RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
All right. More than half of today's nearly 20 million college students are paying for college on their own. And paying tuition is just the beginning. Students arriving on campuses are hit with a lot more, often unexpected, costs. Elissa Nadworny covers education for NPR's Life Kit. And she talked with some college students who came up with their own guides for navigating the money stress of higher ed.
ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: When Lauren Schandevel arrived on campus for her freshman year at the University of Michigan, she was struck by how wealthy all her classmates appeared to be.
LAUREN SCHANDEVEL: Just wealthy in ways that I couldn't even imagine.
NADWORNY: Nice cars, fancy clothes, very connected and powerful parents - Lauren grew up in Warren, Mich., a suburb just north of Detroit. Her family was working class. She'd gotten scholarships and a few loans to go to school. Money really stressed her out. When she was a junior, the university's student government put out a campus affordability guide. It was written with the average U of M student in mind, which is worth noting, that average student - they come from a family with about $150,000 yearly income.
SCHANDEVEL: A lot of the advice was like, fire your maid or sell your car to save some money.
NADWORNY: That advice - it didn't go over very well with the low-income students on campus.
SCHANDEVEL: I was frustrated by this guide. I was seeing other people who were frustrated by it.
NADWORNY: And so she thought, let's make our own guide. She had her own hacks, of course - the things that helped her survive and budget. But there was also stuff she didn't know.
SCHANDEVEL: So I opened a Google doc, and I made the sharing settings so that people could add to it or make suggestions.
NADWORNY: And it took off. Hundreds of U of M students edited the document, adding their own tips about how to navigate college when you're paying for it yourself.
SCHANDEVEL: Oh, my goodness. I haven't been in this document in a while (laughter).
NADWORNY: Today, more than a year later, Lauren's crowdsourced guide, titled...
SCHANDEVEL: "Being Not Rich At U of M: A Guide" (laughter).
NADWORNY: It's more than a hundred pages.
SCHANDEVEL: There's advice about employment and scholarships and financial aid and housing and mentors and happy hour specials. And, like, everything that you can think of is in there.
NADWORNY: Through social media, Lauren Schandevel's Google doc - it started to make the rounds at other colleges.
ABEEHA SHAMSHAD: When I saw it, I was like, oh, my God, this is perfect. This is...
NADWORNY: Abeeha Shamshad was finishing up her sophomore year at Ohio State University.
SHAMSHAD: Basically, it looked like my college experience put down onto paper.
NADWORNY: Abeeha is from Northern California. She moved across the country to go to Ohio State. She and her twin sister were born in Pakistan. Her parents - they didn't want her to move far away, so if Ohio State was her choice - and it was - she was responsible for paying. A big scholarship helped a lot, but there were other things.
SHAMSHAD: People go on social outings all the time. The movies are cheaper in Ohio. But if you see them, like, three times a week, it still adds up.
NADWORNY: The choices, the social pressure, the financial insecurity - it was overwhelming.
SHAMSHAD: It was, like, really fun until it wasn't.
NADWORNY: By the end of that first semester, Abeeha was on a mission to find free and low-cost resources on and around campus.
SHAMSHAD: There are little programs and buildings and gyms and museums that they almost certainly brag about to folks on college tours but they don't necessarily point out once you're there.
NADWORNY: Abeeha said she found a lot of resources, but it took digging.
SHAMSHAD: Navigate the hell out of your school website. Those site maps span for thousands of pages, but there's everything that you could possibly think of. And oftentimes, if you call, there's even more.
NADWORNY: Some of the things she discovered - that $25 Uber to the airport - it turns out there's a free bus. About a mile from campus, she found a low-fee health clinic. Findings like these - eventually, they made it into her not-rich guide; this one for students at OSU. Another piece of advice Abeeha offered up - don't be afraid to ask for help.
SHAMSHAD: To make your financial need known - make it known that you do not have outside options that are readily or financially available to you.
NADWORNY: She's found there are additional opportunities for extra grant money, emergency funds, even scholarships that folks - they just don't know about. But advocating for yourself and sharing that you're in need - that can be a challenge. Here's Lauren from Michigan.
SCHANDEVEL: You know, I think there's this assumption that poor folks are poor because they're not spending their money properly or they're spending frivolously, when the reality is that we don't have money, you know?
NADWORNY: She says that makes it really hard to ask for help. And all that pressure - it can influence your mental health, your happiness and, of course, your schoolwork. That's a big theme in both of these not-rich guides. Take care of yourself.
SCHANDEVEL: Like, everyone talks about housing and food security and finances, which are, obviously, very important. But I think, like, a huge component of it is, like, that sense of belonging.
NADWORNY: Lauren experienced that. In addition to feeling stressed about money...
SCHANDEVEL: There were moments where I was like, maybe college isn't for me.
NADWORNY: Making the not-rich guide was a big part in helping her feel like she belonged.
SCHANDEVEL: Economic status is such an invisible identity, and there are no places on campus necessarily, except maybe, like, first-gen college student groups, where we can really find each other. So I feel like that was also a huge component of the guide - was that it brought together people who had experienced this before. And students who are reading the guide knew that they weren't alone, and people had gone through it.
NADWORNY: These guides - they've taken on a life of their own. There are now versions at schools across the country - at University of Texas at Austin, Pima Community College in Arizona and the University of Iowa. And Lauren Schandevel - she graduated last month. She's now living back in Warren, Mich., working part-time at Wayne State University and for a nonprofit called We The People. Abeeha Shamshad is interning in Washington, D.C., this summer before heading back to Columbus for her senior year.
Elissa Nadworny, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF SAXON SHORE'S "THE LAST DAYS OF A TRAGIC ALLEGORY")
MARTIN: You can find more on paying for college and all the other Life Kit guides at npr.org/lifekit. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.