The Real Truth About Financial Aid

The American Dream is comprised of many different aspects but I think the most important one is obtaining a college degree. Society beats into our heads that we have to get a degree or we won’t be successful. I personally believe that a college education is the best asset that anyone can be in possession of. A degree opens up many doors. However, our society makes it seem that affording college is just signing a check—when it’s not. Everyone thinks that they will get scholarships and grants and yeah they do, but then what happens if the money disappears?

Ever since I was a little girl, I dreamed of attending college. Partly because my parents told me that they would cut me out of their will and also because I want to be successful when I am a “grown-up.” Of course, I went through career phases, but once the college application process began I was committed to being a business major—specifically, accounting. Once my applications were submitted, I started filing the FAFSA and CSS Profile and crossed my fingers for aid.

Once the acceptance letters came in the mail, financial aid followed. Colleges found their way off the list because of the lack of aid. However, I attended the Accepted Students Day for the college that I committed to and I knew this was the school for me. That day, my mom and I met with my financial aid counselor, and I remember my mom whispering to me, “Gab, we are going to make this work.” The counselor told me that I was lucky because the aid covered more than half of the cost of attendance. My mom and I walked out of the session with smiles on our faces and headed to the bookstore to buy everything with the college’s name on it.

When I got home, I sent my deposit check in and college became more real with each passing day. The excitement that came along with being able to afford college was indescribable. Yes, the price after the aid was still expensive but it was doable for my family. My parents told me that they would be paying freshman year in its entirety and then would help with the remaining years. Whatever they couldn’t cover plus graduate school would fall on me. I found that to be a pretty sweet deal and off I went to Bed Bath and Beyond to go dorm shopping (coupons in hand, might I add).

So just like that, freshman year was paid in full and then it was over. It flew by in the blink of an eye. I made amazing friends, had great relationships with my professors, I had an awful roommate experience, and the communal bathrooms were a warzone. I wouldn’t trade it for anything else.

My parents and I should have taken the following situation into consideration when we filed the paperwork for sophomore year. Last Thanksgiving, my grandfather unexpectedly passed away and my dad received the death benefit due to his fire service. Since a death benefit is like money, it is subject to taxes and then placed on the income statement. Looking back, we had no idea what this would do to my financial aid.

I’ll never forget May 29th, 2015. The financial aid awards for sophomore year were released. In just a matter of a few seconds, my life began crashing in on me. I only received my merit scholarship. The other aid was mysteriously gone. Naturally, I thought that there had been some kind of mistake — there had to be. Someone can’t lose that much money from one year to another (SURPRISE! It can and it happens all the time). I was confused, emotional, and nervous. I frantically emailed my counselor and obsessively refreshed my computer.

That night my parents and I reviewed the tax return and realized that the death benefit was the increase in “income.” It made sense now because the increase in their income equaled the total amount of the benefit. The most upsetting part of this is that the money from the benefit was used to pay for the wake, funeral, and headstone expenses. I rehearsed what I was going to say and prayed that everything was going to be okay.

I called the financial aid office to figure out the “mistake.” But, when I called, I found out that there was no mistake at all. The school was correct in aid disbursement. My counselor told me that my situation was unfortunate but she said she couldn’t do anything. Imagine how that felt to hear. Nothing. It felt like someone punched me in the stomach.

I asked if I could file an appeal because my grandfather’s passing should not be penalizing me. My counselor said, “yes” to my appeal but warned me and said, “don’t count on anything.” Almost near tears, I said that I couldn’t take a loan for $40,000 and I would be forced into transferring.  The counselor didn’t care and just like a knife through my heart, she said, “do what you have to do, it’s your problem.”

Heartbroken, I hung up the phone and figured how much it was going to cost to stay at my university. To stay was roughly $125,000 without interest. Interest included would be almost $200,000 for a Bachelor’s in accounting. Grad school wasn’t an option. I swallowed my pride, bandaged my ego, and decided to go through with transferring.

