Kentucky Series

Manual Labor, All Night Long: The Reality of Paying for College

A UPS program in Louisville gives students free tuition for working the third shift, but at what cost?

March 25, 2015, 7:52 a.m.

LOUIS­VILLE, Ky.—Most col­lege stu­dents are busy. But Alex­is McLin’s sched­ule is even more jam-packed than the av­er­age stu­dent’s.

One day earli­er this month, for in­stance, she at­ten­ded a lab from 3 p.m. to 6:45, went to din­ner with her moth­er, and then at mid­night went in to work at UPS, where she sorts pack­ages from mid­night to 4:30 a.m.

McLin, 21, is train­ing to be a teach­er, and so after she got off work and had some break­fast, she drove to an ele­ment­ary school at 7:40 a.m to ob­serve classes for four hours. That af­ter­noon, she at­ten­ded a par­ent-teach­er con­fer­ence, cap­ping off more than 24 straight hours of work and school with no sleep.

It wasn’t an un­usu­al day for McLin, who is at­tend­ing the Uni­versity of Louis­ville for free through a pro­gram that pays her tu­ition if she works the overnight shift at UPS and keeps her grades above a “C.” The pro­gram, called Met­ro­pol­it­an Col­lege, has been held up as a mod­el of a pub­lic-private part­ner­ship, help­ing stu­dents pay for school while filling holes in the work­force.

In­deed, McLin, a chip­per red­head whom I in­ter­viewed at the UPS fa­cil­ity at 2:00 in the morn­ing last week, told me this was the only way she could at­tend col­lege, be­cause her fam­ily can’t af­ford the tu­ition. But even her fam­ily is in­cred­u­lous at the hours she keeps. She works five nights a week at UPS from mid­night un­til 4:30 a.m., and still finds time to go to classes, par­ti­cip­ate in col­or guard, and ful­fill stu­dent-teach­ing re­spons­ib­il­it­ies.

“It was really hard in the be­gin­ning, but I got used to it,” the ju­ni­or told me. “I’ve be­come more re­spons­ible and more or­gan­ized with my time.”

Tour the UPS fa­cil­ity between mid­night and 4 a.m. Monday through Fri­day and you’ll see many stu­dents like McLin sort­ing mail en­vel­opes, drag­ging heavy con­tain­ers full of pack­ages to and from air­planes, and un­load­ing carts of mail onto con­vey­or belts, 155 miles of which chug around the fa­cil­ity. Of the 6,000 people work­ing there on any giv­en night shift, about 2,000 are in the Met­ro­pol­it­an Col­lege pro­gram, which gives in-state tu­ition to the night-shift work­ers to at­tend either the Uni­versity of Louis­ville or Jef­fer­son Com­munity and Tech­nic­al Col­lege dur­ing the day. (Met­ro­pol­it­an Col­lege isn’t a uni­versity it­self, just the name of the pro­gram.)

The pro­gram was cre­ated in the late 1990s after UPS had trouble with turnover: In a boom­ing eco­nomy, at the wages it was pay­ing, the com­pany couldn’t keep work­ers on the night shift for more than a month or two. It was also hav­ing labor prob­lems: In 1997, the Team­sters held a 15-day strike at UPS de­mand­ing more part-time jobs and high­er wages at the com­pany. (Stu­dent work­ers now make $10 an hour, but when the pro­gram star­ted, they made $8.50.)

When UPS threatened to loc­ate an ex­pan­sion of its busy air hub else­where, state and city lead­ers held an emer­gency meet­ing to come up with an idea for re­tain­ing work­ers. Their pro­pos­al: City gov­ern­ment would pay half of stu­dents’ tu­ition, UPS the oth­er half. To­geth­er, the full-tu­ition be­ne­fit would be enough to keep night-shift work­ers on the rolls. Since then, turnover on the night shift has dropped from 70 per­cent to 20 per­cent an­nu­ally, and 14,000 stu­dents have worked at UPS while at­tend­ing school.

