When Ramal Johnson imagined his life as a PhD student at Howard University, he didn't picture waking up at 4 A.M. to work double retail shifts in addition to his coursework. But last semester, when he was struggling to keep up with rent and student loan payments, that's what his days looked like. Even with his jobs at Best Buy and Express, he wasn't always making enough to cover the cost of living in the D.C. area. "I kind of felt like a failure," he says. "I was just depressed, I was sad, and I was angry, but at nobody in particular. I guess I was just angry at the situation."
But, he says, the tradeoffs feel worth it. Like a lot of students, Ramal sees education as a way up the class ladder. "There’s a pretty good chance I’ll be making six figures in the future," he told me. Right now, Ramal says he's straddling the middle and working class—he grew up on a military base, and now, he says, he’s kept a "middle class mentality" while he tries to keep up with the financial reality of his almost $200,000 in student loan debt. But, he told me, it's a burden that he says felt necessary to take on. "Especially as an African American male, people don’t take me seriously in the first place," he said. "With a PhD I’ll have more of a chance."
If you're curious about whether you're considered in the middle class based on your location and the number of people in your household, check out this class calculator from the Pew Research Center.
We asked the people we interviewed for this series to submit photos of things they felt represented their class status. Ramal sent us this photo of Howard University, where he is getting his doctoral degree in communications.
This episode is part of our collaborative series with BuzzFeed called Opportunity Costs: Money and Class in America. To hear more, go to deathsexmoney.org/class.