How to Beat Top College Barriers and Graduate Debt Free

by | Sep 12, 2021 | Planning for College

When it comes to going to college, the anxiety is real. How do you pay for it, where do you live, what’s the best school to attend?

For many, those questions are overwhelming. So much so, they become a barrier to earning a college degree. But they don’t have to stop you.

From financial to academic obstacles, college completion isn’t easy, but it is possible. If you’re struggling to understand how you can:

  • Graduate from college as a first-generation, adult, or minority student
  • Get a great education without owing a ton of money
  • Find information and resources to help you apply for and graduate from the school of your dreams

This article is for you!

I’ll share how to navigate today’s top college barriers and graduate debt-free (or as close as possible!)

What Are the Top Barriers to College in 2021?

In the recent Inversant study, we delved into the top struggles and barriers low-income college students experience getting to and through college.  The results were shocking.  

While costs and money are a huge part of the challenges students face, it isn’t the only one. The odds are stacked against lower-income students from the very start.  

Personally, knowing what challenges I faced beforehand, helped me find resources to better support myself on my college path.  

Through Inversant’s research, you can do the same.

Today, we’re exposing the top 5 barriers to college. More than that, we share the solution to dismantling and upending each challenge for college students across the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

1. Financial Barrier to College

The Problem

The rising Cost of Attendance (COA) for college is a major problem for most students in America trying to get a degree. This is especially a reality for lower-income students. 

Beyond the COA, the money to pay for higher education and college-related expenses is limited when you’re only making enough money to cover your rent or make ends meet. 

On top of paying your daily bills, household bills, and trying to save – trying to make space in your budget for college can feel impossible. 

Taking out a Federal Student loan definitely is an option.  But whether you finish your degree or not those loans have to be paid back, often leaving you in a bigger hole than what you started with.  

The Solution

Financial reasons are always at the forefront of people’s minds when making the decision to pursue a college degree.

When I made the decision to go back to school, I planned a whole year in advance.  I work a full-time job so I wanted to make sure that I would succeed and save for my big decision. 

I also save for my retirement and my emergency savings. As a huge fan of personal finance first thing I did was take a look at my expenses.

I planned creative ways to save. I also found low-maintenance side hustles to help me bring in extra cash. Next, I filed my FAFSA. Then I took a look at my college award letters.

Thinking ahead I also used a portion of my tax return and allocated it to my emergency savings account so I could take that expense off my plate for a little. 

Finally, I asked for help. Thankfully for me, I have an amazing friend and mentor who gifted me $1000 when I had a hiccup with my student loan. 

While I feel very fortunate to have someone like that in my life, I know not everyone does.  If you do, make sure to ask.  You never know how people can help out whether it’s with money or resources. 

Make sure to check out our blog on the Top 7 College Planning Tips Nontraditional Students Can’t Afford to Miss.

2.  Academic Barrier to College 

The Problem

It’s no secret that the education system for many lower-income, BIPOC or first-generation students are completely under-resourced.

As a matter of fact, the eighth annual High School Benchmarks report from the National Student Clearinghouse found that as of Nov. 16, “college enrollments dropped by 6.8 percent—more than quadrupling the pre-pandemic rate of decline, a pattern magnified based on the poverty level.” 

With all the disparity and resource gaps in lower-income communities, it could be hard to finish high school, let alone plan for college.

In my case,  I’m not sure how I got through high school.

During my first attempts at college, I was completely unprepared.  The lack of readiness made me feel bad about myself and my intelligence.  

The Solution

I quit going to college a couple of times before it actually stuck for me.  Juggling finances, my job, and my family – paired with my lack of college readiness – made for the perfect storm.  I bailed.  Then it finally dawned on me – I’m not dumb and I can do this.

First, I prepared ahead of time and identified my academic obstacles. Next, I chose a 2-year college that offered an assessment exam.  This helped me to see where my academic strengths and weaknesses are.

The college then followed up by sending my classes to help support me in my success.  Living in the tech age is also helpful. Some variations of these college assessment tests are online. 

Check out the assessments College Board offers.   Plan to take them ahead of time to see where you land. 

3.  Skill Barrier to College

The Problem

I don’t know about you, but I never saw my guidance counselor in high school.  Filling out college applications, choosing colleges, working through my financial aid all on my own left me at a total loss.

Years after I left high school, when I decided to enroll back into school – I had no idea where to begin. This story is true for many lower-income students and families. 

While many low-income and first-generation college students have active family members who support their college dreams they may not know how to explain the exact college process. 

A friend of mine growing up didn’t know how to navigate the process.  After high school, she attempted to sign up for a local community college.  Once she saw the bill she was completely discouraged. 

She had no idea how she would pay that.  At that time in her life, she had no idea that there was help available like FAFSA.

The Solution

Again tech comes to save the day. There are so many resources available online in a variety of different languages to help students and their families feel confident in applying for college and financial aid

Researching online can teach you how to pick the best college for you, apply to that college, and sign up for financial aid. For example, Inversant has self-paced,  online courses to help students understand how financial aid works and how to fill out FAFSA.