“It’s a win-win be­cause it has sta­bil­ized our work­force con­sid­er­ably, and the com­mon­wealth gets a much bet­ter-edu­cated work­force,” Mike Mangeot, a UPS spokes­man, told me as we drove around the busy air­port—the largest auto­mated pack­age-hand­ling fa­cil­ity in the world—at 3 a.m.

It’s not just tu­ition: Stu­dents also re­ceive be­ne­fits such as health in­sur­ance, and they are paid bo­nuses for fin­ish­ing col­lege and the semester. They also get coun­sel­ing to help them juggle their re­spons­ib­il­it­ies, and many stu­dents end up work­ing their way up the cor­por­ate lad­der at UPS after they gradu­ate. (They’re also paid for the hours they work.)

But as I walked through the long rows of stu­dents push­ing en­vel­opes to con­vey­or belts and in­to the open air where teen­agers pulled cargo off jet planes, I wondered if the sys­tem really is win-win. I was hav­ing trouble stay­ing awake and alert as we got closer and closer to dawn, and I couldn’t ima­gine be­ing able to fo­cus on home­work or col­lege lec­tures later on in the day.

The UPS/Met­ro­pol­it­an Col­lege mod­el helps stu­dents pay for col­lege, and for that it should be lauded. But can col­lege stu­dents really work the night shift five nights a week and stay alert enough at school to un­der­stand what was hap­pen­ing in their classes? In the richest coun­try in the world, shouldn’t there be a less hellish way to fin­ance a col­lege dip­loma?

* * *

For the first 200 or so years after Har­vard, the first col­lege in Amer­ica, was foun­ded in 1636, stu­dents either stud­ied the clas­sics or tech­nic­al top­ics such as sci­ence or ag­ri­cul­ture. But in the mid-1800s, lead­ers of schools in­clud­ing Har­vard and Yale, con­cerned that wealthy fam­il­ies were start­ing to see col­lege as use­less, began to em­brace a cur­riculum that both pre­pared stu­dents for the work­ing world and gave them a broad edu­ca­tion in a num­ber of top­ics. In 1869, Charles W. Eli­ot, who was soon ap­poin­ted pres­id­ent of Har­vard, laid out his vis­ion for what he called “a prac­tic­al edu­ca­tion” in a piece in The At­lantic.

“The fact is, that the whole tone and spir­it of a good col­lege ought to be dif­fer­ent in kind from that of a good poly­tech­nic or sci­entif­ic school,” he wrote. “In the col­lege, the de­sire for the broad­est cul­ture, for the best form­a­tion and in­form­a­tion of the mind, the en­thu­si­ast­ic study of sub­jects for the love of them without any ul­teri­or ob­jects, the love of learn­ing and re­search for their own sake, should be the dom­in­ant ideas,” he wrote.

Eli­ot spent much of the next 40 years mak­ing Har­vard in­to a place where stu­dents could get a “prac­tic­al edu­ca­tion,” which com­bined ex­plor­a­tion and ab­stract learn­ing with the ac­quis­i­tion of use­ful skills.

At the time, a col­lege edu­ca­tion was ac­cess­ible only to the most elite: In 1940, only 6 per­cent of males had com­pleted four years of col­lege, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tion­al Cen­ter for Edu­ca­tion­al Stat­ist­ics; few­er than half of Amer­ic­ans had fin­ished eighth grade.

But col­lege at­tain­ment rates began to grow stead­ily after World War II, when the G.I. Bill sent mil­lions of re­turn­ing sol­diers to col­lege and helped pro­mote a more demo­crat­ic no­tion of who could get a col­lege de­gree. (It is im­port­ant to note, however, that the ef­fects of the G.I. Bill did not fall equally among all Amer­ic­ans, and many black vet­er­ans, par­tic­u­larly in the South, did not be­ne­fit at all.) Col­lege com­ple­tion rates rose from 6 per­cent of males to 12 per­cent by 1962. Wo­men and minor­it­ies began to at­tend col­lege in great­er num­bers, too. These trends ac­cel­er­ated in the later part of the 20th cen­tury and the early 21st: Col­lege en­roll­ment climbed from 25 per­cent of 18-to-24-year-olds in 1967 to 41 per­cent in 2012.

