Today, my number is $47,056.35. Tomorrow it will increase. Do you know what your number will be in 2018?
The question I found myself pondering in 2009 was not whether I would go to college, but where I would go. In fact, I never thought of an option other than college. No one mentored me in how to chose colleges, how financial aid works, or how to develop pragmatic, long-term career goals. More importantly, no one challenged me to be skeptical of the American college system. It’s part of life, my naive, 17-year-old self thought at the time. But I find my 22 year-old self now wondering, did it have to be?
I wish one person would have challenged me to think differently.
Last year I graduated from my university with three majors and a minor. I won a lot of awards for academic achievement, was funded to complete overseas research, and maintained a respectable GPA. My friends and family are confident that my hard work will pay off in the long-run, and I know I have put myself in the best position possible given the resources at my disposal. But my number still haunts me–what if my plan doesn’t work out?
I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on my years of study at a private university in Upstate New York. The more I think about it, the more angry I am with myself that I bought into the system, that I didn’t dare to be radically different.
No one challenged the new, state-of-the-art buildings that appeared overnight on campus, the dependence on adjunct and non-tenured professors to teach classes, the increase in lecture capacity due to the incoming class of 20XX (which, every year is the largest in school history), and the insidious partnerships between private, student loan-lending banks and colleges (JP Morgan Chase leases out an entire academic building at my alma mater). All the while, we accepted the 3% annual tuition hike, a complete lack of administration transparency, and ridiculous university policies, including a 2-year mandatory on-campus housing requirement.
Class of 2018, pretend I am the big sister you never had for a moment. You don’t know what you’re getting yourself into, and you are unprepared for the consequences.
Do you know what your number is going to be in May 2018? I’m guessing no. I want you to take a moment right now and think. If not University X, then what?
For starters, you can consider a community college or state school, especially if you don’t have a lot of AP credits under your belt. What’s the difference between taking a 3-credit Introduction to Geology course at a community college and a private, four-year school? (Hint: $170/credit hour at a community college vs. $1,294/credit at a private university). You’re going to be required to do a liberal arts curriculum wherever you choose to attend, and chances are, there are going to be classes you’re required to take unrelated to your major anyways. Why not do it for $510?
If you are dead-set on going to a four-year school, and live close enough to the school you want to attend, why don’t you consider being a commuter student your first year? (If you are all about having the “college experience” of living in an overpriced dorm, eating overpriced food, and making superficial friends at fraternity parties, you clearly already have your priorities in order. Congratulations!). The popular school of choice for kids from my high school is Cornell University, which is also a convenient 29.5 miles away. The housing cost at Cornell for the 2014-2015 ranges between $5,000-$9,000, not including additional housing fees and the cost of maintaining a meal plan. I know, living at mom and dad’s when you’re 18 is totally not cool… but is living at mom and dad’s when you’re 23 any cooler? When you put it that way, commuting everyday for the first year looks a lot better doesn’t it?
Pick a real major. Or at least pick a major with a good return on investment. Becoming the next Idina Menzel, Tom Brokaw, or Diane von Furstenberg is a great ambition but it isn’t practical. At the same time, Underwater Basket Weaving is a really cool major and I bet you will make great friends with it, but at the end of the day I think we can both agree it’s not $50,000 cool. There’s a lot of opportunities for scholarships and fellowships in STEM majors, especially for young women and minorities. Do your research and chose your major wisely.
Study in Europe. Or Asia. Or somewhere outside of the U.S. Did you know that Norwegian universities don’t charge tuition? Ever heard of the Erasmus Programme? (Google it and prepare for your mind to be blown). Some countries provide students a living wage while they are in college a.k.a. they pay their students to go to college, not the other way around. I know, my jaw dropped too. Do your research. Think outside the box.
Now, if you want to be a real rebel, defer your enrollment. That’s right, I said it, defer your enrollment. Spend your year after high school volunteering with AmeriCorps or City Year (which awards educational grants after successful completion of service). If you are looking to enroll at Tufts, good news for you! Their new 1+4 Program will award financial aid to incoming freshmen that elect to spend their year after high school in national or international service. Spend the year working and saving money, especially if you didn’t have a job in high school. Bottom line: gain some life experience before you commit to $40,000 of student debt.
You have options Class of 2018. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. You can do something radical and be the vanguard of a new generation of college students who don’t take bullshit. You don’t have to graduate with $40,000 of debt. And you shouldn’t have to.
Oh, by the way, congrats on your upcoming graduation.