Financial Literacy or Financial Legacy?

This blog was written by Clare Cady, founder of the College and University Food Bank Alliance and Director, Community Engagement, HOPE Center for College, Community, and Justice. She can be found @ClareCady

Why are student affairs professionals struggling to make ends meet?

The side hustle — it is a very common topic conversation on social media as well as face to face interactions among student affairs professionals. Having one has become so normalized among millennial (and younger Gen-X) practitioners in the field that asking someone “what’s your side hustle?” is becoming akin to asking them, “what’s your functional area?” Given that many new professionals are not aligned with a functional area yet, it might even be the more salient question of the two. It’s become so popularized that it has been the topic of #SAChat, and has even been included in some conference presentations. It’s framed as something one does as a fun project beyond their student affairs work, sometimes related to the field but not always, that makes the person some extra funds and perhaps provides some level of professional development. It’s a regular occurrence to see student affairs practitioners plugging their side hustles on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. It’s fun. It’s fulfilling. It’s fabulous.

Or is it?

Let’s break down the notion of having a side hustle. These highly visible ones (those that end up on social media) are often exactly what they are being billed to be — a great way to get some extra exposure doing something fun like speaking, writing, or making podcasts. Others are great ways to get some extra cash through Esty shops, resume editing services, or consulting. Because of their prevalence in the student affairs zeitgeist they can appear to be a ubiquitous “extra” that makes the hustler seem hyper-productive and builds their brand. Side hustlers are held up as an example of what a great student affairs professionals can accomplish.

While these are all very positive aspects of the side hustle phenomenon, there is a less visible aspect that belies a more challenging insight into what it means to work in student affairs. Some of those folks out there plugging their side hustle on social media are doing it not because they feel like it and they have the time, but because they MUST in order to supplement their salary. Still others are doing these kinds of side hustles (the ones that are necessary) offline, often hiding them from others. A recent photo from Post Secret circulating in several student affairs Facebook groups outlines this kind of side hustle:

In this one picture we are able to see that not all side hustles are fun and games — some are linked to financial challenges and carry with them stigma and shame. This outlines the classed nature of the side hustle hype — not all side hustles are created equal, and treating them as an icebreaker may be fueling additional embarrassment and fear from professionals who rely on a side hustle to pay their bills. Conversation spurred by this photo led to many other practitioners revealing their alt side hustles — herein referenced as survival hustles.

What’s going on in student affairs that unpacking something that seems as innocuous as a side hustle brings to light significant financial challenges among colleagues at multiple levels across the field? The answer to this question is tied to cultural attitudes about what it means to have financial challenges, and actions that lead both to the maximization of required credentials for finding a job in the field and the minimization of the costs of obtaining them. Pair this with low salaries and we have a recipe for economic crisis that drives (no pun intended) our colleagues to survival hustles with jobs like Uber. This anonymous mid-level professional is not alone. A close friend of mine is a lecturer at a 4-year public institution. He drives for Uber as well, and his social media is often peppered with conversations he has with his clients about why he is a PhD and driving them around. The answer — student debt. While I applaud his willingness to be open and shed light on his $200k in debt and what he has to do to pay it off (often with heartbreaking humor), it would be my hope that we can create a culture and a climate where his and others’ survival hustles are not needed.

When I engage in conversations about financial challenges in higher education the subject of financial literacy always comes up. I get it. We are educators who believe with all of our hearts that we can solve the ills of the world by gifting people with more knowledge. The case of the photo from Post Secret was no different. It was shared with comment that we need more financial education and literacy for student affairs professionals. Many folks chimed in with agreement — YES! We DO need this. While I will not argue that we all (financially challenged or not) would benefit from additional information on managing finances, suggesting financial literacy is the key to ending the financial struggles of student affairs professionals is a problematic viewpoint. It blames the poor for their poverty, suggesting if they just knew more they would not be in this situation. It’s a time-worn argument rooted in a cultural linkage between money and morality. Have too much money? You are evil and must give to charity. Have too little? You are deficient and need to work harder. Is there a sweet spot in this notion? I am unsure, but I know it colors how we talk about finances and funds in the college and university setting.

While the narrative about financial literacy and financial education is not a new one in higher education, its application has been focused primarily on the student and not on faculty or staff. As student debt and loan defaulting rose during and after the 2008–2010 recession, efforts were made to increase the level of financial counseling students received. Much of this education was back loaded onto students as they graduated (if they graduated) through exit interviews. Some was included prior to taking out loans, though differences in education prior to making choices of aid was found to have no impact on students’ decision-making. It is clear that the approach being taken to financial literacy is less about informing students, and more about protecting investments, and those who are graduating are facing loan situations that are all challenge and no support.

