As the fall semester at the University of Georgia starts, most students enter their classrooms with a smile and a summer glow.
Others, like third year student Cece Chisholm, dread the first week of class as they wait for the list of required materials they can’t afford.
“It’s crazy to walk into school the first day of class and already have all this stress because you know you won’t be able to afford this book,” Chisholm said.
Despite their struggles, a community of low income students found relief in one another after publishing a guide to surviving life in Athens.
Senior Kat Barker created the guide, titled “Not Being Rich at UGA,” saying she felt a lack of support from the university.
The guide, a collaborative document in Google Docs, focuses on links and tips to money saving options or programs for students. The document includes lower rental options both on and off campus, tips on transportation and advice on how to maintain a healthy social life.
“Low income students have power and options,” Barker said.
Barker, who identifies as a low income student, personally uses the guide to save money. With the help of tips from the guide, she spent no money on textbooks this semester.
The guide offers a list of tips on a range of subjects. If a student is worried about how to afford a semester abroad, there’s a link in the guide to help. Clinics are listed that can assist underinsured students. It also provides a section on how to best preserve meals for a longer lasting food supply.
Aside from cash-saving tips, the purpose of the guide is to alleviate stress and anxiety that come with financial struggles.
Chisholm recalls a time when her financial struggles led her to consider giving up her dream of becoming a UGA student. Barker says at times it is difficult to balance the stress of personal finance and classwork.
“It’s hard to focus on your midterm when you don’t know how you’re gonna pay for your rent,” Chisholm said.
However, Chisholm says the guide helped her realize she wasn’t alone in her struggles.
According to a 2017 analysis by The New York Times, the median family income of a UGA student is $129,800. This ranks fifth out of 27 highly selective public colleges in the country. Georgia Tech comes in slightly higher at the fourth spot — $130,000 — while the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor tops the rankings.
Just 3.8% of UGA students came from the bottom 20% of households by family income. The study also dives into UGA’s overall mobility index, which evaluates the possibility of a UGA student rising up two or more income quintiles. UGA’s index was 10%.
The majority of students come from wealthy households — 59% of students from the top 20% of families by household income. At 5.1%, UGA has the third highest percentage of students whose families come from the top 1% when compared to the 26 other colleges. 59% of students come from the top 20%.
The study is based on millions of anonymous tax filings and tuitions records, according to The New York Times website. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates the median household income of Clarke County at approximately $34,500 well below the approximately $53,000 for Georgia.
Michael Gene Thomas, lecturer for UGA’s College of Family and Consumer Sciences, is happy to see low income students working together to wisely spend and collect resources. Thomas believes in changing the narrative for students with financial need.
“It’s important to know this is temporary and you’re becoming something great by choosing to pursue a degree.”
Thomas studied at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Georgia and has struggled with financial hardship and the stress it generates. His personal experience with financial hardships helps him better understand students, he said.
Thomas is teaching all sections of Intro to Personal Finance this semester, where he highlights the mental burdens low income students are faced with. Thomas touches on the stigma of being a low income student as well as their internal struggles, saying these students are forced to balance the priority of either paying rent or going to a study session. Some have to balance being a student and the main income maker.
“Where you are is not a reflection of who you are,” Thomas said.
While education is important, Thomas believes it’s the sense of support that students primarily need. He applauds the student-made guide for providing that.
“Throwing resources at students isn’t enough, we need to sow into their spirit as well,” Thomas said.