logo

This college student had to choose: Go to class, or go to work so she can afford to eat

Crystal Cox, student at the University of Missouri
VIDEO1:4201:42
This college student had to choose: Go to class, or go to work so she can afford to eat

"My College Dream" is a series of first-person essays by college students about their college and career aspirations, the serious money struggles they faced along the way and the real-world consequences that resulted from their circumstances — and their decisions.

Eight out of 10 college students work while they're in school — and the number of hours they're working is on the rise, according to Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce analysis of data from the National Center on Education. Nearly half (45%) work at least 30 hours a week, and 25% work full-time while going to school full-time.

Crystal Cox, an English and journalism dual major at the University of Missouri, has worked 25 to 40 hours a week, depending on her course load, while going to school full-time. She says at least twice a week last semester she had to make a decision: Go to class or go to work? Because as she calculated her expenses, she realized that what she had already made from multiple jobs wasn't enough to cover her expenses: rent, utilities, Wi-Fi, gas, groceries, etc. Now in her junior year, Crystal decided to work just 25 hours (she's a barista at a local coffee shop) because she is taking more credits. The result: more loans.

In the first installment of CNBC's My College Dream series, Crystal shares her story — and how she's juggled going to college and working in order to pay for it.

In my first two years at college, I've had to make a decision that my high school self could not have imagined: Go to class, or go to work so I could afford food to eat. This is the reality that I, and many students who come from low-income families, face. Having to work 40 hours a week at an entry-level service job is difficult, but having to do so while being a full-time college student is beyond exhausting. Since being introduced to the economic concept of opportunity cost, I've thought a lot about how school and work are opposing variables in my life.

School has always been the most important thing to me. I'm ambitious and goal-oriented, and I want to be a successful journalist more than anything else. That's what gets me out of bed in the morning. However, I've come to realize that being goal-oriented isn't enough for someone like me, who grew up in a large family with little money to spare. Although my parents do their best, the majority of college, housing, utilities, groceries, gas and entertainment expenses fall on me.

I've worked part-time since I was a junior in high school and have continued that throughout college. I started working two jobs last year, my sophomore year, and although I technically didn't work full-time at either job, I was working 35 to 40 hours weekly combined.

More from Invest in You:
Why the best time to apply for college financial aid is now
What you don't know about managing money can cost you ... big time
How to start an emergency fund when you live paycheck to paycheck

Because I am a working full-time student, there's not enough time in a day to complete every task that I need to complete. Therefore, I have to weigh my options carefully and decide which has the greater opportunity cost. For example, say I need to attend class at 8 a.m. but my employer calls me into work that morning. I know that I could use the extra hours at work because my utility bill this month is over my budget and it would help me to break even. However, I also know that I will lose participation points in the class for that day, which can lower my grade. Most of the time, I choose to work because I can still pass the class without that day's participation points, but I can't live efficiently without my utilities, which include electric, water, sewage and trash. My landlord will also evict me if my utilities aren't paid, thus rendering me homeless.

However, lost participation points begin to add up and my GPA decreases. With a lowered GPA, I'm at greater risk of getting kicked out of college, not because I don't have the determination or intelligence but because I'm simply not as privileged as my peers.

In my experience, professors are either extremely understanding of my predicament or they're not.

I would say that 25% of the time, my professors have been accommodating. However, the other 75% of professors either aren't sympathetic to my situation or they are sympathetic but have to adhere to the university's rules regarding attendance.

In most classes, you receive a limited amount of "free" days to miss without your grade being affected. However, this number is typically small, like two or three for an entire semester. After that, your grade drops with each absence unless you bring in a doctor's excuse, which is another issue in and of itself. Since I'm going to work and not ill, I wouldn't see a doctor. But even in the rare instances I can actually take a sick day, I sometimes don't have the money to pay a co-pay. Fortunately, I do have health insurance, but I know a lot of students who don't, and that makes it nearly impossible for them to afford to receive a doctor's excuse.

Most of the time, I choose to work because I can still pass the class without that day's participation points, but I can't live efficiently without my utilities.
Crystal Cox
student at the University of Missouri

Unfortunately, my story is not rare at all and isn't by any means the most severe. I've met a lot of other students who work multiple jobs to make ends meet while attending school full-time. These students typically have lower GPAs simply because they don't have the luxury of attending every class or even the time to study. They're overworked and sleep-deprived, and this greatly inhibits their academic performance.

Educational policies like this and the professional field itself tend to create a great divide in class structure. Low-income students are the most likely to drop out because entering the workforce makes more sense in a society where they are discouraged from the professional field. For instance, they are discouraged from high-profile but unpaid internships, as low-income students are unable to afford to work without pay, so they can't participate. Consequently, they have a harder time networking and get less experience. This sets them back in the eyes of future employers, who look for such qualities, and can be detrimental to a successful career.

