Why the “Broke College Kid” Aesthetic is Problematic

|| Photo borrowed from Wikimedia Commons

|| Photo borrowed from Wikimedia Commons

The opinions reflected in this OpEd are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of staff, faculty and students of The King's College


I come from a low-income family. My parents had me when they were very young and thus, were unable to go to college due to limited time and lack of financial resources. My mom worked as a waitress, while my dad was a cook at a local restaurant. Money was tight.

That’s where I come from.

Statistically, low-income students have always enrolled in college less than high-income students, even though enrollment among low-income students has increased over the past several decades.

In 2012, the Pew Research Center reported that 81 percent of students from high-income families (those in the top 20 percent) go to college. Meanwhile, only 51 percent of low-income students (those in the bottom 20 percent) go to college. This disparity creates an environment where many high-income students fail to realize that low-income students struggle to make ends meet.

|| Graph taken from Pew Research Center

|| Graph taken from Pew Research Center

Coming to college, I was ill-prepared to witness so many of my classmates take on this “broke college kid” persona despite being relatively financially stable. It hurts to see this while knowing they do not struggle on nearly the same financial level that I, among others, do.

It is common for college students to refer to themselves as “broke college kids,” a label that grants them the long-sought-after post-teenagehood claim to independence--being out there on your own in the world, “adulting.”

But chances are, these students have some sort of safety net to fall back on. This has nothing to do with those students’ work ethic or ability to keep a job. Students can work hard and have jobs regardless of their socioeconomic status.

However, a safety net is a kind of privilege. This is the ability to, if necessary, ask for a loan from relatives, or move back home if college doesn’t work out. These students may not rely heavily on this safety net or may be hesitant about using it, but having it makes all the difference in the way we live our lives.

It’s disturbing to see students take on this “broke college kid” persona as a way to joke about “only” being able to afford ramen and dollar-pizza. There are students from low-income families who grew up with limited access to fresh and healthy foods.  Not everyone can afford to shop at Whole Foods and eat Sweet Green. Feigning poverty is insensitive and minimizes the struggles of other students. Some of us struggle to afford basic necessities day to day.

“Labeling yourself as ‘broke’ when you’re not can be an obstacle to having real empathy with students who are working their butts off just to stay in school,” said Haley Davidson, a junior at King’s.

“Broke college kids” who are not really broke have the privilege of voluntarily choosing to eat dollar-pizza--something low-income students often have no choice but to do--for a few days in order to save money and be able to afford luxuries like concerts, nice clothing, or traveling.

Wealthier students or students from financially-supportive families must recognize that when they joke this way, they are being dismissive of and insensitive to those with serious financial struggles. Coming from a family with little money, being broke is not a costume I can take on and off. Every decision comes from a needs-based budget.


"Some of us struggle to afford basic necessities day to day."

-Morgan Chittum


Of course, regardless of socioeconomic background, all students may struggle with difficult choices when it comes to financial planning, especially living in as expensive a city as New York.

"I think it’s possible to have financial struggles even when you are supported with some money from parents,” Davidson said. “You still have to budget and make tough choices sometimes. But...there’s a big difference when you are completely financially independent and when everyone’s always talking about being broke, it can minimize that unique struggle.”

Professors, please try to understand that students without a financial safety net are forced to work in their spare moments so that they can afford basic necessities like food, and thus may be late getting in assignments or may doze off in class. This doesn’t mean we are scatterbrained, lazy, or irresponsible. On the contrary, we take on a hefty workload because we have to.

“There are unspoken pressures to be an exceptional student in our rigorous curriculum while being very comfortable financially and fitting in with the wealthier students around you,” said King’s senior Holly Thomas. “When you can't rely on your family for expenses , there’s also pressure to impress them by not needing to ask them for money and assuring them that you’re doing well when really you’re eating dollar pizza for most meals and working 30+ hours a week so you can pay rent. There’s only so much you can do to live up to your peers and your parents without putting serious strain on your mental, academic, and physical well-being, which is something not everybody realizes.”

This is not an attack. This is a call to action--to those “broke college kids” to step out of the pseudo-shadows and take off their masks. It’s time to stop sensationalizing this poor student aesthetic that fails to acknowledge the struggles of actual low-income students.