The $52,000 Question (not counting books and travel)
As my dad gets into our scraped-up 1993 Subaru, he lowers the driver's window. None of the other windows work anymore, and the button control pad is accessible only because my mom has stuffed plastic bags inside the armrest in order to prop up the button pad. Dad starts the car and backs out of the garage to go to work. Mom has decreed the car may be used only for local--no freeways allowed!--driving, because the car has left us stranded on the side of the freeway more than once and continues to act up. As Dad pulls out of the driveway, he reflects once again that he could replace this clanky car that smells of exhaust fumes--if it weren't for his daughter's college tuition.
Later this afternoon, the car will stall as he drives home and refuse to restart. Mom will go rescue Dad in our 2003 Toyota (which we still consider "new"). The Subaru will be towed away and my parents will wrestle with decisions--fix it? Go down to one car? Take out a loan to buy another? Again, these choices would be less painful if I weren't going to college.
Education is priceless--and pricey. Over the past few decades, college costs have gone up at several times the general rate of inflation, and in the current economy, paying room, board, and tuition can be a daunting prospect. Parents have less money; the job market is tighter for students; and, due to decreased donations and faltering endowments, colleges have less money, making it more difficult to offer financial aid at the very moment it is most needed.
The tighter financial situation requires all three--parents, students, and colleges--to look closely at their finances and to make choices, often difficult ones, about how to allocate the money they have; find ways to make more money; and agonize (in my mother's case) over the loan options available.
Because it's the student who is the consumer, I feel the student ought to pay as much of the bill as he or she can. For me, this meant, first of all, applying to schools that offered merit aid and making a responsible decision about which college to attend. It meant trying to find other scholarships, too, and taking out student loans. Scholarships take a chunk out of the total cost, and loans postpone some of the payment: a good start, but there are still plenty of college costs left to pay. Taking care of that requires getting a job--and turning the money over for tuition.
I'm going to talk mainly about my own experience here, because that's the only situation I know of. I hope others can benefit from this.
My parents have been great about the expense of Oberlin. It was one of the best choices for me financially (with the scholarships factored in, it was not that much more than the cost of attending the University of Washington), but they're still paying more than a Corolla a year. They tell me repeatedly that they're happy to do it; they think I'm getting a lot out of the experience, in terms of academic education and of social exploration, and I agree. Still, I know they're doing a lot for me, or rather, not doing a lot. My tuition could be spent on that Corolla, or on a trip to Greece, or--to be more realistic, as Mom pointed out--on not going into debt, or Dad having a Saturday off now and then.
Each family's financial situation is unique, and I imagine it is a complex matter for the colleges to assess each separate case. Our own runs something like this: Dad went back for a master's degree in his mid-twenties, then back for a doctorate in his thirties, and each degree had its attendant loans. My parents got a late start in saving for retirement, so that is a priority for them. We have two cars, but one of them, as demonstrated above, is almost as old as I am and on its last legs (wheels?). Our house is my parents' first, purchased when I was nine, and as soon as they could, they rolled Dad's student loans into the mortgage.
The Financial Aid office does take into account relevant information--there's a big box at the end of the renewal form that says, basically, "If there's anything else you think we should know about, tell us." That could be medical expenses, family emergencies, getting laid off--anything that might affect the award.
However, the best thing to do is to try to get scholarships! I believe Oberlin offers a few athletic scholarships, but I'm not sure. The school does offer need-based grants. Most of my aid, however, is in the form of renewable merit scholarships from the school. I have a renewable outside scholarship as well. (A tip: It's best to apply for smaller, more local scholarships, where there will be fewer other entrants.)
But even after scholarships, you probably won't have as much money as the school is asking. This is where loans come in. Last year I didn't max out my loan--I was approved for up to $5,500 and I took out only $3,000. Given the fact the furnace died and Mom broke her foot, I probably should have taken out the maximum--but we were trying hard to keep the loans down. This year I'm going to have to take out the full amount. My parents are having to take out a loan, too, to help me out.
And then there's work.
I'm proud to say that I've been able to roll over $1,500 in tuition and buy all my books for each of my first two semesters. Granted, some of that was graduation gift money, but most of it I earned lifeguarding, babysitting, housecleaning, and blogging.
This summer, I'm doing a lot of "freelance" work: the aforementioned babysitting and housecleaning. I've printed up a stack of little flyers, which I'm distributing to my brother's friends' parents, advertising my willingness to tutor, garden, clean, etc. Hopefully, this will pay off in a lot of little jobs that will add up to a few thousand dollars over the course of the summer. (Working by contract like this, I can charge more than minimum wage, which is a major benefit.) My fingers are crossed.
Then comes the crucial element of willpower. You've just worked hard and gotten paid, and there's a cool new CD/video game/T-shirt out there with your name on it . . . and you have to ignore it. I don't mean you can't do anything--going to the movies with a friend now and then seems fine to me. But books and music are things to get from the library, not buy; TV shows and movies are, too, and they're usually easy to stream free on the Internet if you'd prefer that. (Besides, where else but YouTube could you find steampunk bands?) Learn to prioritize and use your ingenuity to amuse yourself. It's much easier to learn to want less than to try to figure out a way to pay for it all. And you'll realize that, especially at Oberlin, you can have lots of extra fun at little or no extra cost.
This isn't very difficult for me, because I'm an inveterate cheapskate. I swear that part of my psyche thinks it lived through the Great Depression--that would explain my packrat tendencies as well ("This shirt doesn't have holes in it; it's wasteful to throw it out. And I can't throw away my 10th grade Geography class maps--I might need them!"). All my clothes, including coats, shoes, and boots, would fit into three large suitcases. But I'm not perfect; I just bought a really cool t-shirt online from Shirt.Woot! That means I'll have to hustle up a few more babysitting gigs. Everything is a trade-off.
But Oberlin is worth it.