I got on the phone and called other private colleges that are near my home. Private again? Well to answer this, these other colleges had lower tuition prices and I would be commuting from my house. The transfer coordinator at the college that I’m now enrolled at talked me off the edge of a nervous breakdown. I completed the application at her desk and within 30 minutes, I was enrolled in a new college and I was numb.

Whether or not you agree behind my decision to transfer, that is only up for you to decide. I put a lot of thought into my decision. My after college dreams mean a lot so why should I give them all up for an undergraduate degree? I would be giving up everything if I returned. Without transferring, I would walk away from that university with no money for grad school and an enormous amount of debt. As an accounting major, I would like to pursue my MBA with a concentration in finance, work for a Big 4 firm, work my way up the chain, and ultimately be a CFO. The more I thought about the debt, the more freaked out that I got. My ambition and hard work can only get me so far; everything comes down to money, which absolutely sucks—I wish there was a better way to say it. I’m not going to let this bump in the road stop me. I refuse to.

Like I said before, everything in life comes down to money. That new car you want? Money. A down payment on a house? Money. Your college education? Money. If I could travel back in time to about a year ago, I would make sure that I was better informed about the financial aid process. I thought that I was receiving a great “deal” and believed everything that the counselors told me. I was assured that my aid would stay consistent from year to year. But, the fact is, that statement couldn’t be farther from the truth. I am in no way a financial aid expert, but after hours of research, I found out colleges across the United States like to practice “front-loading.”

Front-loading is when colleges award their potential freshman students with over-generous aid packages, hoping that they enroll. These colleges do not have the intention of awarding all of the money from freshman year over to sophomore year.

Learn from my mistakes and when you receive your award, carefully look at it. If you have a question, ask it. College is a serious investment and don’t assume anything regarding aid! When you receive a merit scholarship, make sure you confirm whether or not there is a GPA requirement. Also, a lot of colleges like to set an almost near unachievable GPA requirement for the first year students so that the scholarship can be revoked sophomore year. Maintaining a requirement is a lot of work. The grants that you might get are probably not going to be renewed the following year. Even though it might say that they are renewable, the financial aid office will find a loophole.

Before I brought up transferring to my counselor, she told me to just take a loan out. From my experience and the articles I read, loans are the most common answer that financial aid counselors give. There’s nothing wrong with taking loans out to fund a college education. But, over $100,000 in an undergraduate degree? That’s insane. In my opinion, an undergraduate degree is not worth that much especially if you would like to attend graduate school. I think that everyone should be smart about how much they are borrowing. But once interest is added, the original principle skyrockets. But, then again, to each their own.

Society tells us that nothing should stop us from attending college and that’s true. But, unfortunately reality has to be faced. It’s tough to be faced with such an “adult” decision at 19 years old but I have so much peace with my choice. I can go to sleep at night and not worry about graduating with 6 figures in debt. The best part of all—I am still able to achieve all my goals…and then some.

This situation has taught me many lessons. I had to make a decision that was best for my family and myself—not for my friends or strangers. I didn’t listen to the gossip that was flying around about me. I ignored it and kept moving. Reflecting on it now, it was the best thing I could have done. What ultimately helped me finalize my transfer decision is the life I want after I graduate from undergrad. If I borrowed all of that money, I wouldn’t be able to have an apartment in NYC. All my money would go towards paying the loans back, bills, and other expenses (and I would be probably be living at home).

Finally, some of you might have to do what I did and transfer. I understand the heartbreak that you’re going through but I can promise that the sadness will slowly end. You have to remember that you are helping yourself get even further ahead in life. It’s okay to be upset and angry—I know how you feel. I don’t know about you but I’m not going to let this own me. I can’t let it. Finally, if the loan is right for you, take it and don’t look back. If it’s not, don’t do it because you’ll live to regret it. Weigh all of your options and then make a decision. If you have the fight within you, you can achieve anything—look at me, I’m enrolled in a new college and will graduate on time. Lastly, society is right about college being at your fingertips; the only catch is that you have to be smart about it.

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