But as more stu­dents began at­tend­ing col­lege, the new in­sti­tu­tions that sprang up to edu­cate stu­dents didn’t have the en­dow­ments of the older schools. And as col­leges began to com­pete against one an­oth­er to at­tract stu­dents and fac­ulty, they star­ted spend­ing more money on things like sports teams, new build­ings, and per­son­nel. Tu­ition and fees have gone up 1,120 per­cent since 1978 alone, ac­cord­ing to Bloomberg.

Today, af­ford­ab­il­ity is the biggest chal­lenge to stu­dents’ abil­ity to go to col­lege. And as stu­dents struggle with how to pay for school, many are find­ing they don’t have as much time for—let alone want to spend their lim­ited money on—”learn­ing and re­search for their own sake.” Fear­ing the specter of loans hanging over them forever, many stu­dents try to fin­ish col­lege as quickly as pos­sible, live at home, and work one or two jobs dur­ing school to save money. Their main con­cerns aren’t wheth­er they have time to take all of the fas­cin­at­ing and var­ied classes in the course cata­log, but in­stead how they can get all their cred­it hours without go­ing so deep in­to debt that they’ll nev­er es­cape. Though they’ve been told that a col­lege edu­ca­tion is what they need to suc­ceed in Amer­ica, the stress of pay­ing for that edu­ca­tion chal­lenges their abil­ity to be­ne­fit from it.

In 2011, about 71 per­cent of un­der­gradu­ates worked while en­rolled in col­lege, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent census re­port. And they’re work­ing more hours, rather than few­er, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tion­al Cen­ter for Edu­ca­tion Stat­ist­ics. The share of stu­dents work­ing few­er than 20 hours per week has de­clined, to about 15 per­cent in 2007, while the per­cent­age of those work­ing between 20 and 34 hours in­creased to 21 per­cent.

Work­ing a low num­ber of hours—say, less than 15—can be be­ne­fi­cial to a stu­dent, es­pe­cially if that job is on cam­pus, said Laura Per­na, a pro­fess­or at Penn’s Gradu­ate School of Edu­ca­tion who is also the ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Al­li­ance for High­er Edu­ca­tion and Demo­cracy. A job on cam­pus provides an­oth­er way for the stu­dent to be in­teg­rated in­to the cam­pus, and it is usu­ally flex­ible so that a stu­dent can take whatever classes he or she wants, or work less dur­ing ex­am peri­ods.

But work­ing more than 15 or so hours can be det­ri­ment­al to a stu­dent’s aca­dem­ic per­form­ance, she said.

“It’s of­ten very dif­fi­cult for stu­dents, with the stress of try­ing to man­age mul­tiple re­spons­ib­il­it­ies,” she said. “The fact that there’s only so many hours in a day—when you’re al­loc­at­ing a cer­tain num­ber of hours to paid em­ploy­ment, the en­ergy you have to be en­gaged with your aca­dem­ic re­quire­ments de­clines.”

Work­ing all night can be chal­len­ging for stu­dents, es­pe­cially those who have early-morn­ing classes or ex­ams. A study pub­lished last year in the Journ­al of Nature and Sci­ence of Sleep found that sleep depriva­tion and day­time sleep­i­ness in col­lege stu­dents can res­ult in lower grade point av­er­ages, in­creased risk of aca­dem­ic fail­ure, and im­paired mood. Sub­jects who were tested after 35 hours of sleep depriva­tion, for ex­ample, saw scores drop two let­ter grades when com­pared with non-sleep-de­prived sub­jects. Stu­dents who slept for nine hours a night or more had much high­er GPAs than those who slept for few­er than six hours a night.

