The C is for Crank

The Myth of the Bootstraps Student

By Erica C. Barnett October 27, 2011

So, have you seen this photo, currently circulating on Facebook and elsewhere) of the supposed college student holding a sign that says she isn't part of the 99 percent?

Next time someone tells you, re the Occupy Wall Street movement, that they got where they are without government handouts (in this case, that austerity and pluck should be enough to get anyone through college debt-free), send them here, where a writer for Persephone Magazine calls B.S. on the bootstraps meme.

Instead of relying on personal anecdotes, the writer breaks down what it would actually cost to go to a "moderately priced, in-state public university" and live in a cheap but comfortable apartment, using Seattle and the University of Washington (she lives in Seattle) as her examples.

First, she assumes this hypothetical student never eats out, doesn't have a car, and is willing to live in Bremerton, Tacoma or Tumwater and commute by bus. Additionally, she assumes that most of her utilities are paid for, that she doesn't have cable TV or Internet access, that she has the cheapest possible cell phone bill (no texting!), that she only eats at home and packs her own lunch, that her health insurance is covered by her parents, that she lives at home during the summer, and that she "never goes to a movie, never buys a new shirt, never gets a haircut, never fills a prescription, and never has any sort of emergency expense."

Even with all those assumptions, "we’re looking at $81,056 for this student to go to college" at the UW. Her "just over minimum wage job"---and remember, Washington State has the highest minimum wage in the nation---will cover about $45,000 of that, assuming she works 52 weeks a year, 30 hours a week.

Fortunately, she has a "90 percent" scholarship. Good for her! Unfortunately, "Even under those fairy tale circumstances, this girl is barely scraping by on our basically mythologically good budget." And most people aren't going to get that kind of (government subsidized, by the way) student aid. The UW gave financial aid to just 2,700 of its students last year, an average of about $5,500 each. And given that the median GPA just to get in to the UW is between 3.6 and 3.9, it's pretty unlikely that a 3.8 GPA would qualify a student for a "full ride."

All that said, even in a magical world where Sally Student managed to get 90% of her tuition covered, are we suggesting that if you can’t get a nearly full-ride college scholarship, you shouldn’t go to college?! Grading curves mean that not everyone gets to be at the top of the class. If every college qualified student had to wait for a 90% scholarship, our colleges would be empty, and we’d sure be hurting for nurses, teachers, doctors, judges, CPAs, research scientists, military officers, and everybody else who has to go to college as a prerequisite for employment.

That someone would need to have a scholarship that pays for 90% of their tuition in order toresponsibly (because, remember, Sally thinks borrowing money for college is a “bad decision” that Wall Street shouldn’t be blamed for) go to college and be regarded as a bootstraps darling is an ABSURD break from reality.

Read the whole (long, but worth it) evisceration here. And then consider whether Gov. Chris Gregoire's proposal to cut $344 million from state universities and colleges---and offset that cut by raising tuition---is really a very smart idea.
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