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'College students are the ones really suffering here': Students discuss financial impact of the pandemic, budgeting

October 14, 2020
<p>Julian Stainback, a media and information and journalism major from Detroit, Michigan, pictured on October 8, 2020.</p>

Julian Stainback, a media and information and journalism major from Detroit, Michigan, pictured on October 8, 2020.

Seven months into a global pandemic, the beginning of a potential national recession and another online semester at Michigan State University, pre-nursing sophomore Shanel Baxter decided to quit her job. 

While the COVID-19 pandemic has taken an economic toll on many Americans, college students in particular have found it difficult to maintain employment and a steady income to pay for their tuition, rent and other expenses.

“I feel like a lot of employers right now aren't really respecting the fact that kids have school,” Baxter said. “And I think a lot of adults are equating online classes to having a completely free schedule. And that's not the case. So, I quit because I need to go somewhere that's going to respect that my academics come first.”

As a person of high health risk for contracting COVID-19 with an academic focus, Baxter found it difficult to continue at her job and opted to quit altogether, despite the need for income.

According to a population survey by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 12.5% of 20- to 24-year-olds were unemployed in September 2020, compared to last September’s 6.3% unemployment within the age group. The 18 to 19 age group had 15.4% unemployment rate.

“(This age group is) the highest unemployed, and that means that they will not be able to spend,” economics and international relations Professor Lisa Cook said. “That’s the beginning of the cycle. You want people to consume. … People who aren't necessarily saving for a house or for purchases, will probably spend more. So, students are always spending money.”

College students tend to spend more money than they're taking in, spending a higher fraction per dollar than older or higher-income people, Cook said. The decline of college student spending is a big loss for the economy.

Baxter has been trying to put away all the money she earns and is saving money by staying home with her parents for the semester, but she still has to worry about paying off her tuition herself.

“I think a lot of people are trying to work to pay for tuition, which is really stressful, because, you know, it's hard to pay for something so expensive when you don’t even make a living wage,” Baxter said. “A lot of people are saying, ‘Well, you should just take a semester off,’ like a lot of people don't understand some kids have scholarships, and you can't really afford to take time off because that's where I'm at right now.”

Recent MSU graduate Silvia Quintana-Diaz was in limbo this spring, unsure if she was going to be able to pay for her last class to finish her second degree.

As a non-traditional student, Quintana-Diaz’s aid package ended once she completed her first degree, so she was not receiving any financial aid when looking to complete her credits for her second major in the summer.

“I was just freaking out because, obviously, the pandemic, and I can't really ask my mom for money because I'm a first-generation as well, and she has five kids, so there's only so much she can do,” Quintana-Diaz said.  “And obviously, I couldn't take out a loan from the school because I technically met my requirement for my first degree, and I couldn't work because of the pandemic and so then I was just in a really difficult situation trying to figure out how to pay for my class.”

Through communication with her adviser, Quintana-Diaz reached out to MSU’s College Assistance Migrant Program, a program that assists migrant and seasonal farmworker students with academic, social and financial support for them to complete their first year of college.

She had been involved with the program her freshman year and was not expecting them to be of any help to her, but they were able to cover some of the cost of her final graduation requirements. 

For this reason, she advises students not to be afraid to research and to reach out to groups at the university for assistance. MSU increased its financial aid by 4%, according to the 2020-21 budget.

Pre-nursing sophomore Catie Henkelman was furloughed from her summer job before it even began, putting her in a difficult place financially as she began the fall semester.

“I think a lot of college kids really bank on their summer jobs to financially support them through the school year, and this summer obviously looked a lot different,” Henkelman said. “So, I did not have my summer job this year and that's affected me greatly. I had to ask for more from financial aid. I had to ask for more from my loan to even pay for tuition this year.”

Henkelman had to apply for additional financial aid, which required her to submit pay stubs and tax information to prove she needed it. She was able to receive a general grant from the university, but it only helped her pay a portion of this semester’s tuition.

In response to the pandemic, the university created new opportunities for students to receive some financial relief. 

MSU implemented the Support our Spartans Student Emergency Needs Fund for COVID-19, composed of internal and donor funds handled under the Office of the Associate Provost for Academic Services to further assist students.

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Additionally, MSU received $29.8 million in federal funds from the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund established by the recently enacted coronavirus relief bill, which was signed into law by President Donald Trump on March 27 as the third federal stimulus package in response to the pandemic.

Many college students were ineligible to receive the $1,200 stimulus check in April because they are claimed as dependents on their parents' tax return, to the disappointment of many students.

“While that wasn't a whole lot necessarily for everyone, college students are the ones really suffering here because we're still paying tuition,” Henkelman said. “We're still paying for rent when we weren't even living in apartments. Just because we're being claimed by our parents does not mean they're financially supporting us. So, I think that that's also extremely important because my parents are not paying for my college at all, I'm 100% supporting myself. And so the stimulus check could have paid a month's rent or paid for a month of groceries.”

According to MSU Financial Aid, the university received the coronavirus relief bill funds in two installments of approximately $15 million each, with the first being used to “provide emergency financial aid grants to students for their expenses related to the disruption of campus operations due to the novel coronavirus, such as food, housing, course materials, technology, health care, and childcare expenses.”

With another stimulus likely not coming until after the election, Cook believes people are going to continue holding back their spending.

“Everyone’s going to be holding back, you all probably will too,” Cook said. “With the unemployment for this month, you don't know if you'll be able to go back to work.”

In late September, MSU Residential and Hospitality Services, or RHS, furloughed over 700 student employees on short notice.

Journalism and media and information senior Julian Stainback worked as a front desk representative in South Neighborhood for two years before being furloughed.

He was unable to get out of his apartment lease in East Lansing when fall classes went online but had to continue paying off his rent at a location he no longer needed to live in because classes were online.

“I was kind of disappointed because my job helps take care of at least two-thirds of the rent, so it leaves me with me looking for a job outside of campus if they are even hiring,” Stainback said.

When he was furloughed, the university provided him with a list of off-campus employers.

“My personal struggles honestly, is where's the money gonna be coming from,” Stainback said. “Am I going to be finding a new job soon, or if I'm gonna get hired, when I’m gonna get hired and just worrying about whether or not I’m going to be evicted from my place because I can't keep up with the rent.”

The financial implications of the pandemic are going to continue affecting college students for potentially another year, and Cook said students should be prepared.

“Students should think about how they’re going to manage a (potential) recession that might go for another year,” Cook said. “In your lifetime you’ve already experienced two major financial and economic crises and it, frankly, is unacceptable. We should be doing a better job. Policymakers should be doing a better job. We have some work to do. We're aware, and adults are trying to figure it out.”

This article is part of our Oct. 13 print edition. View the full issue here.


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