It’s not just the phys­ic­al strain of sleep depriva­tion that af­fects stu­dents. When stu­dents are so over­worked, Per­na said, they aren’t able to spend as much time pay­ing at­ten­tion to learn­ing, and to en­joy­ing the learn­ing ex­per­i­ence. In­deed, none of the stu­dents I saw at the UPS cen­ter were likely spend­ing many late nights cram­ming for ex­ams with friends, or talk­ing about lit­er­at­ure with people they’d just met, or tak­ing ex­tra time on a sci­ence ex­per­i­ment, just be­cause they found it in­ter­est­ing.

In­stead, many of the stu­dents have to plan every minute of their day to squeeze in work, sleep, classes, and home­work.

“When you’re try­ing to sim­ul­tan­eously hold down a job and stay en­rolled and make sat­is­fact­ory aca­dem­ic pro­gress, there can be an ab­sence of at­ten­tion to the en­joy­ment of the learn­ing ex­per­i­ence,” Per­na said.

Still, some stu­dents don’t mind trad­ing that “en­joy­ment of the learn­ing ex­per­i­ence” for an ab­sence of loans. Tori Zie­g­ler star­ted out at­tend­ing the Uni­versity of Ken­tucky and liv­ing in the dorms. By the end of her first semester, though, Zie­g­ler began to worry about the size of the loans she was tak­ing out, and how she was go­ing to pay them back. She trans­ferred to the Uni­versity of Louis­ville and Met­ro­pol­it­an Col­lege and star­ted work­ing as a sort­er on the night shift at UPS.

“I wasn’t go­ing to be able to fin­ish school if I didn’t find some way to get it paid for,” she told me.

Sort­ing is tough work—in some jobs, you stand between lines of quick-mov­ing con­vey­or belts as mail chugs down a chute, when the par­cels reach you, you move them in­to com­part­ments on the con­vey­or belt as quickly as you can. In oth­er jobs, you take the mail that’s fallen in­to a bag destined for, say, Lin­coln, Neb­raska, zip up those bags and load them onto a con­tain­er bound for an air­plane. In the sum­mer, the sort­ing area, loc­ated atop the floors and floors of auto­mated ma­chinery at UPS, can get in­cred­ibly hot, stu­dents told me.

“It’s manu­al labor, def­in­itely,” Zie­g­ler said. “At first, it was a big ad­just­ment, I was sore and tired. But I knew it was the only way I was go­ing to get to go to school.”

When in school, Zie­g­ler said, her plan­ner was her best friend—she’d write down everything she had to do dur­ing the week and plan every minute. Some days, if she got be­hind on home­work, she’d try to fin­ish it when she got off work, around 6 in the morn­ing, and then sleep for a couple hours be­fore do­ing it all again.

She had to show up at work, but she also had to do well at school: If stu­dents get be­low a “C” they have to re­pay UPS the tu­ition for that class. But Zie­g­ler said she was mo­tiv­ated to make the UPS pro­gram work.

“Both of my par­ents were pretty adam­ant—do this, so you can do bet­ter than we did,” she told me (neither of her par­ents gradu­ated from col­lege). “I knew that I had to do it, but there were times I thought I would nev­er make it.”

Zie­g­ler worked the night shift for the rest of col­lege, and fin­ished in Decem­ber with a de­gree in so­ci­ology. Soon after, a job at UPS in the HR de­part­ment opened up, and she now works for the HR de­part­ment from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m., five days a week.

She doesn’t re­gret miss­ing the “col­lege ex­per­i­ence,” she told me; she pre­ferred liv­ing at home to liv­ing in the dorms, and liked so­cial­iz­ing with the people she met at UPS more than those at school.

But Zie­g­ler’s school ex­per­i­ence was vastly dif­fer­ent than the lib­er­al-arts edu­ca­tion that Charles Eli­ot en­vi­sioned in his At­lantic art­icle and that has been held up as a mod­el of Amer­ic­an edu­ca­tion for more than a cen­tury. In­deed, Eli­ot wrote that in or­der to get a good edu­ca­tion, stu­dents shouldn’t work manu­al labor while en­rolled.

