Elissa Nadworny

College is expensive. And juggling classes, work, and all of life's other challenges can be difficult.

NPR's education team is putting together a how-to guide — in podcast form — on navigating college when you're paying yourself. It's for Life Kit from NPR.

So, college students and recent grads: What are your best tips for paying your way through college? What's your best advice for other students trying to make ends meet?

In the second-floor girls' restroom at Bronx Prep Middle School in New York, there's a sign taped to the back of the toilet stall doors. It's a guide on how to "properly dispose feminine products." On the list? "Make sure that no one views or handles product."

"It's not even saying the word pad. It just says product!" explains Kathaleen Restitullo, 13. "Just, like, don't let anyone see that you are on your period."

Raymond Tillman spent most of his adolescence and early adulthood behind bars. His last release — after three stints inside — was in 2011. When he got out, he had a lot to catch up on — like, the digital age.

"When I first came home I was illiterate to technology," he explains. "Didn't know how to turn on a computer, let alone what an email was." But he needed a job, and to get one, he'd need to be able to apply online.

When Akiya Parks first got to campus at the University of Florida, everything was new and exciting. Her mom and brother had driven her to campus and moved her into the dorms, she'd agreed to try a long-distance relationship with her high school boyfriend, she was ready to start a new chapter in Gainesville.

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Inmates are among the least-educated people in America. That's despite research that shows education is one of the most effective ways to keep people from coming back to prison.

Now, there's renewed interest in giving adults behind bars better access to higher education. A new bipartisan bill in Congress would allow incarcerated people to use federal Pell Grants — designed for low-income students — to pay for higher education, including college classes and workforce training.

A new musical explores life in high school in a way that's eerily familiar. It's called Ranked, and it's set in a dystopian world where your class rank — determined by grades and test scores — governs everything from where you sit to what your future holds.

Right now, students across the country are in the process of choosing where to go to college. For many, that decision is closely tied to a school's financial aid offer. But with no current standardization of these offers, letters look vastly different from one college to the next. They're often filled with confusing terms and jargon, and not all colleges define and calculate these terms the same way.

This time last year, McKenna Hensley had a big question on her mind: Where would she go to college? The answer — sort of — was somewhere in her pile of 10 financial aid offers. Each school she'd been admitted to had its own individualized letter, terms and calculations.

"It was very confusing," the now college freshman remembers.

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It's no secret that wealth brings advantages when it comes to sending your kids to college. Rich and famous parents can donate large sums of money to schools or lean on their names and connections. Some ritzy colleges explicitly prefer the children and grandchildren of alumni — at Harvard University, an investigation found last year that these "legacy" admits were over five times more likely to get in than the average Joe.

Go to college, we tell students. It's a ticket out of poverty; a place to grow and expand; a gateway to a good job. Or perhaps a better job. But just going to college doesn't mean you'll finish. To unlock those benefits — you'll need a degree.

And yet for millions of Americans, that's not happening. On average, just 58 percent of students who started college in the fall of 2012 had earned any degree six years later, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

A new father trying to provide for his family. A grandmother finishing what she started more than four decades ago. A man navigating multiple schools, hidden curriculums and financial hurdles. These are just some of the older students working toward a degree in the U.S.

Elite colleges are making strides to diversify their student bodies, both racially and economically. In the past few years, we've seen most top schools commit to enrolling more low-income students through financial aid, recruiting efforts and programs for high school students aimed at expanding the pipeline.

But once those students arrive on campus, says Anthony Abraham Jack, they often find the experience isolating and foreign.

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