This semester I received the opportunity to work an unpaid internship, but only because it counts toward my college credit, is located on campus and operates on a regular class schedule. However, I've been very discouraged in the past, watching my peers travel to unpaid internships for well-respected companies. It engenders a sense of stress and urgency in me because I feel that, regardless of all my hard work, I've fallen behind.

VIDEO1:2301:23
Students can go to college for free in 20 states

My partner is also a low-income student — he dropped out last semester. Although he's intelligent and capable, the stress of working so many hours on top of school became too much for him. And although he hopes to go back eventually, it'll only be after he can save up enough money to make that a reality.

Overall, being a working full-time student feels like a contradiction, but I'm still determined to succeed. I believe that if low-income students were given better resources and opportunities to flourish, then the professional field would be changed for the better. I'm also grateful for the opportunity to take an economics class, which will help prepare me for such endeavors.

Here are three things I would love to see implemented at universities to help students like me succeed:

  1. Educate low-income students about grants, scholarships or other resources that could help them.
  2. Modify attendance rules so they don't discriminate against low-income students who work — possibly a system that accounts for how many hours a student works a week — and allow more "free" days.
  3. Provide students a way to get the notes from class on the days they have to skip class to go to work.

There's an erroneous belief that the younger generation is lazy and entitled, but I don't think that people understand the amount of pressure we're under. We are overworked and underpaid while trying to better our lives, or even just to make ends meet. I would love for universities and employers to recognize our hard work and meet us halfway so that we can achieve our dreams.

ADVICE FROM A FINANCIAL ADVISOR

Crystal chatted with Stacy Francis, a financial advisor who is the president and CEO of Francis Financial. She is also the founder of Savvy Ladies, an organization dedicated to providing financial education to women. Here is her advice for Crystal.

1. Consider moving back home for your last year to save money. Campus is 30 minutes away from Crystal's parents' house. It may be hard to move home once you've had a taste of financial freedom, but when you think of all the money you're pouring into rent, utilities and other expenses, you can save a lot.

2. Take public transportation. If you don't think you can move home, another option is to take public transit as much as possible to save on gas.

3. Ask for gift cards instead of presents. When it comes to birthdays or other holidays, ask family and friends who might buy you a gift to consider a gift card for groceries or other expenses instead.

4. Make a budget. This is not only good for tracking where your money goes, but Francis says there's an added psychological thing that happens when you're writing down your budget — people tend to spend less. It brings a consciousness to your spending. She recommends apps like Mint.com or Youneedabudget.com.

5. Look for any grants that you might qualify for. There are millions and millions of dollars in grants that go unclaimed every year. Some of them might be esoteric. It might require some research on your part, but it's free money. You want to leave college with as little debt as possible.

6. Choose your career wisely. Be smart about your education. Yes, choose a career you love but also make sure you are choosing a career that will keep you financially safe.

7. Do the math. Reach out to your student loan providers and see if they can help you figure out what your monthly payment on your student loans will be. That's going to give you the answer you need to prepare a budget and figure out what type of job you need to live in a financially safe position.

8. Consider refinancing your student loans. When you get out of school, you can refinance your student loans to get lower interest rates, thereby lowering the overall amount you owe. That's money back in your pocket. It will make your monthly payment more reasonable. There are some great resources out there, such as CommonBond and SoFi. But before you sign, always be sure to read the fine print to ensure there are no additional fees.

9. Go home for your internship. Consider a summer internship where you can live at your parents' house or with a relative or friend for free. Sure, a New York City internship sounds glamorous, but living expenses are high and you don't want to go into more debt from your internship. If you're in journalism, you might even consider doing freelance or blogging – something you can do from anywhere. Stacy suggests using a site like Upwork (formerly known as Elance) to land paying gigs. You'll get experience but won't break the bank!

10. Check your credit card interest rate. If you are carrying a balance on a credit card in college, find out what your rate is. Chances are, it's around 16% or higher. Francis suggests paying at least the minimum, although more would help to further build good credit. Then, call your local community bank and find out if they have any type of 0% offer for six months or more. Check on any additional fees. And, Francis says, it never hurts to ask your existing credit card provider. You can say, "Hey, I can't afford the rate you're charging me. I saw this offer from XX bank for a 0% APR. Can you possibly lower it?" It never hurts to ask.

11. Ask for a raise. Even if it's just your "college job," if you're a good employee doing a good job, it never hurts to ask! Francis recommends reading the book "Presence" by Amy Cuddy, a book about how to be your strongest self when facing a challenge. When Francis was asking for her first raise, she was nervous. But she wrote out a note card with why she deserved a raise. Then she followed this exercise: In the bathroom or some quiet space, stand as if you're going to do a jumping jack. Think positive. Have confidence and clarity. Francis says just getting in that head space helps you exude confidence. It helped her – she asked for a raise and got it.

The essays in CNBC's My College Dream series were originally published on the SABEW website as part of their College Connect series, sponsored by the National Endowment for Financial Education. They will publish on Mondays for the next four weeks on CNBC.

Next week: Think college is hard? This student tackled cancer before he even moved into his dorm room

Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.