The $20 Principle

I have written before about how $20 can change a student’s life.

The $20 is slightly euphemistic but not entirely so.

We talk a lot about big money in higher education but I know for a fact that it’s small money that can derail one’s educational ambitions.

I was a student in a doctoral preparation program. I was an older “non-traditional” student. I was independent. I didn’t have children but neither was I still someone’s child. To take advantage of this highly competitive program, I had to submit a $100 reservation fee.

I didn’t have it.

I was $24 short.

A dean at my dear ol’ HBCU lent me the $25 dollars and the mostly black faculty at that program (UNC’s MURAP) allowed me two extra days to submit it.

I borrowed $30 ($25 from Dean Bryant, $5 from a friend) and spent $6 on the gas it took to drive the $100 money order to Chapel Hill from Durham, NC.

In my day, I have seen young women choose to drop a class because her boyfriend needs to use her car. The boyfriends almost always suck but they also give her $20 when she needs it most. This kind of resource navigation can lead to dysfunctional relationships but it can also be an important safety net for vulnerable women. If you delay your academic progress to keep the quasi-bad boyfriend because he might one day be the only one willing to give you $20 when you need it most, you’re making a very rational educational choice.

This becomes especially salient in for-profit higher education where the typical student is a woman, the likely student is a minority women, and where the bureaucratic process of enrolling minimizes the small dollar amounts. For-profit colleges don’t have deposits or reservations fees like community colleges or not-for-profit four-year colleges, for example. They may cost more in the long run, but it’s the immediate $20 that’s the most valuable when you are economically vulnerable.

I talk about a lot of this in my forthcoming Lower Ed where I also liberally cite Sara Goldrick-Rab’s research on economic precarity, financial aid, and higher education access.

Sara is taking the moment of her much-anticipated book, Paying the Price to launch a non-profit, The Fast Fund. Fast Fund understands the power of $20 to save a students’ higher education dream.

Sara says:

Each year, the Board of Directors of Believe in Students will select up to five faculty at high schools and colleges around the nation who work with students like those in “Paying the Price.” They will receive grants from this fund to distribute to students as they see fit. No applications, no paperwork. Just cash, delivered when and where it’s needed.

Sara is a sociologist. She knows Fast Fund isn’t a structural solution but neither was that $25 I borrowed from the Dean almost ten years ago now.

Fast Fund is a model for disseminating research that impacts the lives so many of us study in the course of work.

I am joining Fast Fund’s board and look forward to seeing this seedling grow. I especially hope minority serving institutions will accept Fast Fund’s invitation to apply.

You can, of course, talk about it or you can be about it.Cheers to Fast Fund for being about it.

11 thoughts on “The $20 Principle

  1. “If you delay your academic progress to keep the quasi-bad boyfriend because he might one day be the only one willing to give you $20 when you need it most, you’re making a very rational educational choice.”

    Thank you so much for saying this. I grew up poor and have been mostly estranged from my family since I left home, and it took me 8 years to finally finish college in fits and starts. I had to make decisions like that several times along the way, and I never consciously realized how guilty and foolish I still felt about those choices until I read that sentence.

    After internalizing so much self-blame for my situation (a thousand comfortable middle-class voices in my head saying “well why didn’t you just…” , or “if only you’d just prioritized your education…”), it means the world to see somebody acknowledge my choices as rational in that moment. It’s a small thing, but thank you from the bottom of my heart for acknowledging and validating this tough choice that people are sometimes forced to make.

  2. What a great post. I sent it to my chair, dean and devlopment officer at the UM-Flint because I’ve noticed this in our Detroit-Mac program, where many teachers in training can be at a loss for book money. This is esp. true in the spring term when a “full load” can’t exist due to the reduced compressed semester of only 7 weeks and lesser credit loads that don’t allow eligibility for student aid (not full time students with full 16 credit load available).
    Three years ago we began a Teacher Emergency Fund for an easy-access thousand dollars for those in such circumstances. It’s a small fund and only six students have benefited to-date, but it is something, and addressed those smaller amounts that can de-track a student from completing—in our case from becoming a sorely needed teacher. And who more skilled and experienced with handling poverty than those folks who have traversed some of the roadblocks themselves. Thanks for this post. Small amounts do make differences in life’s trajectory.

  3. Lord knows every year I depended on the $25 check I’d get from my grandma and parents for my birthday. Thank you for making us aware of this new venture!

  4. UC Davis had a zero interest loan fund for incoming grad student workers who arrived too strapped to make rent deposits or to the first check. I was one of those. Without that fund I might not have made it through.

    1. Vanessa, Emory’s grad school had something similar. And, like you, I absolutely would not have had the smooth transition to grad school and completion without it.

  5. Thanks for this–I had a student in one of my developmental writing classes who realized on day 2 that she was misplaced, but she did not have the $10 to retake the placement exam (we get charged by the testing company per student–they get one free).I gave her the $10, she took the exam, and tested into regular composition. It was my first real exposure to the kind of thinking that might keep a poor–financially poor–student in a class that is wrong for him or her solely because they lack a very small amount of money. Our community college foundation has set up a small loan/grant program for just that need. I found out I was one of its first contributors. Thank you for helping me make more sense of the students who need that kind of tiny assistance.

  6. Thank you for clearly explaining what, from the outside, seems like self defeating behavior is often practical. I am dismayed at how little people seem to know about the lives of others… it tiresome to have to constantly fit into their reality while balancing ones own.

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Lower Ed: A Series

Twelve years ago I was working in a for-profit college. Seven years ago I was ashamed of having worked in a for-profit college because I was suddenly surrounded by real academics. Five years ago I started a dissertation that became, “Becoming Real Colleges in the Financialized Era of U.S. Higher Education: The Expansion and LegitimationRead More “Lower Ed: A Series”