Student Voice


May 27, 2024


Myth of poor college student disputed on, around campus

We have all heard it at some point "I'm just a poor college student." However, the myth of the poor student is disputable.

There seems to be conflict as to whether students actually fall below the poverty line.

A recent informal survey conducted at UW-River Falls in a classroom chosen for its diversity in ages, class ranks and lifestyles, revealed that 13 percent, of students are considered poor.

However, it turns out there is no definitive answer to the question of whether students at UWRF are poor because there are different perceptions of what poor actually is.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the measure of poverty has been defined differently over time.

In 1964, the poverty line was measured in terms of food consumption costs as outlined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The poverty line is now based on the Consumer Price Index, which is a measure of prices from a wide range of goods and services people use to live.

From the Consumer Price Index, the "poverty threshold" is developed, which provides an annual income dollar amount.

For one person in 2006, the average poverty threshold was $10,295, excluding students living in residence halls because the cost of living is lower.

If a person's annual income doesn't meet the poverty limit, they are considered poor.

According to information provided by Director of Financial Aid Sandra Oftedahl, the average annual income for undergraduates is approximately $7,000.

By the standards of the U.S. Census Bureau, these students would be considered below the poverty line, but the participants in the survey had their own definitions of what it is to be poor.

One student said he is poor because his parents don't provide him with money anymore.

Another student said they felt poor because they were "constantly scraping up money to do anything."

A third student said they defined poor as "having a hard time finding food to eat each day."

On the other hand, during an e-mail exchange, Oftedahl said she had a different reaction to the realities of a poor student.

"I do not think students are poor because they are taking out loans and many students are not poor because they have their own income or assistance from family members," she said. "In many cases, the loans are what enable the student to attend college at all."

Oftedahl said most students aren't poor, but loans are a part of becoming a responsible adult.

"The unfortunate truth is that college can be expensive in the United States, and both federal and state financial aid has not kept up with the costs," she said. "While in college, students can have financial difficulties and need to become financially literate, it's part of being an adult."

However, the benefits of a college degree will in the long-term offset any temporary "poverty" a student experiences while in school, Oftedahl said.

A major factor separating students from true poverty is student loans.

The majority of students involved in the survey said they take out student loans, and estimated their debt upon graduation to be anywhere between zero and $50,000.

The myth is also skewed because of the availability of loans that allows students to take out more than is needed for tuition

"Of the undergraduate students who graduated during 2005-06, those with loans had an average indebtedness of $19,139," Oftedahl said.

According to, a Web site designed to find information on colleges and universities around the world, the average cost of tuition is exceeding the rate of inflation, especially at four-year institutions.

So, it may not come as a surprise that loans are taken out by every university, including UWRF.

The rising cost of loans has also been recognized at a national level, as President Bush signed a bill in February increasing the amount of money students will be able to receive.

It will help students with loans and other such expenses because tuition is expected to remain on the rise.

The increase in loan availability will only allow some students to create more debt, but it does keep them from becoming poor.

UWRF economics professor Glenn Potts said he has mixed reactions about the myth.

"Certainly some students do struggle to pay for their college education," Potts said. "However, the return on the investment is very high for most students, so the sacrifices that individuals make or the debt that is accumulated is justified."

Potts also said in some cases, debt is necessary.

"Debt isn't bad," he said. "Debt that is used to acquire an education is, in most situations, an extremely good investment."

The River Falls public perception of students being poor is also ambiguous.

"... the kids I see are partying around me, frickin' livin' it up, are driving better cars than I can afford now, after 22 years in a trade," River Falls resident Chris Shammol said. "I don't think they're poor."

Resident John Johnson said he felt the same way.

"Today I feel that the parents of the college kids are giving them too much, buying too much for them that they're not doing nothing for themselves, not taking pride in themselves to make something of themselves," Johnson said. "Their extra money goes to Friday and Saturday nights at the bars."

On the other end of the spectrum, a few people said they felt students are generally poor.

Erin Bells, an employee at Grateful Bread on Main Street, said she thinks the majority of students are lacking in necessary funds, and she, too, didn't have much money when she went to college.

"Most college kids in general are poor," said Nichole Batine, a waitress at South Fork Café.

She said school didn't allow her much time to work and generate a substantial income.

The myth of the poor college students may be just that a myth.

Overall, the students, community and faculty have expressed both sides of the story that some students are poor and some are "livin' it up."