As Covid upends family finances, students rethink their dreams
CNBC’s “College Voices 2020” is a series written by CNBC interns from universities across the country about coming of age, graduating from college, and launching their careers during these extraordinary times. Michelle Gao is a senior at Harvard University, studying government and statistics. The series is edited by Cindy Perman.
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Some students have seen their parents fired, lose their jobs or close businesses – major events that have shaken their family finances. This has forced some to step in sooner than expected to help their families financially. And, it caused them to take a hard look at their dreams.
Is what they originally intended to do after graduation still worth it?
More than 50% of parents of college-aged students said an employee had lost their job or had their working hours reduced, and almost 8% had had a “catastrophic” experience where all sources of income had been lost, according to a recent College Savings survey. Foundation.
Two-thirds of college students said the crisis changed their view of their financial future, according to WalletHub’s 2020 College Student Financial Survey.
“This is an opportunity for young people to take a break,” said Vivian Tsai, president of the College Savings Foundation. College is “really about economics and the value of what you get and what you spend”.
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Despite the financial difficulties, some students are still determined to pursue their dreams and make things work.
Dylan Fox, a first-generation student and junior at Princeton University, isn’t giving up on his ambitions to become a filmmaker, though he’s aware he can’t rely on family income now more than ever.
Fox’s father was permanently laid off from his job at a paper mill in April and has just returned to school to train to become an air conditioner repairman. He is confident that he will eventually be able to provide stable work, but the program will take a year and a half. Meanwhile, Fox’s mother is back at work after being temporarily laid off from her job as a janitor for about two months, but the family are worried about her risk of contracting the coronavirus.
With limited income, “we buy less food, we make more defined choices,” Fox said. Satellite internet, around $200 per month, is also a major new expense. In the Foxes’ home county in Tennessee, broadband isn’t widely available. The cost is “eating on us a bit,” Fox said – but it’s necessary both for him and his dad attending school online, and for his movie-going pursuits on the side.
Fox found work as a freelance video editor and film intern for a voter turnout campaign. He said he would almost rather go to school away from home than be stuck in a dorm because he has more space to work. Despite the financial uncertainty of this career path – he has admitted that he does not want and cannot rely on his parents’ income after graduating soon – he is sticking to it. He’s also starting to consider graduate school for film and hopes lower rents in cities like New York will make the prospect more affordable.
“I don’t do Marvel movies here,” Fox acknowledged, “but I just want enough to take care of myself.” The way people have engaged with art throughout this year, while mostly confined to their homes, gives him hope about the demand for such work.
Caroline Ko, a first-generation and senior student at Harvard University, is still keen to work in education as she sees the effect of the pandemic on a country that is already economically stratified.
Ko’s parents, Cambodian immigrants, run a small, family-owned gas station along a stretch of the Mississippi highway dominated by franchise stations like ExxonMobil and BP. The revenue impact of Covid is just the latest blow to a business that has been in steady decline since the 2008 recession, and the Kos have been hit even harder because unlike many other local businesses, they have insisted that customers in their store wear masks.
The Kos only closed their gas station for a week during the summer, but quickly reopened due to the unsustainability of the lockdown. “Small family stores can only earn revenue from customers who buy small things every day,” Ko said.
Ko has not returned home, even after Harvard forced students without extenuating circumstances off campus last March. She successfully applied for on-campus housing because it would disrupt her education too much to work at the gas station if she returned to Mississippi. Instead, she helps her family by working several jobs on campus – although of her five jobs on campus in the last year, she only does two, because some, like a gig at a restaurant campus, are no longer options.
“The pandemic has heightened the sense of disparity between socioeconomic brackets,” said Ko, who is considering graduate scholarships for education and public education. She saw low-income, first-generation students worse off than her “being destroyed by it and unable to adapt. It propelled my desire to enter public service and the inequality of education” .
Princeton student Chris is paying his own tuition this year after his father lost his job as a pharmacist and his mother’s retail income plummeted, with fewer commissions.
Chris, who wants to become a software engineer, is also more aware of the financial opportunities offered by his chosen sector. During his upcoming winter and summer engineering internships, he will earn more money than his mother earns for the whole year. “Software engineers are overpaid,” he admitted. But when he got his winter internship acceptance, he called his mother and told her, half-jokingly, to quit his job.
“I’m finally starting to think about… ways to ease the financial burden on my parents,” Chris said. “I stopped thinking my money belonged to an independent owner.” He also plans to help support his family once he graduates, and his only concern is that his parents might be reluctant to accept.
Taking the economics of college into consideration is a good thing. As the pandemic continues to batter families and higher education institutions, students must “realize that this is an economic choice,” Tsai said.
While students are understandably even more wary of loans in this economy, they shouldn’t rule them out altogether. “Since we know how important education is,” Tsai said, “if the only way to get that education is to take out a loan, then the next decision has to be made: what do you spend that money on. silver ?”
Tsai speculated that interest in STEM fields could continue to rise as students flock to fields promising higher earnings. Assessing the value of education “could mean that someone preparing for their baccalaureate should think about the value of their skills from their baccalaureate program,” she added. “To what extent are these skills in demand?
Despite all the ways the pandemic has complicated higher education, college will always be a time of exploration. Ko, for example, is now considering subsidized master’s programs.
“I want to take some time to explore what exactly my skills and passion for public service are,” Ko said.
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