Students Struggle to Study in San Francisco

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Photos - Left: Luis Reyes, enjoying Coit Tower's view on his lunch break. Right: Eluteria Alatorre, getting the cash register ready for the weekday lunch rush. Credit: Paul James
Left: Luis Reyes, enjoying Coit Tower’s view on his lunch break. Right: Eluteria Alatorre, getting the cash register ready for the weekday lunch rush. Photos: Paul James

According to Inc., San Francisco is the country’s most expensive city. Business Insider recently reported that Northern California is among the most prosperous economies in the world. While this may be great news for young people engaged in the lucrative sectors fueling growth, such as social media, high living costs have made life challenging for Bay Area college students.

“I used to never think of money,” San Francisco State University student Luis Reyes said. “Now it’s all I think about.”

Reyes is a biochemistry major who came to San Francisco to “get away from Orange County.” Without family financial support, he struggles to pay his tuition and afford to eat. To make ends meet he’s had to work two jobs, as a waiter at a pizza joint and a tour guide at Coit Tower. Recently, the restaurant where he was employed was taken over by new management; Reyes was let go. He’s now desperately searching for ways to earn additional income.

“School’s stressful enough,” he said. “When you have a stack of homework piling up but need to pick up extra hours just to get a meal, it can be really tough.”

Students like Reyes have little choice but to take out loans to pay tuition. Though borrowing offers temporary solace, over time interest charges add to the financial pressure. According to the College Board, the average student debt in America is close to $30,000.  Many Bay Area scholars are finding that number to be much higher.

Eluteria “Lutie” Alatorre, an Academy of Art University illustration major, found her work schedule to be so burdensome that she began to take out loans so she could focus on her studies. She grew up in Santa Clara County and, having spent time in the City, developed a strong desire to devote her college years in San Francisco. During her first semester she began to realize the affordability challenges she faced.

“I pull out loans to pay for rent in the East Bay and to have some stability. But even still, I work a part-time job at PEET’s coffee for a good portion of expenses.”

Alatorre’s biggest concern is how she’ll be able to pay her debts. Financial stress has prompted her to consider dropping out of school to start a freelance career. “I try to keep busy so my mind doesn’t wander into the future,” she said. Yet, there’s only so much a financially stressed college student can afford to do in the City.

Minerva Lopéz, a San Francisco State University biotech major, said she feels lucky when she’s able to afford a decent meal at a restaurant. However, she realizes that the flip side of a hyper-expensive City is opportunities to find well-paying jobs.

“There was one instance where I was offered a job as a medical scribe. I was worried because it was a really good opportunity, but I might not have been able to get my degree and pass my classes if I went through with it,” she said. Ultimately, Lopez chose to focus on her education.

In 2017, GOBankingRates examined typical monthly expenses in major cities across the country, including the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment, groceries, utilities, transportation, and health insurance.  The personal finance website found that in San Francisco an individual needs to make at least $110,357 annually to live comfortably.

“I doubt there’s a future for me in San Francisco,” Alatorre said. “Gentrification is taking over this City so quickly, it’s starting to eat the heart out of this place.”

She offered advice to high schoolers who may be considering the Bay Area as a place to continue their education, “Save up. Lower your standards. It’s amazing to be able to live here, but you really have to make sacrifices in order for that to happen. Have your priorities straightened out and know what you want to do in the future. And don’t expect to be comfortable.”