Don’t EVEN Get Me Started, Mythical Bootstraps College Student

This photo’s been kicking around Facebook for the past few days. The first time I saw it, it miffed me. The second time, it aggravated me. Times three and four I was angry. And now that I’ve seen the photo posted, shared, and tagged a half a dozen times, I’m enraged; which is where this post comes from, a place of fully developed rage.

This flip little photo angers me because it’s a lie.

I’m sure those who posted it thought it was pithy and bold and really hit home the “truth” of an already much propagated agenda. But the thing that is so very offensive about this photo is that there’s nothing true about it.

Even before I set out to do my research, my educator and lawyer hackles were up; this crap doesn’t even pass the smell test. If you thought it did, you weren’t paying attention. If you didn’t think it passed muster but wanted to share it as propaganda anyway, shame on you.

Two big problems underlie this Facebook photo sharing campaign: 1) If people want to believe something is true, they often will, even when the belief is baseless, and even when faced with extensive evidence to the contrary (this is a crazy scary phenomenon; the University of Michigan did an interesting study on it). 2) We’re susceptible to self-serving bias, which means that we want to attribute our successes to internal or personal factors, even when external factors, like family support, economics, and privilege actually play a major role in those successes. In other words, most people tend to think of themselves as folks who’ve “pulled themselves up by their bootstraps” and obtained everything they have through grit and determination — when, in reality, very few people fit that narrow profile. Similarly, people who’ve succeeded expect more from others than they do from themselves. A person without resources and support is expected, by the bootstraps myth believer, to achieve the same amount of success through sheer hard work as the person who achieved those things through, sure some hard work (probably… or at least, hopefully), but also a lot of inherent advantage — like the parents they were born to, the neighborhood they grew up in, the schools they attended, good health, looks, etc.

Knowing this, and understanding that, unless you already recognize that this photo that’s been circulating is B.S., you’re not that likely to change your mind, even faced with compelling facts. I’m going to break down why it’s B.S. anyway. Because I like facts. And I know that, even if the facts are skewed in the light most favorable to the photo’s agenda, they still won’t support the photo’s premise.

So here goes.

I took the information contained in this photo and put it up against the numbers. I used the stats for Seattle, Washington, because that’s where I live, and it’s also where many of the people who I’m friends with on Facebook who posted this photo live. While specific results would vary city by city, state by state, Washington is a place with strong public universities and as a state, it seems unremarkable in enough ways to provide a decent sample.

This photo suggests that a plucky someone, through hard work and austere living, should be able to graduate from college debt-free; this photo further suggests that one’s ability to do so is entirely within one’s own control, and that somehow not being able to do that constitutes a “bad decision”; the photo also suggests that this hypothetical student believes she/he is not part of the 99%, which, by contrast means she/he thinks she/he is part of the 1% (the 1% referring to the top income earners in the U.S.). I’m not going to dispute that particular 1% point, since it’s already self-disputed within the photo as the subject self-describes her/himself as a near minimum wage earner, automatically placing her/him in the bottom 99% of wage earners in the U.S. In other words, that part of the photo is especially ridiculous, too ridiculous to refute.

The rest, however, I’m happy to refute — with facts and stuff.

According the University of Washington (UW is a public university located in Seattle, WA), in-state tuition for the 2011-2012 academic year is $10,574. Over a four-year period, presuming our photo subject, a hypothetical student who refers to her/himself…wait…

Can we hit pause for a moment?

Calling the subject of the photo “she/he,” “photo subject,” “hypothetical student,” etc., is going to get tiresome. So for the purposes of this post I’m going to refer to the hypothetical student in the photo as a woman because women make up slightly more than half (51.7%) of the undergraduate student body at UW (and besides, that looks like a girl’s handwriting in the photo), and I’m going to call this female student Sally.

OK, un-pause.

So, presuming Sally completes college in four years, that tuition total comes to $42,296, at this particular “moderately priced, in-state public university.”

For a moment let’s put aside Sally’s scholarships, which apparently pay for 90% of her tuition (wowzer!), and move on to Sally’s living expenses.

Sally mentions her cheap but comfortable apartment. So I did a little apartment research of my own. I used Craigslist to look for apartments because I’m told that’s what the kids do. I don’t expect my Craigslist findings to be the gospel truth, I just want to explore plausibility.

The cheapest apartments I found in Seattle (well, Seattle-ish, I didn’t find anything near these prices in the University District, or even anywhere in Seattle proper) are as follows:

  • $480 to share a two bedroom with “Paul” (I’ll not include his picture, though he did include an interesting photo in his ad) in Federal Way (an arguably not-that-safe town located 22 miles south of Seattle).
  • $500 for a studio apartment in Bremerton. (Bremerton is an hour ferry ride from downtown Seattle.)
  • $350 for a roommate share in Tacoma (a city 34 miles south of Seattle).
  • $500 for another roommate share in Tacoma.
  • $465 to rent a mobile home in Tumwater (64 miles south of Seattle).


