For as long as I can remember I have been preparing for college.
And not because I wanted to, but because I was “encouraged” (nagged) by my parents. It started in middle school. I had to get good grades so I could get into a good program at my high school, where I had to get good grades so I could get into a good college.
For my classmates it was similar. Of course, my experience was different in one way: My mother is a personal finance columnist. Plus my parents had money saved for my education. My whole life, I have been immersed in a freakish amount of financial knowledge — and assessing the price of college was no exception. While I was getting the money talk, many of my friends and classmates were simply being told to get into a “good” college and the rest would somehow fall into place.
This college question was causing me a crazy amount of stress. So in my father’s usual fashion, a legal pad was brought out. And we began to chart and rate the schools based on distance, location, academics, size, sports, and cost.
Now, I am guilty of using the smile-and-nod routine during almost all of those “cost of college” talks, so when I actually had to consider the money, it took me a little by surprise.
For one thing, the cost of private and out-of-state schools was much higher than for in-state ones. Also there is so much more to pay for than just room, board, and tuition. (That either didn’t register to me or, more truthfully, I probably zoned out during that part of our talks.) You have to pay for books. And meals away from the dining hall, dorm supplies, entertainment, and transportation. If you have a car, you have to pay to park on campus. You even have to pay to apply to college!
Speaking to my classmates, there seemed to be a huge mental gap between how much college was going to cost and where that money was going to come from.
One problem I encountered that my peers also struggled with was the fact that my parents made enough money that I didn’t qualify for much, if any, aid, but they didn’t make enough to simply write a check for the school of my dreams: the University of North Carolina.
In my mind, if I got in, even though the cost for an out-of-state student of about $46,000 a year was quite high, I thought my parents would make it work. They did tell me to prepare for maybe not being able to go. But again, I performed the smile-and-nod routine.
I ended up at the University of Maryland. The only real problem I had with UMD was that it was so close to home and my parents (OK, my mother). But now that I’m here, it feels a world away. I received a scholarship, but even that doesn’t go as far as I thought it would. I still need to cover about $15,000 a year, and this doesn’t include books and other personal expenses, which my parents require that I pay from income I earn during the summer.
Right now, high school seniors are deciding where to go to college. I offer this small piece of advice: Understand that while going to a prestige school may seem appealing and the only option for you, at the end of the day it doesn’t matter so much where you go, but what you do when you get there.