The stress fest of college


Textbook affordability and food insecurity are two burdens college students bear that are finally becoming hot enough topics to get some attention from major media outlets and Minnesota legislators.

The cost of textbooks is another gut punch for students who just ponied up thousands for tuition. And students can’t study well when they are hungry and don’t know where their next meal is coming from. But these are two of the more visible symptoms among the cavalcade of pressures students face.

These issues are nothing new.

As an undergrad (I’m a Gen Xer) I saved money on books by checking most of them out from the library and diligently renewing them. If there was a renewal limit, I just read in advance and hoped I remembered it later in the semester.

After noticing that 90 percent of textbook material was recycled from the older edition, my tactic became buying previous editions for pennies on the dollar.

Cheaping out on books sometimes cost me half a letter grade, but I’d say it was worth it. (I’m guessing that renting out my room for a month and then sleeping in the library by day and staying up all night hurt my grade more than the books).

I know food security too. I subsisted on potatoes and generic mac and cheese. A friend brought me extra helpings from his cafeteria. I found I could spend less money on food if I didn’t burn calories exercising.

The stress ball snowballs

The big squeeze really starts with tuition (which pretty much doubled during the term of a former governor who wants to be our next governor). The high tuition makes loans a necessity—working hard at a crummy job no longer cover costs.

Housing (and housing insecurity, if that’s a thing) is next on the list. At elite colleges and universities, housing is anything but affordable.

Finally, the competition for the right to work an unpaid internship is downright crazy. While this practice has been around for a long time, the unpaid internship has picked up since the recession of 2008.

The unpaid work to get a foot in the door and network has long been a staple of creative fields (can’t pay you but you’ll get great exposure!), journalism (can’t pay you but you’ll get great experience!), and government and nonprofits (can’t pay you, we’re on a strict budget!). Now even for-profit organizations are closing the gap with 34 percent of their internships now unpaid (versus 47 and 57 percent for government and nonprofits), according to Ross Perlin in his 2012 book “Intern Nation.”

To add insult to injury, after paying for the privilege of unpaid work, there is no guarantee a paid position will follow. Perlin reports that less than 40 percent of interns end up getting a job offer.

Where does this leave lower-middle-class students trying to improve their lots in life?

The best internships largely go to the best GPAs. Most likely the best students eat right, exercise, and buy the current edition of the textbook. And the poorer you are, the more you stress over loans.

Even if you are chosen for an internship, it’s not the same opportunity for everyone. Some college interns don’t need to work on the side and can live at home rent-free. They have the confidence it will all work out rather than stress over loans. They have a much greater chance of crushing it, impressing bosses and getting a job offer.

Add it up and that’s a career death by a thousand cuts.