Re­fer­ring to the Rens­selaer Poly­tech­nic In­sti­tute, which at the time had stu­dents per­form manu­al labor, Eli­ot wrote that “the ex­per­i­ment of mak­ing manu­al labor a part of the reg­u­lar cur­riculum has been tried, and has failed.” Young chil­dren may be able to work in factor­ies for half a day and then learn to read and write, Eli­ot ar­gued, but for ad­vanced in­struc­tion, stu­dents need more time for in­tel­lec­tu­al pur­suits.

“To be sure, a young man can­not read and write 14 hours a day; but when he can­not be study­ing books he can be catch­ing but­ter­flies, hunt­ing for flowers and stones, ex­per­i­ment­ing in a chem­ic­al labor­at­ory, prac­ti­cing mech­an­ic­al draw­ing, sharpen­ing his wits in con­verse with bright as­so­ci­ates, or learn­ing man­ners in ladies’ so­ci­ety,” he wrote. “Any of these oc­cu­pa­tions is much bet­ter for him than dig­ging pota­toes, saw­ing wood, lay­ing brick, or set­ting type.”

* * *

While I was in Ken­tucky, I also vis­ited Berea Col­lege, set in a bu­col­ic small town in the east­ern part of the state. Foun­ded in 1855 as the first coed, non­segreg­ated school in the South, Berea is a “work col­lege”: It provides its stu­dents free tu­ition, and, in ex­change, they must work on cam­pus for 10 to 15 hours a week.

Berea is one of just sev­en “work col­leges” in the United States. Many, like Berea, provide free or re­duced tu­ition in ex­change for work. All try to in­cor­por­ate that work ex­per­i­ence in­to a stu­dent’s aca­dem­ic life, so that stu­dents don’t have to sac­ri­fice their edu­ca­tion to earn money.

Loc­ated on the edge of Ap­palachia, Berea serves many low-in­come stu­dents who would have had to take out large loans to at­tend col­lege at all (99 per­cent of first-year stu­dents are eli­gible for Pell Grants). The jobs as­signed to stu­dents vary from serving food in the din­ing halls to work­ing in the pub­lic-re­la­tions of­fice of the school, and are lim­ited to 10 to 15 hours a week.

I talked to Brit­tany Kenyon and Lisa Rivera, a fresh­man and a sopho­more com­ing out of one of Berea’s pic­tur­esque brick dorms on a re­cent weeknight: Kenyon works clean­ing the dorms; Rivera works for din­ing ser­vices. Both said they’d chosen Berea in part be­cause they wouldn’t have to take out loans. But they’re get­ting a good edu­ca­tion, too. Work nev­er gets in the way of school, they told me.

“They sched­ule you around your classes here,” Kenyon told me. “The classes come first, if you have an hour here, and hour there, that’s when you work.”

The free­dom of not hav­ing to pay for school has al­lowed some stu­dents to use their time to in­vest in the com­munity. One stu­dent I talked to, Eth­an Ham­blin, was able to work for a found­a­tion that en­cour­aged grass­roots phil­an­thropy in Ap­palachia. He is still em­ployed there today, al­though he has gradu­ated.

The work-col­lege mod­el is lauded by both stu­dents and edu­ca­tion ad­voc­ates, but it’s not prac­tic­al for most uni­versit­ies. Berea, for in­stance, has a hefty $1 bil­lion en­dow­ment.

But some schools are try­ing to use the work-col­lege mod­el to make tu­ition more af­ford­able. Paul Quinn Col­lege, a private lib­er­al-arts in­sti­tu­tion in Texas that serves minor­it­ies, re­cently an­nounced that it was launch­ing what it’s call­ing a “New Urb­an Col­lege Mod­el” that will in­teg­rate work in­to stu­dents’ col­lege ex­per­i­ence as a way to re­duce tu­ition costs.

The school launched the pro­gram be­cause many of its stu­dents were strug­gling with how to pay for school, Mi­chael Sor­rell, the col­lege’s pres­id­ent, told me. Be­gin­ning this fall, stu­dents will spend some time work­ing for the school for their first two years, and then will work for com­pan­ies out­side of the uni­versity for their second two years. Stu­dents will not work more than 20 hours a week, he told me. With Pell Grants and the work cred­it, stu­dents should only have to pay a few thou­sand dol­lars a semester, he said, down from the $23,850 in tu­ition the school had been char­ging.

