The College Try Liz Waite and Kersheral Jessup couldn’t afford a higher education, let alone rent. But they worked and scrounged and slept on couches to put themselves through school. Will their degrees be worth it?

Ashley Powers:

“Hey,” the text began. It was from the friend she’d been crashing with for the past few nights.

“Would you move back into your godmoms until you find another place?”

She sighed. It was just before 8 a.m. one Thursday this spring, and Liz Waite had a million other things she’d rather stress about than where she was going to sleep.

Liz was 24 and halfway through her first semester at California State University, Long Beach. She was a theater major (with a theater major’s predilection for randomly breaking into song), and that day she was juggling, among other things, a midterm on the play structure of Aristotle and a meeting at the affordable-housing advocacy group where she was an intern. She eventually replied to the text, her tone stiff: “My friend is picking me and my stuff up Saturday.”

Liz dashed across four lanes of traffic on Long Beach Boulevard, a glittering cloth headband matting her damp blond hair. Her face was mostly scrubbed of makeup, save for a slash of blue eyeliner, and she wore a thin green-and-pink dress, an off-the-shoulder sweater, and two small pins: One pictured John Coltrane; the other said FOOD NOT BOMBS. She carried a big reddish purse that a co-worker at the affordable-housing group swore someone had abandoned. Liz suspected the co-worker bought it for her but was too kind to say so.

All her life, Liz had been told by her teachers that college was a passport to prosperity. With a bachelor’s degree, you’re more likely to climb the income ladder, less likely to tumble back down, and better able to withstand a recession. So Liz had spent the past six years slogging through community college but still fell short of a degree. Like many students, she took classes she didn’t need, partly due to poor advising and partly because she was feeling her way toward a major. She’d also had problems with her financial aid, and she probably needed two and a half more years at Cal State to get her bachelor’s, which would mean she’d be in college close to nine years total.

Four days a week, Liz spent a half-hour on the city bus rumbling to campus. She was a shaken Coke can, ready to explode. She was broke, estranged from her parents, and lacked a reliable place to sleep. These days, she usually curled up on her godmom’s couch, cats Miles and Baby Girl purring nearby, sunrise peeking through a curtain that gave the entire room a greenish tint. But the situation was untenable: Liz’s godmom was 60, and she lived in a seniors-only apartment building. They worried that if other residents noticed Liz was crashing there, her godmom would lose her housing.