College students discuss money—or the lack thereof, the plight of being a “broke college kid”—constantly. I hear my classmates at George Washington University bond over their disdain for the campus “dining hall” (Whole Foods). I see fellow students “like” posts on Facebook mocking the $50,000-a-year tuition. And I feel the economic disparities firsthand at Friday night pre-games: some students live in run-down dormitory rooms, while others rent lavish apartments with floor-to-ceiling windows and rooftop pools.
There’s a popular meme of an iced Starbucks drink, the SoulCycle and Uber app logos, and a man sporting a Canada Goose winter coat. It reads “The ‘I’m soooo broke’ starter pack.” When the photo was posted in the public Facebook group GW Memes for the 10th Most Politically Active Teens, it garnered likes from more than 600 students. Many joked that they felt “personally attacked” or “sooo victimized.” But, for others, this was just another reminder of how being “broke” in a community of wealthy students is more than just a silly meme.
Due to the high price of college, many students receive funding from their families. But for the majority, significant financial support is not an option. About 10 percent of college graduates reported their families paid about half of their tuition, and fewer than one in ten people had the majority of their college finances supported by their parents, according to a 2017 LendEdu study that interviewed more than 1,400 college graduates between the ages of 25 and 54.
Phoebe Frank, a 21-year old senior at Texas Christian University, says that although many of her classmates are supported by their parents, some are kept within a tight allowance while others are free to swipe their platinum AMEX as they please. Many students who identify as “broke,” she says, are not referring to their own financial standing but rather the money given to them by their families. “There is clearly a difference between being ‘broke’ and being broke for the month,” she says.
For Kaylee Cowart, a 22-year-old who spent her first two year of college at Savannah Tech and has since transferred to Georgia Southern, being a “broke college kid” is more than an overused trope. Unlike many of her peers, Cowart supports herself without any financial help.
“I think the majority of college kids look at broke as ‘My mom told me I couldn’t use the credit card anymore,’” she says. “For me, broke means that I just overdrafted my bank account from filling up gas.”
Cowart says that for many students the persona is a way to joke around and get attention from peers—a trend only further bolstered by social media and articles that list “11 Signs of Being A Broke College Student.”
Gabby Sorina, a 19-year-old sophomore at GW, has been financially independent since she was 14. Like Cowart, she acknowledges a discrepancy in the economic struggle between herself and her peers. “I am quite poor—the poorest of poor—so hearing my very affluent roommate complain about money is undeniably annoying,” she says.
Sorina purposefully stops herself from saying “I’m so broke.” This is partially a tactic to avoid pity from friends, but also a way for her to stop contributing to a stereotype that is offensive to so many. “I grew up in the ghetto in New Orleans, so I’ve seen struggle. I’m hesitant when I refer to myself as disadvantaged in any way,” she says. “But [college students] say it no matter what their financial situation is.”
“I’m hesitant when I refer to myself as disadvantaged in any way,” but [college students] say it no matter what their financial situation is.”
The rhetoric shifts from campus to campus and between social scenes within universities. Dani Frese, a 21-year-old GW senior on the women’s soccer team, says that as a college athlete in a Division I program, this kind of language constantly comes up in conversation. Because many student-athletes receive partial-to-full scholarships, Frese notices a divide between her teammates and those “outside” the athletic scene—many of whom pay full tuition. During the annual spring celebratory dinner for the team’s juniors, one of the girls explained she couldn’t attend because she was “broke.” Frese says this is less likely to happen with her non-athlete friends. “When they joke about being ‘broke,’ I take it less seriously. It holds less weight,” she says.
Although it may sound obvious if not completely insensitive, the ramifications of college students exaggerating their economic situation remains somewhat unclear. Students are lacking fundamental knowledge and confidence on personal finance basics, according to a 2016 LendEdu study. When asked about their current financial situation, 51 percent of students said “I’m barely keeping up” and 49 percent said “I’m doing just fine.” Call it naïveté or an extreme disconnect, but many students seem to be somewhat desensitized to the financial realities of their peers and themselves.
Like “blacked out” or “darty,” being “broke” is just another phrase in the college lexicon. As far as Sorina is concerned, claiming you’re “broke” is just a way to fit in. “There’s always going to be someone richer than you,” she says, “so in some way, I guess everyone is a broke college kid.”
The new Black-ish spinoff, Grown-ish offers a fresh take on what it means to be a college student in 2018: characters span from the overly ambitious protagonist to the “woke” social activist to a newly-identified bisexual. But even as it offers insight into a more diverse, inclusive body politic, it holds tight to some of the age-old clichés of campus culture. While these millennials navigate their first year of school, each one carefully cultivates and curates his or her own narrative. We watch as they try to find their place in the world and we wonder, Who do these young people think they are? Who do they want to be? And what stories will they tell about themselves to get there?
Jenna Berman is a junior majoring in journalism and women’s studies at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.