In all of this it looks to me that the field of student affairs (and academic affairs as well) is forgetting that the exiting students of yesterday (or even ten years ago) are the professionals of today. Many of those who are working in entry and mid-level positions are products of the student debt crisis. These professionals carry higher debt loads and have payments that take up a larger percentages of monthly income than the generations prior, and yet their salaries are not necessarily keeping pace with their financial obligations. The 2012–13 CUPA-HR survey on student affairs salaries found a 2% increase overall in salaries from the year prior. However, this increase did not keep up with a 2.1% rate of inflation. With inflation rates bounding between 4.8% and .73% in the past decade, even a steady increase in salaries leads to a decrease in buying power for practitioners. What comes of this? The survival hustle.

Another noticeable contributor to this issue is the fact that it has gotten harder and harder over the past two decades to find student affairs jobs that do not require a masters degree. When I graduated from undergrad in 2002 I found a variety of positions available that were not even masters preferred. Upon attending the Oshkosh Placement Exchange in 2003 I observed candidates with any amount of full-time professional experience or a masters turning away interviews because they were so highly sought after. People like myself who boasted bachelors degrees fared just fine however. Today it is much rarer to see people entering the field right out of undergrad, with most aspiring professionals seeking a masters degree before entering the workforce. Have the jobs that used to be filled with folks without a graduate degrees changed so much in that time that they MUST have a masters to fulfill job duties? I would argue no. While limited to my own observations of current residence life staff (a job I and my colleagues held without a graduate credential) it seems that the work they perform is not unlike the work I performed 15 years ago. In my opinion to assume that these staff today needed to get a masters to perform work I was able to do without one is to attribute me with some super power or exceptional knowledge that sets my abilities above theirs. This I can tell you with certainty is not the case.

The net result of this is that we are have seen a shift in the job and education market that pushes people straight out of undergrad and into student affairs or higher education administration grad programs. I posit that a contributor to this is the great recession — a time when hiring freezes and layoffs led to fewer jobs available in the field. Hiring professionals were dealing with greater numbers of applications and were able to hire people with more advanced credentials at the same (or maybe slightly elevated) salaries. As the market rebounded there was no readjustment to educational requirements, placing the burden of adjustment on job seekers. This happened in the academic areas of higher education as well, with adjuncts and non-tenure positions such as lecturers being used as a way to decrease costs of labor, not just in student affairs faculty positions but in all disciplines. The outcome of this is that persons seeking jobs in higher education (faculty and staff) are being expected to incur higher amounts of debt before they are able to take jobs in their field…and they are often not being compensated in a way that will allow them to manage that debt effectively without taking a second job. Drivers of educational attainment by day, drivers of Uber vehicles by night.

Is the answer providing these people financial literacy curriculum? I say no. It is a concern of mine that financial literacy and financial education enter into the narrative of solving financial crises for faculty and staff on campus. It’s victim-blaming at its worst. It means placing the onus on the person experiencing the issue without taking into consideration the systemic contexts contributing to their challenges. It also allows for student affairs divisions or entire institutions to come out looking like they are solving the problem rather than contributing to it. If an institution offers financial literacy or education training to their staff and faculty they send the message that this issue is on the fault of the individual — and look, we are supporting them through more education! The institution gets to look good while not addressing the systems it has set in place that create financially struggling students…who in turn become financially struggling faculty and staff.

Does this mean that colleges and universities should not offer their staff and faculty opportunities to become more financially fit? Of course not. Financial literacy and education curriculum do have a place in the fabric of personal and professional development made available to persons working on a campus. It should not however be put forward as the answer to the woes of those unable to make ends meet. This will not solve the wicked problem of the survival hustle. In order to ensure that the survival hustle is no longer a part of what it means to work for a college and university we need:

- A restructuring of job descriptions and salaries to level them properly with educational requirements. Educational inflation is a real thing in student affairs, and it is an unfair practice to expect graduate degrees for non-graduate level work.

- A critical look at why there are so many higher education and student affairs graduate programs. This includes understanding the economic necessity of bringing in tuition dollars and cheaper graduate assistant labor as a response to the defunding of colleges and universities. It is time to face the fact that the financial burden of this defunding is being placed in (or removed from) the students’ bank accounts.

- Stopping support (either through active or passive means) of filling academic positions with adjuncts or guest lecturers instead of hiring full-time faculty. This should not only be done in the field of student affairs, but across all disciplines.

- Engaging in lobbying for policy changes that stop the defunding and privatization of colleges and universities and their financial aid programs.

It’s time to end the survival hustle.