Sor­rel wants his stu­dents to still be able to get a lib­er­al-arts edu­ca­tion. But help­ing them or­gan­ize their work ex­per­i­ence through col­lege will al­low them to do that, while still pay­ing for col­lege, he said. “If your stu­dents are already work­ing, and you don’t help them, then they’re go­ing to get whatever jobs they can, and those jobs aren’t al­ways com­pat­ible with their classes.”

I hadn’t men­tioned UPS when we talked, but Sor­rell brought up the prob­lem of stu­dents tak­ing night-shift work without my prompt­ing. Be­fore start­ing this pro­gram, he said, many of the stu­dents at Paul Quinn found jobs at a Fe­d­Ex fa­cil­ity nearby, work­ing the mid­night shift. They of­ten struggled to stay up for the night shift and achieve aca­dem­ic­ally.

“If you get off work at 3, 4 a.m., you’re not go­ing to your 8 a.m. class,” he said. “And if you go to the 8 a.m. class, you’re not really there.”

“It should nev­er have been defined as either/or,” he said. “I don’t think stu­dents are well-served not be­ing giv­en an op­por­tun­ity to fo­cus on learn­ing. “Where we’ve gone wrong, Sor­rell, said, is mak­ing stu­dents feel like they have to chose between a lib­er­al-arts edu­ca­tion and an af­ford­able edu­ca­tion that also pre­pares them for the real world. He’s hop­ing that Paul Quinn’s pro­gram will al­low them to do both.

* * *

It’s easy to pick on Met­ro­pol­it­an Col­lege and the bar­gain Louis­ville struck with UPS. After all, UPS wasn’t pay­ing people enough to stay in part-time jobs, so it got Louis­ville to pitch in a sub­sidy to make those jobs at­tract­ive to low-in­come people who wanted to go to col­lege.

But it also could be ar­gued that the more op­tions stu­dents have in pay­ing for col­lege, the bet­ter. Just 11 per­cent of low-in­come stu­dents who are first in their fam­ily to at­tend col­lege will have a de­gree six years after en­rolling, be­cause of the many chal­lenges, fin­an­cial and aca­dem­ic, that they face. And while it might have once been pos­sible for stu­dents to work their way through col­lege on grit alone, tu­ition has ris­en so much faster than the min­im­um wage that a stu­dent would now have to work 991 hours to pay for one year of pub­lic uni­versity tu­ition, one study found.

Un­til we find a way to make col­lege more af­ford­able, it can’t hurt to give stu­dents more ways to pay for col­lege. As long as they know they have op­tions. Stu­dents should be aware that they can take out loans and not work dur­ing school, Per­na told me, or that they can get a job and work and study throughout. They should know that there are Pell Grants avail­able and state loans, in some cases. They should know there are pro­grams such as Met­ro­pol­it­an Col­lege, but also that they don’t have to do them to go to school.

I wondered how much choice theh stu­dents en­rolled in Met­ro­pol­it­an Col­lege felt they had: The city would pay half of their col­lege tu­ition if they pledged to work for UPS, but, oth­er­wise, they were on their own. A friend who grew up in Louis­ville joked to me that stu­dents there have two choices to get a free ride to col­lege: work the night shift at UPS or “get shot at,” by join­ing the mil­it­ary.

But then I talked to Ilya Ly­al­in, now 26, who worked for UPS dur­ing a few years of col­lege. He wouldn’t have been able to at­tend school without Met­ro­pol­it­an Col­lege: His par­ents, Rus­si­an im­mig­rants, told him after his first year of low grades at Jef­fer­son Com­munity and Tech­nic­al Col­lege that they wer­en’t go­ing to pay for school any­more, and that he should drop out and get a job.

“I ba­sic­ally had an op­tion of either leav­ing school or go­ing to UPS and work­ing there and stay­ing in school,” he told me.

