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Broke vs. “Broke” vs. Broken

by Kellie C. Kelly

Kellie C. Kelly

In Broke vs. ‘Broke’, Class Action trainer Nicole Brown explains one of the many ways class identity affects the college experience, especially in graduate school.

Everyone I have ever known in graduate school has made significant sacrifices of time and treasure to complete their degrees. In order to discuss our “sacrifices of treasure” though, I believe it is helpful and important to examine what we are actually talking about when we say that we are sacrificing treasure — how do we define “treasure.”

What Are You Sacrificing?

Am I sacrificing potential earnings while I am in school? Am I giving up luxuries like vacations, movies, going out to dinner, entertainment, impulse buys? Am I giving up necessities, like utilities, food, and healthcare? Am I giving up saving for emergencies? Am I am giving up saving for my retirement? Am I using my emergency savings? Am I using my retirement savings? Am I taking out personal debt (credit card or home equity)? Am I taking out student loans? Am I required to work in a paid position outside of school? Am I required to work part-time? Am I required to work full-time? Am I required to sacrifice my children’s financial well-being?

Does any family member have the resources to assist me if I am unable to take out loans, live on the amount of loan money allowed by my institution, and/or work in a paid position while completing my degree? Does any family member have the financial resources to help me during a short-term gap? Are the social services in my state able to make up for the financial gap between my living expenses and my resources? Am I spending a substantial portion of my study time trying to avoid eviction, car repossession, and/or returned checks?

Yes, all of these questions are examples of sacrifice and the answers vary drastically based on class identity.

Temporary Financial Difficulties Are Not  the Same as Poverty

In addition, I believe that it is also important to reflect on the difference between qualifying for public assistance when we are in graduate school (and have additional resources from our student loans) and depending on public assistance as our only resource.

In my situation, I am a first-generation college graduate and a third-generation single mother. My mother and grandmother both supported their children by waitressing 70-90 hours per week. My mother worked herself to the bone so that my sister and I could become “middle-class” when we became adults. It has been a long and slippery path for both of us. Once I became a single mother myself, it seemed impossible to stay on the road to the mythical promised land of “middle-class.” I had no financial resources myself and neither did any of my family members. However, with the help of student loans and persistence on my part, I have been able to fight to stay on this road and attend seminary. My situation would be completely different if I had never been able to get to this road in the first place.

My financial challenges and difficulties are not the same as a person who has no financial resources (personal or family) AND no access to education. Although my tax return shows the same annual income as an individual who qualifies for Medicaid, food stamps, and public housing, my tax return does not show my student loan disbursements. I have somewhere to live even though the county that I live in no longer accepts new applicants for public housing. I have somewhere to live because I am not only living on my taxable income. Sure, I am going into debt to pay for my living expenses while I complete my graduate degree. Heck yes, I am experiencing more economic hardship than many graduate students. Heck NO, I am not experiencing the same sacrifice, poverty, and lack of options that an individual without any other resources is experiencing. My financial difficulties are simply not the same as poverty.

The higher education system is broke(n) because the American class system is broke(n). Broke vs. “broke” vs. broken.

Let’s move from broken to transformative. Will you join me?


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