These online courses or “learning circles” are in English and Spanish and can be done from the comfort of your home.

If you’re planning on going back to college or a parent of a child planning to go to college, this course is a MUST. Sign up today for our Inversant Learning Circles.

4. Social Barrier to College

The Problem

The college experience for wealthier students is a whole different experience than what many lower-income students face.  Some students have the opportunity to live on campus, play frisbee on the quad, and focus on their studies.

Often times lower-income students have a lot more on their plate.  Many students work full-time jobs and some even have families to provide for.  While financial aid packets have becomes more expansive, sometimes it’s not all about money. 

Being a student who can’t afford anything on campus feels like crap. And, as an adult learner in day classes with a lot more younger students, you can also feel your confidence slip. 

Not seeing people like you on campus can make you feel like you’re in the wrong place too. All of that to say, it’s hard to stay motivated when there’s a social disconnect and you feel like you don’t belong.

Last year the New York Times reported that “38 colleges had more students from the top 1 percent than the bottom 60 percent.”  One of my closest friends is first-generation and was raised in Los Angeles. 

She received a scholarship to attend an Ivy League college in New England. While it is a true testament to her hard work in high school, it wasn’t without serious implications.

The cultural difference of coming from a BIPOC school and community – to a historically wealthy college made her feel as if she didn’t belong there. She knew getting her degree there, would afford her opportunities where she could get a good-paying job and help her family.

While she was able to finish her degree, some of her friends who were on similar tracks weren’t so lucky. This is a barrier many lower-income and first-gen students face.

The Solution

Setting yourself up for success is intentional.  It’s a more thoughtful process than a good financial aid package at a designer school.

It’s important to feel comfortable where you decide to go to college. You’re making an investment in yourself. If having a social connection in this process is of value for you, research your options in-depth. 

Know what you’re getting into. If representation is important to you, make sure you find a school that provides that. If smaller campuses are what you feel more comfortable with, look for schools that can provide that.

Another great alternative is online college courses. Tech has brought us the ability to receive a degree online.

Many Millennials and Zoomers are much more comfortable connecting with people in a larger community online.  Go with what feels right for you.

5.  Culture Barrier to College

The Problem

While many low-income and first-gen families support and wish for their loved ones to get their college degrees, oftentimes, the need for money is more important. 

Juggling school and a full-time job is no easy task, especially when you have a family to provide for or to contribute to.  For some students sometimes their parents don’t know how to support them through a college application process.  They’ve never had to fill out. 

Some first-generation dependent students may have parents or guardians that are undocumented. This makes FAFSA tricky to fill out. For others, it’s too exhausting to do so much in a day along with life. 

A friend of mine is a native Spanish speaker and emigrated here from the Dominican Republic 3  years ago.  In those 3 years, I have seen her have 2 babies, receive her citizenship, advocate and succeed in her bringing her young daughter here. 

She signed up for ESL, got a job, found housing, and is now learning to drive.  In 3 years she has accomplished so much.  She eventually wants to go to college to study something that will pay her more money. 

Everything listed is things she needs to secure so she is safe and stable.  Only after creating that stability can she start to plan for college.  That’s a lot of things that many people take for granted not having to experience.  

The Solution

My friend has a long-term plan and is in this for the long haul.  All of the things she has acquired are stepping stones to help support her to her dream.  Her dream job, her dream house, her version of the American dream for her family. 

For me, cultural barriers are a big one to navigate around. I even had a great role model to watch who did it before me. My father is from Puerto Rico. He has worked hard for my family. 

He managed to secure a job that he worked at for years so he can receive a free college education. He is now currently working on his Ph.D. My 61-year-old and amazes me daily. 

My point is, as someone who knows first hand and has taken breaks from school; take your time.  This is not easy to accomplish especially dodging these barriers.  While some lower-income and/or first-generation students complete their bachelor’s in 4 years with no student debt, there are many that do not. 

That’s okay.  We’re human with so much on our plates it can feel overwhelming.  People who do not go through these same barriers have a different timeline.  When you get discouraged pick yourself up. 

Just know that there are so many people in America who are going through the same struggle.  In my mind that is like a built-in community, a support system – that knows the struggle.

The team that I want to win – despite these unfair barriers.  Moments when I feel doubt, I refocus and center myself.  I take a look at my potential struggles and I start to work through the barriers. 

I think of solutions to potential hiccups that may occur. I stay on top of my budgeting and savings plan.  I research more scholarships. 

Staying proactive about your very real things like savings and expenses and taking things day by day help me succeed.

Bashing Barriers to College

I often think about how unfair these barriers are and acknowledge them wholly.  Even tasked in writing this blog as I wrote “low-income,” I felt shame that isn’t mine to hold. 

There are systems in place to make it difficult for BIPOC, low-income, and first-gen students to succeed.

I’ve learned from a young age regardless of the systemic circumstances stacked against me, it’s still important for me to succeed. 

To break the chain of struggle, we must shatter misconceptions. My education is a part of that.  Being able to sustain myself financially and comfortably is a part of that.  Taking care of my family is a part of that. 

What’s important to you? Let me know in the comments below!

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