One Day, Two Students: What College Looks Like From Opposite Ends of the Income Gap

"A college degree has long been touted as society's great leveler, essential for entry into the middle class. Nearly 20 million students enrolled in an undergraduate program in 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Movies and television tend to portray an idealized college experience, featuring 18- to 21-year-olds who attend four-year institutions and live on campus," The Washington Post reports. "But in reality the college experience is far more varied. Only 15 percent of the undergraduate population fit the traditional profile in 2015, compared with 35 percent in 1986. A college student today is more likely to be female, to attend a four-year public college full time, to live off campus and to graduate with student loan debt. About 43 percent of full-time undergraduate students also work at least part time."

"To try to capture a more representative snapshot of what college looks like today, we dispatched two reporters to shadow two undergrads — Sheila Suarez, 23, a commuter at the University of Maryland Baltimore County who grew up in Gaithersburg, and Lars E. Schonander, 19, a sophomore at George Washington University who grew up in Larchmont, N.Y. — on the same day in April.

6:55 a.m. At her mother's apartment in Gaithersburg, Sheila Suarez wakes up with a start after her 17-year-old brother, Jon, jumps down from the top bunk and shakes her awake on his way to school. After snoozing for a few minutes, Sheila slips on a pair of leggings and a cerulean T-shirt from an old sorority event. She can hear her eighth-grade sister, Micki, getting ready in another room.

7:15 a.m. Today, Sheila — it's pronounced 'shay-luh,' not 'shee-luh' — has a physical therapy appointment, one class and a front-desk shift at the Women's Center at UMBC. After five years, she is a year away from earning a BA in social work. It's also Greek Week, and if she can leave work a few minutes early she can make an afternoon tie-dye party on one of the school's athletic fields.


8:20 a.m. The alarm goes off in the GW dorm room of Lars E. Schonander. He shares it with a friend from his freshman year. (GW requires nearly all first-, second- and third-year students to live on campus.) On the walls are posters for National Geographic, 'Blade Runner' and 'The Young Pope.' By his desk is a pile of books that he says 'have fallen surprisingly less than you'd think.' Tuesday is the weekday he gets to sleep in the latest, because he doesn't have class until after 11 a.m. Other days, his classes begin at 9:35.

8:27 a.m. Clad in running gear, Lars jogs to the Mall. His typical route takes him past the Lincoln Memorial and around the Reflecting Pool. While listening to a playlist with Queens of the Stone Age and Iggy Pop, he passes throngs of tourists and commuters. He started running in the mornings this school year. 'I realized I needed to do some exercise, but I disliked the school gym,' he says.

9:01 a.m. Lars returns to his dorm room, which has a private bathroom. He and his roommate were thrilled when they scored it in the housing lottery. It also has a kitchenette, though he generally eats out. He's on the school dining plan, which allots $1,350 per semester to use at nearby grocery stores, restaurants and even food trucks.

9:05 a.m. Sheila is back on the road. With Rihanna's 'Umbrella' blasting from the radio, she swallows an anti-inflammatory pill to ease the pain in her arm. She turns onto Route 200, which has a $3 toll but is a faster route to school. If she doesn't get to the garage there soon, there will be no more free spaces and she'll have to park in a visitor lot that charges $2 an hour. A white van in front of her with New Jersey plates starts slowly switching lanes. 'Do it, Jersey,' she says. 'Do it, go left!'"

NASFAA's "Headlines" section highlights media coverage of financial aid to help members stay up to date with the latest news. Inclusion in Today's News does not imply endorsement of the material or guarantee the accuracy of information presented.


Publication Date: 5/17/2018

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