The pressures are mounting.
Kendra Berry has been studying dental hygiene at Columbia University for five years. She barely scrapes by, and before class is over for the day, she needs to get to her financial aid office to figure out how she will get back to school after the payment period is over.
She is one of thousands of Columbia students left living on the margins because their salary is too low to cover rent and living expenses.
Berry graduated from Vanderbilt University in 2013 with a master’s degree in dental hygiene and now works full-time as a dental assistant earning $11.68 an hour at Bellevue Dentistry of NYC.
Berry’s student loans totaled $46,000 at Vanderbilt, which was enough to pay rent, groceries and some bills. But a deal she made with the university to defer her loans so she could pay them off early in exchange for a salary below minimum wage made student loans the least of her worries.
Unlike many other people who entered the school system before the recession, Berry did not take out government student loans to help pay for her education. Instead, she used loans from her parents to get financial aid from the school.
After graduation, Berry moved back home and used a small wage subsidy from the federal government to afford her rent for a year before she could find a job with the university. She went back to work but still needed help paying her way.
“In the last year and a half I’ve had to cover so many additional things for myself like transportation, parking, maintaining a car if I have to drive or some extra expenses just to get by,” Berry said.
Berry has been working at Bellevue Dentistry of NYC since April because she needed a job. Although she is happy to work, she’s frustrated at how she’s not making more money, and by the lack of opportunities for high school graduates to work with dental assistants like herself.
She has tried applying for clerical positions, medical assistant positions, much lower paying positions that require just a high school diploma, and even jobs at a hospital, but the positions don’t quite fit her experience and personality.
“I like to put a smile on a face every day,” Berry said. “A lot of us are motivated and want to succeed at what we do and I see most of them quitting because it’s just not a good situation.”
Berry has worked hard to get into the dental hygiene program at Columbia because it’s her dream job. It’s a demanding program that requires studying three days a week for four hours, and she says it’s the best choice for her health, social life and career.
Berry hopes her efforts will not go to waste because her work in various support positions is designed to prevent Columbia’s top executives from making millions of dollars while Columbia’s students are falling into a poverty trap.
“That would be a horrible tragedy to see college being able to survive because students don’t have the means to work and parents don’t have the means to work,” Berry said.
Berry is one of roughly 40,000 students who receive some federal financial aid from the university before turning to loans or private loans from banks. However, she has an excellent credit rating that allows her to access federal loans that provide low interest rates and allow borrowers to avoid paying on loans for 10 to 15 years.
Berry is also an avid supporter of the Penn Student Workers Campaign.
Earlier this summer, students at Columbia created some of the country’s most aggressive protests against student debt, demanding that Columbia’s chief financial officer and vice president for development and alumni relations resign and the university commit to “leveling the field” for low-wage workers in its health and dental programs.
“The situation that we’ve all been in this last year … has definitely been one of the factors that drives that activism,” said Naomi Rann of the Penn Student Workers Campaign.