The tassels hang from a tall shelf under a sign indicating which majors the different colors represent. It’s no surprise that business and science majors get the gold tassel, while the ugliest color (what can only be described as “vomit green”) is set aside for the art students. But no matter the major—elementary teaching, chemical engineering, American Indian studies—everyone has to pay $6 for a few symbolic strings to hang on their $10 caps. Plus $36 for the black polyester smock.
After years of racking up tens of thousands of dollars in student debt and maxing out credit cards, we, the University of Minnesota class of 2017, have to pay some $56 for the privilege of graduating. Maybe we’re being given our last lesson before we transition into the workforce: Even fond memories will cost money. Plan accordingly.
And yet college administrators at orientations across the country won’t be breaking this news to their incoming freshman staring wide-eyed down an endless list of majors. Instead, they will urge students to follow their passion. With glowing, benevolent wisdom, they’ll explain to the 18-year-olds that it’s important they do what they love.
Being able to reflect on who you are, what you love, and how that can turn into a paying job takes time. And many students don’t have that luxury. For those who are the first in their family to go to school, whose parents live in poverty, there is a lot to lose—and not a lot of time to spare.
In my first women’s studies class freshman year, I remember the professor asked how many of us worked in addition to going to school. I raised my hand, expecting to be joined by a majority of my classmates. But only about a third of the class did. My college experience, I came to realize, would be very different from many of my peers. Instead of parties, I’d be working part-time jobs. Rather than nursing a hangover on Sunday morning, I’d be anxiously waiting for the library doors to open so I could finally study. I wouldn’t be walking with friends to class because I couldn’t afford to live that close to campus. I’d take the bus with other students like me, the ones who had to get up at 6 am to catch the first one and who would take the last back at night.
I was able to land on-campus jobs that gave me experience in journalism—my passion and dream career—that also paid the bills, but many low-income, first-generation students aren’t so lucky. The jobs you take to afford college don’t always reflect the career you want—but your priority is to pay for tuition, so you do what you can. And because the fastest jobs to land are often in the service sector, they don’t frequently get your résumé to the top of the pile.
The closest many college students get to a job that is relevant to their career is through internships, which are frequently unpaid. Being able to afford an unpaid internship is difficult even for some financially stable students—it’s nearly impossible for their low-income peers. And it’s through these internships that students learn the nuances of office politics and the etiquette of the career world—skills low-income students must learn later, faster, and with higher stakes. Few of their parents likely have corporate jobs, so they are forced to confront an entirely new culture and set of rules without much counsel. We got into college, yes, but instead of being the great equalizer we were told it would be, we watch as the disparity widens.