Let’s, for the sake of argument, pretend one of these housing arrangements is something a reasonable 18-year-old college freshman would be comfortable with (which is arguably kind of a stretch), the average rent of these five is $459. I’d like to go on record as saying, I don’t think this is realistic rent for a UW college student, and I can tell you that I one summer rented a room (one ROOM) in a shared house near UW’s campus and my rent was $400 a month… eleven years ago. But $500-600 with enough roommates might be doable in 2011, so I’ll take $459 and call it close enough. That’s $4131 for the year, assuming Sally can move home with parents in the summer, and $16,524 over four years, assuming no rent increases (because we know landlords never hike the rent up on their captive audience college student tenants).

Let’s estimate another $50 a month for utilities (again, I don’t know that this is a terribly realistic estimate for Seattle, it’s on the low side, but we’re playing a game here, and I basically grabbed this figure by taking my own Seattle Public Utilities bill and dividing it by a square foot estimate, and in case you’re wondering, I never set the heat in my house above 68, you can ask Gary Blonde). This $50 bill assumes that Sally’s water, sewer, and garbage are included in her rent so that she only has to pay for gas and electricity. That’ll be $450 for the year, $1800 for four years.

For the sake of argument, let’s say Sally doesn’t have cable TV and only uses Internet at school, so she doesn’t pay for home cable or Internet. $0 there.

I think Sally ought to have at least a basic cell phone plan for emergencies, so, choosing Verizon Wireless’s cheapest plan, which is $39.99, let’s say this student has a monthly cell phone bill of $45 (I used to have this plan, so I can represent that this total includes taxes, but excludes text messages, because we’re going to pretend that Sally, the rockstar student, doesn’t text), and this will be in lieu of a home phone. So $540 for the year, $2160 over four years.

Sally says she doesn’t have a “new car” but let’s say she doesn’t have a car at all, since we know how expensive gas and insurance can be; instead, let’s say Sally opts for the cheaper option of taking the bus to school. At the University of Washington you can get a U-Pass, it costs $76 a quarter. That’ll be $228 for the year, $912 for four years.

Food will run our college student, assuming she only eats at home and packs her own lunch, let’s say $200 a month (I used to come up with this number, the range they provided for a single person was $200-400 a month, I took the low). So that’s $1800 a year (again, this assumes that Sally has parents she can go sponge off of during the summer), $7200 for four years.

Books and supplies, based on UW’s website stats from 2010-2011, will run $1,035 for the year (oh, and you’ll likely notice that the UW financial aid office thinks Sally’s room and board will cost more than twice what we’ve estimated here), and $4140 over four years.

Hopefully Sally’s parents have health insurance that will cover her, but if they don’t, student health insurance will run $502 a quarter. That’s $1506 for the year, $6024 for four years.

All of this means that, even if Sally 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, we’re looking at $81,056 for this student to go to college (at a “moderately priced, in-state public university”), $75,032 if Mom and Dad pay for health insurance.

You might be thinking, yeah, but Sally works a ton of hours! So I’m sure she can make it work!

Minimum wage in Washington State is $8.67 an hour, the highest in the country, so this will be a generous estimate for Sally. At thirty hours of work a week, which is what Sally claims she’s able to do while maintaining her course load, that’s $260.10 per week, I’d estimate $220.63 take home, you can adjust if you think this isn’t fair, but based on my personal experience as a wage earner, I feel comfortable representing that it is fair. There are 52 weeks in a year, and I’ll assume Sally works in the summer as well as during the school year. At 30 hours a week (I wasn’t able to find stats at UW about whether or not this amount of work is advisable, but I did find some info at the University of Northern Iowa that lists 30 hours of work per week as the maximum a student can work and 10-15 as the average among students who have jobs), that’s $11,472 for the year, $45,891 over four years.

Just over HALF what Sally would need to cover the bare bones costs set out above. And this is, again, at a “moderately priced, in-state public university.”

Sally said she’d been saving for college since she was 17, but frankly, I don’t know how much money she would have managed to sock away in a year of babysitting, working part-time, and collecting birthday money, so I’m not going to factor in that one year of college savings that Sally references.

Instead we’ll turn to Sally’s scholarships.

Our dear hypothetical Sally Student says she’s gotten 90% of her tuition paid by scholarships, LUCKY GIRL! Even under those fairy tale circumstances, this girl is barely scraping by on our basically mythologically good budget.

