadley: College is Transformative, but Only For Those Who Can Afford It


(Photo courtesy Will Shadley)

By Will Shadley, Opinion Writer


As I began my freshman year of college, my only real commitment was to be a student at the University of Utah. Those four unplanned years ahead of me came with the freedom to explore my interests, change my major multiple times and create meaningful experiences at the U. In that process, I discovered how important leading a life measured by environmental and social impact was to me. That valuable life lesson was possible because I had the freedom to attend countless clubs, classes and events during my first two years at the U. Yet, as I neared the latter half of college, I was burdened by commitments — albeit ones that I enjoyed — that left little flexibility to learn new lessons. The rest of my time in college seemed completely planned out — until March 2020.

The pandemic created an era of uncertainty for college students. For some, that meant withdrawing from classes, changing schools or delaying enrollment. For me, it meant that I wouldn’t be studying in Australia for a year and no longer had a job, but I was able to add a new minor. I scrambled to plan for fall 2020, and meanwhile my friends signed year leases as rent in Salt Lake City steadily increased. So, I decided to sell my car and buy a 1996 Ford Econoline Van to live in. With a bed, an instant pot and an upgraded hotspot plan on my phone, I was ready to spend my semester living and learning anywhere my U parking permit would let me. That fall, I experienced the most unplanned semester since my freshman year, but only because I chose to forego paying rent, eliminating my need to earn a nearly full-time income. The opportunity to learn and grow in unimaginable ways is the promise of a college education, but not every student is privileged with the freedom to do so.

Nearly 70% of all college students have a job, regardless of their income level. While working — especially through internships — can enhance your college education, the quality and quantity of that work matters. Fifty-nine percent of low-income students working 15 hours or more a week had a C grade average or lower. On top of performing poorly in classes, overworked and overburdened students miss out on valuable extracurriculars offered by their universities.

There’s no shortage of academic advisors, parents, and college blogs highlighting the importance of internships in a successful college experience. However, when competitive internships go to the students with the highest GPAs and best extracurriculars, students working more than 15 hours a week are at a distinct disadvantage. In a report of paid Congressional internships, nearly 76% of positions were found to have been filled by white students. While students working 29 hours or more a week are going into debt and not doing as well in school, students with ample access to financial resources can devote more time to studying, engage in extracurricular and compete for high-profile internships.

Aware of this reality, I opted to spend the first semester of my junior year living in my van. Doing so allowed me to work the most valuable internship of my collegiate career and save some money in the process. Yet, in many ways, living in the van felt like a part-time job, and it negatively affected my grades and mental health. Each time I showered, ate, went to the bathroom, did laundry, washed dishes, brushed my teeth or even just stood up it took more effort. All this extra “work” added up, especially in the middle of a pandemic.

My limited access to a quality workspace made prioritizing school even more difficult, especially in winter when studying outside was impossible and the pandemic made studying indoors dangerous and challenging. Still, I had far more time to focus on school than many of my peers, and my minimal commitments led to one of the more rewarding periods of my life.

College students are chronically underpaid and over-worked. We expect them to cover inexplicably high tuition costs, complete a full-time class schedule and find out who they are and what they want to do with their life. In my case, the only way to somewhat meet these expectations was to forego housing and spend my nights in on-campus parking lots. For many others, even pseudo-homelessness isn’t an option. College can be a time of profound growth for students, but only for a privileged few. While students should prioritize their education and personal growth where they can, everyone should have the freedom to transform their lives through their college education. Otherwise, a college education is no longer an agent of wealth equalization but one that creates greater inequities.


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