He thought ser­i­ously about drop­ping out, but a few friends were do­ing Met­ro­pol­it­an Col­lege, so he ap­plied and star­ted work­ing as a load­er, tak­ing pack­ages off a con­vey­or belt and stack­ing them in con­tain­ers. When Ly­al­in star­ted work­ing in the sum­mer, it was hor­rible, he said. He stayed up all night in the heat to load pack­ages while su­per­visors har­angued him to move faster. Once school star­ted again, it was even worse. His friends would be hanging out, and he’d have to leave and go to work. It got worse when he trans­ferred to the Uni­versity of Louis­ville, which had much more of a tra­di­tion­al col­lege at­mo­sphere.

“I hated it. I was the type of col­lege stu­dent that would just be out on weeknights, hanging out with friends, and I felt like that’s it, my life is over,” he said. “Every­body says col­lege is sup­posed to be amaz­ing. I was like, this is great, but I’m go­ing to get out of here and real­ize I didn’t make any friends—or get to do any­thing.”

But he had signed the con­tract with UPS that said they would pay for his semester, and if he dropped the job, he’d have to re­pay the com­pany. So he stuck with it. And things star­ted get­ting less miser­able. He got a lucky break when he got trans­ferred to a dif­fer­ent de­part­ment that sor­ted ir­reg­u­lar pack­ages, where the work ten­ded to be slower and he some­times even had some time to study. He even con­tin­ued to do a second job, work­ing at a kiosk at a mall, to earn more money.

Ly­al­in had to quit the UPS job after he de­cided to study en­gin­eer­ing. The classes and home­work re­quired to study cal­cu­lus and phys­ics re­quired Ly­al­in’s full brain power, and he found it was all but im­possible to have the ca­pa­city to do the course work on no sleep. He did it for one semester, and it was hell. He’d work un­til 5 a.m. and then sleep un­til cal­cu­lus class at 9 a.m., and be up for the rest of the day study­ing and work­ing. The worst was every Tues­day when there would be a cal­cu­lus test at 8 a.m. His GPA began to tumble.

“It was two hours of sleep every night for the whole semester,” he said. “It was the hard­est thing I’ve ever had to do.”

When he stopped work­ing for UPS, his life changed. He joined a fra­tern­ity, star­ted in­tern­ing with an en­gin­eer­ing com­pany, fin­ished his bach­el­or’s, and then got his mas­ter’s in en­gin­eer­ing.

But what fas­cin­ates me about Ly­al­in is that he looks back fondly on his time at UPS, and some­times kicks him­self for drop­ping it. Yes, he drank en­ergy drinks to stay up, and, yes, his teeth rot­ted from those en­ergy drinks, and yes, he some­times had to drink NyQuil to make him­self sleep at 6 in the morn­ing, and yes, his course­work suffered, but he got two years of col­lege, for free, saved up a lot of money and be­came more dis­cip­lined about sleep and home­work.

Yes, com­ing from a low-in­come fam­ily changed his col­lege ex­per­i­ence, he said, but money changes everything. If money wer­en’t an ob­ject, he would have stud­ied polit­ics in­stead of en­gin­eer­ing, for in­stance. And he’d tried to re­duce the role money played in his col­lege ex­per­i­ence: He’d ap­plied to schol­ar­ships and grants be­fore col­lege, and had even been a fi­nal­ist for one, but didn’t re­ceive a penny in fin­an­cial aid.

Now, Ly­al­in has $30,000 in loans to pay off from the rest of his school­ing. He has a job in Louis­ville, and is glad he went to col­lege. But when he looks back, he’s thank­ful he had UPS, miser­able as it was at the time. When all is said and done, he prefers the night shift to the loans that now hov­er over him, and will, he says, for many years.

“The loans are much worse than work­ing there,” he told me. “I just feel like I’m caged in.”

Friends who don’t have loans are buy­ing houses, ad­opt­ing dogs, trav­el­ing the world. Even though he has a good job and man­aged to get through col­lege and gradu­ate, with much of his tu­ition covered, Ly­al­in is still pay­ing the price for be­ing poor.

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