But let’s talk about how realistic Sally’s scholarship scenario is. UW financial aid says they gave scholarships to 2700 students last year. I don’t know if that includes just undergrads (of which UW has over 27,000) or undergrads and grads alike (as an educator and a former law student I can let you in on a little secret: the good scholarship money is reserved for really super smart grad students). Let’s just cut this in Sally’s favor and say that that’s just for undergrads. That means UW gave some scholarship money to about 10% of their students. How much money? Well, they said they gave $15 million to that group. If we just do an average, that’s $5,555 per student, about half of a year’s worth of tuition expenses. But it’s doubtful that the distribution was even across the board. Most universities, including the one I now work at, give academic scholarship money in steps — such as president’s level, dean’s level, etc., and they also generally reserve some scholarship money for need-based and diversity scholarships. At some universities, including UW, there are athletic scholarships as well. I don’t know if Sally qualifies for a diversity or athletic scholarship or not. In terms of academic scholarships, a dean’s scholarship generally covers somewhere in the neighborhood of 10-20% of a student’s tuition. President’s– perhaps half or more. A slight few at UW might receive “full rides,” but based on Sally’s GPA as a senior of 3.8, which would qualify her for neither summa cum laude nor magna cum laude honors at the UW, I have doubts that she’d be at president’s scholarship or full-ride level. There are private scholarships available, but I’m not sure if people are fully grasping just how little grant and scholarship (especially in non-loan form) money is being given away today. And local community level scholarships are often helpful, but small, awards of $500-1500.

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 to responsibly (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.

Sally, our hypothetical college student, is touting herself as a hard-working superstar. Well, let’s look at another kid, a real life kid who had good credentials going into college.

Your very own Buster Blonde was in the National Honor Society, had top 10% grades, was co-captain of two cheerleading squads, co-captain of a state award-winning mock trial team, captained a Management and Economic Simulation Exercise (MESE) team, was a four year letter winner, student body inter-high representative, earned third place in the state Future Problem Solvers of America competition, won a Senior Project Award, was in one musical and one play, was a 400m record holding track athlete, took AP classes and advanced mathematics, was in the honors program, was nominated class speaker, was a member of the L-Club, the yearbook staff, and who knows what other Julie Joiner stuff I’ve since forgotten (I have no links to verify this info, but you can email me for my mother’s phone number). I volunteered both in school and outside of it working as an art teacher for kids and doing highway cleanup, I took piano lessons and performed in recitals all through high school and I had an over 90th percentile SAT score, which means, to state the obvious, that I did better on the SATs than more than 90% of all the college-bound kids who took it in my year. I’m not saying this to be held up as some kind of kid awesome (because I was actually kind of a turd), I’m saying this to point out that I did plenty to be a good college applicant. You might even advise your kid that what I did, staying up well past midnight doing my homework because of my extracurriculars, was more than enough, and that kids should relax a little more than that. In any case, I don’t know how Sally Student would stack up against Buster Blonde, but I certainly did not get a 90% reduction of my tuition, I believe my total scholarship money for undergrad was somewhere in the neighborhood of $1200. For which I was very grateful, believe me! It was made possible by community organizations like the Rotary, which made me feel supported and invested in by my community. But had I not had parents to rely on in funding my education, it wouldn’t have made it possible for me to go to college without lots and lots of loans.

According to UW, the middle GPA for incoming freshmen is 3.61-3.92.  That’s what it takes just to get in to this “moderately priced in-state public university.” So, being a good, or even a great, student at your high school isn’t exactly going to result in a cavalcade of scholarships at your local public uni. It might not even get you admitted.

For those of you who are now somewhat convinced that “moderately priced in-state public universities” are a) not so moderately priced; and b) potentially inaccessible to a large number of college qualified students, you might be thinking, well, the students who can’t get into or afford a “moderately priced in-state public university” should go to community college first!

And before you go down that road, I’ll ask you to review the data on how many people actually complete community college and successfully transfer into four-year universities. Environment matters. And community colleges, while valuable and appropriate for some, are ineffective for others. Data varies from state to state, and I’m not aware of a comprehensive study in Washington (the state I’ve used for my other data here) on community college attrition, but Divided We Fail: Improving Completion and Closing Racial Gaps in California’s Community Colleges–Key Findings provides a great overview of the state of community college success (or lack of it) in California, and it would give you a place to start should you choose to research the reality of community colleges further.

The two pieces of Divided We Fail that strike me as most significant are that: A) the study found that six years after enrolling, 70% of community college degree seeking students hadn’t completed a certificate or degree and had not transferred to a university (most had dropped out, 15% of the non-completers were still enrolled); and B) only 23% of degree seekers transferred to a university. Is 23% that what you want for your kids? Or is that just what you want for other people’s kids?

Beyond the undergraduate funding problem, a perhaps even bigger graduate school funding problem lurks.

