It is rare for a child in the United States to support his or her family financially. Among older children--those who are 18 years old or older and either attend college or work full-time--four percent give money to their parents.
In 2002, the United States Department of Education (USDE) determined that eight percent of college-goers, including those who had spouses and children, supported a person other than themselves. Eighty-nine percent of undergraduates were considered dependents of their parents.
As unusual as the idea of a student supporting his or her parents may seem, there is some evidence that the number of students with such financial burdens is on the rise. These students, termed 'nontraditional undergraduates' by the USDE, will likely become more common in the current economy. The USDE defines a traditional student as "one who earns a high school diploma, enrolls full time immediately after finishing high school, depends on parents for financial support, and either does not work during the school year or works part time." During the 1999-2000 school year, 57.5 percent of undergraduates at 4-year public institutions were considered nontraditional.
With the economy wreaking havoc on many formerly middle class families' finances, students must reevaluate their plans for paying for college. Marty West, an assistant professor of education and public policy at Brown University, told the Independent that there has been "a continuing increase...in the percentage of kids enrolling in college. There's been a leveling off in college completion. There's been a big increase in the amount of time to complete a college degree." This means that while more students are beginning college every year, fewer are graduating in four years.
In the case of John*, a current student at the University of Toledo, his parents' tenuous finances and recent divorce and his mother's subsequent reliance on welfare have become entangled with his efforts to fund his education. His story is a look into the world of a family living at the lower edge of the middle class and how that precarious position affects the financing of his education.
It began when he was 13. He'd be sitting in the passenger seat of the family minivan, running errands with his mom, and at a lull in the conversation, she'd say, "John, I need a favor."
It was always about money. She needed a loan, sometimes 50 dollars, sometimes more, so that she could pay that month's phone bill, cable bill or rent. And he gave his mother what she asked for. He had the money stashed away in a savings account built entirely out of a lifetime's worth of birthday money he'd never spent.
In later months, she cornered him more often. It always happened when his dad wasn't around; she didn't want her husband to know how bad the family finances had gotten. And as time went by, his father was around less often; he often worked overtime in order to make ends meet.
It went on like this through high school. At age 17, John took a job in a pizza shop to earn a little extra money, which he often ended up giving to his mother. Several times, she withdrew money from his bank account without telling him.
Eventually, her debt to him accumulated to over $2,000. Her promise to pay him back with interest turned into a promise that she'd pay him back next month, after high school, someday. He began to resent her pleas for more money, but he couldn't refuse her when she came to him crying That's just how things were.
However, money wasn't always so scarce. The bulk of John's coming of age took place in the house at 436 Blackstone Blvd. It was a small house, built in an indistinct suburban '70s style, and his family split it with another tenant.
There were few indications that John's family was different from any other in the neighborhood. Sure, there were frozen Tyson chicken breasts for dinner when others might have served fresh and dining out meant Wendy's, not a fancy dinner downtown. The family didn't take vacations, only camping trips or kayaking excursions down the Little Miami River.
Growing up, things were okay, John says, although "money was pretty tight." He calls his family middle class, lumping them in with the approximately 53 percent of Americans who classify themselves as such. But the definition of middle class is complicated.
John's family falls at the lower end of that broad definition, according to the model developed by sociologist Dennis Gilbert. The 'lower middle class' accounts for about one-third of American households. John's dad, who has an associates degree, brought home around $65,000 per year. John's mother couldn't hold down a job, and was often unemployed without benefits.
"We never went hungry or anything like that," says John. "We were living right at our means, but maybe slightly above." But when John was in sixth grade, "It got to the point where my mom would borrow money from me without my dad's knowledge to cover bills and things, promising me she'd pay me back."
Usually, a few months later, she did. "Some of the burden has always fallen on me to give her a loan here, give her a loan there. But it was never a big deal," says John.
To finance his education at the University of Toledo, a public university in northern Ohio, John and his father took out $6,000 in Stafford loans. His situation was not abnormal. Sixty-three percent of all undergraduates during the 2003-04 school year were on some form of financial aid. The average amount borrowed by undergraduates attending public universities was $5,600.
However, John's situation changed in the spring of 2007, when his father packed his belongings into the family van and left. "Everything went downhill when Dad left," John says. "Mom was unemployed and really just unemployed, not collecting any benefits from the government."
Without his dad's income, John's financial situation plummeted. His father's earnings had placed his family in the middle class. But after his father walked out, John's mother relied on spousal and child support payments to pay her rent and personal expenses. Her income for 2007 was about $6,000.
Soon after, his mother resumed asking John for loans. "I knew she had no way to support herself and she had expensive attorney fees to pay," John says. "So at that point, I just let her borrow as much as she needed to stay afloat."¬†Although John is still considered her dependent, he lent her money throughout 2008. Last year, she borrowed about $10,000 from John, including at least $2,600 of charges on a credit card he gave her.
While John's situation is by no means emblematic of all undergraduates facing financial difficulties, the effects of and solutions to such students' financial problems are similar. "You've got a lot more people going to college part time, supporting themselves, perhaps even supporting others," says West. "People [are] making decisions about how to balance their current consumption and their future consumption and how to best invest in their own education."
Sarah Turner, an economist at the University of Virginia, found that in 1970, 51 percent of students enrolled in college after high school; 23 percent attained a bachelor's degree by age 23. In 1999, 67 percent of students enrolled in college, but only 24 percent obtained a bachelors degree by age 23, a 25 percent decline in completion.
It is unclear exactly why this decrease has occurred. Turner cites both secondary school achievement and finances as factors influencing student dropout rates. Since more students are enrolling in college, it is likely that more of them are not prepared well enough to excel in college; such students account for some of the dropout rate. However, Turner ascribes more significance to students' finances: "Financial constraints, combined with imperfect access to capital markets, are one demand-side force potentially reducing completion and extending time to degree."
Carolyn Baumgartner, Director of the Office of Student Financial Aid at the University of Toledo, told the Independent that "[Students] will look to different institutions come the new year [...] There is usually a community or four-year college that a student could commute to [...] and not have the expense of a dorm added to tuition, fees and books."
In John's case, he worked in a co-op program with Marathon Oil after his first semester at Toledo. Now, he either takes classes or works at a refinery in Kentucky. He will graduate with a Bachelor of Science degree in five years. The job allowed him to stay in school, he says. "Fortunately for me, I was able to get a high paying co-op... I have been able to support me, my mother [and] my brother."
In December 2008, he found out that he had not only received the Pell Grant and the SMART Grant (for Pell-eligible students who are science, math or engineering majors) for the spring of 2009, but also retroactive Pell Grants to compensate for his family's sudden income reduction in 2008. Baumgartner says that the University of Toledo "anticipates a rise in the special circumstance reviews for job loss" in 2009. Students will be able to have their families' finances reevaluated at any time during the school year and their financial aid will be adjusted accordingly. Some, like John, will become eligible for federal grants at that time.
Such safety nets will be important for college students in the coming months, as more students' families experience financial upheaval due to the recession. The $787 billion stimulus bill President Barack Obama signed into law on February 17 includes $53 billion for education. The bill will increase Pell Grants to $5,231 from $4,731. The increase may seem marginal to some, but in the current economy every dollar makes a difference to students facing a choice between staying in college or dropping out.
The grants have helped a ton, because that means I won't have to take a loan this year," says John. "I owe $6,800 to the USDE [...] That's a very small amount for a college student's debt, but when I know my family is going to help me with zero of that, and when I'm currently paying out to my family, any little bit seems like a lot."
*Name has been changed to protect the student's privacy
If I had a little money, it's an AUDREY VON MALUSKI B'09.5's world.