In law school, where I did get more substantial scholarship money, the stakes (and costs) are even higher, making it very frequently the playground of the privileged, of which I must include myself, since my parents burdened significant costs and invested in my future, something not everyone’s parents are able to do. Friends who didn’t have a family network took on significant debt, and what no one wants to tell you is that with less and less subsidized federal funding available, that money  is loaned by private lenders with high interests rates and, in some cases, unscrupulous lending practices. So if borrowing money from private entities for graduate school sounds like a bum idea and you don’t want recent college grads making that “bad choice,” just know that, if you expect someone to “work his or her way through law school,” it will involve him or her managing to pay in-state tuition at UW of over $26,000 a year, $39,210 at Seattle University School of Law and $33,960 at Gonzaga Law School on the east side of the state. Lewis & Clark in our neighbor to the south, Oregon, will run $36,362, and $26,146 is in-state tuition at University of Oregon School of Law, $32,590 for out-of-state. By the way, in 2001, out-of-state tuition at University of Oregon School of Law was $18,000 a year; tuition has nearly DOUBLED in the last decade. Good luck doing that without loans and/or parents and/or lotto winnings.

So what are the takeaways I hope you’ll get from this angrily, but earnestly written piece?

  • If you went to college ten years ago, don’t pretend like you know what students face today.
  • If your parents paid for some or all of your tuition don’t you EVER post condescending and ill-informed posts about how a college student just needs to drive an old car and rent a cheap apartment plus work hard at a minimum wage job to fund a college education. Students of today aren’t playing on the same field you played on, their terrain is much, much tougher.
  • Whether Sally, who tells us that she’s not part of the 99, wants to be or not, she IS. Because, at minimum wage, she’s in the bottom percent of income earners. And however much she might want to protect or aspire to the top 1% of earners in this country; probability says she’ll never be part of the 1%. (Know where I learned about probabilities? In college.)
  • That moronically glib lines like “whether or not you’re part of the 99% is your decision” are complete horse manure (and, as an aside, I highly doubt a college student with a 3.8 GPA would make such a stupid claim, so let’s just say I doubt this photo’s veracity a touch too).

Here are just a few things that are not your decision and are not within your exclusive or even direct control:

  1. How successful your parents are
  2. How good your teachers are
  3. Whether you will get a scholarship (though it is your decision to apply, so take on that onus)
  4. Whether you’ll get into the college of your choosing (admissions criteria is tougher than ever)
  5. How much rent will cost in the city in which you live
  6. How much the minimum wage will be in the state in which you live
  7. What kind of access you’ll have to low-interest loans
  8. Whether or not you’ll be able to get into the major of your choosing
  9. Whether you’ll have the aptitude to maintain a 3.8 while working 30 hours per week
  10. Whether you’ll be able to get into grad school (I mean, if you want to be a 1 percenter you should go, most of them went)
  11. Whether you’ll be able to afford grad school (most 1 percenters had their parents pay for theirs, ask Donald Trump about how much student loan money he borrowed — “money trickles down” — down to rich people’s heirs)
  12. Whether you’ll be able to get a high paying job after grad school
  13. Whether you’ll be able to get any job after grad school

Finally, the main takeaway:

This stupid little Facebook photo is not only ill-informed, it’s harmful. Nothing on it has anything to do with reality. It has everything to do with a false rhetoric that’s being promoted by people who either don’t know about the realities of higher education in this country, or don’t care.

You might think it’s cute and pithy and fits some Horatio Alger ideal, but guess what, that ideal is as fake as Ragged Dick (my favorite Horatio Alger character). This bootstraps college kid is a figment of your fudging imagination.

And, by the way, it offends me TO THE CORE that most of the people I’ve seen post this sign on Facebook were put through college, at least in part, by their parents.

I’m not begrudging you parents who can afford and are willing to send you to college, I was put through college by my parents, but I have the good sense to realize how fortunate that makes me! And before I go running off at the mouth about how irresponsible college kids are today and about how it’s their fault they’re in debt, before I go ranting about some chip about other people taking what’s supposedly mine, I take a good hard look at how I got where I got. There but for the grace of God…

I have been able to be successful, in large part, because my parents were successful. I did something with what I was given, but I was given a huge amount, and to have squandered it would have been criminal. Having done what was expected of me shouldn’t warrant a pat on the back, it was, whether I want to admit it or not, the bare minimum. And to expect someone who wasn’t given a fraction of what I was given to do the same without help is wrong, and it’s senseless.

If you’re a middle class kid, or an upper middle class kid, or a rich kid, you have no right to claim that you got where you got simply because of hard work. You got where you are, at least in part, because of what others did for you, and if you hadn’t been born into a family of people who wanted to and were able to do those things for you, you would have needed someone else to do it.

The takeaway here is really a request, I’m asking you to put agenda aside and be honest. And if you still think a Facebook photo like this one is worth posting, you’re not being honest, with yourself or with anyone else.

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