When I was a teenager, I didn’t know anything about money. I knew the basics, like that my dad’s salary as a college professor was just barely over six figures and that my parents had some debt, but paid off their credit cards every month. I also knew that I needed to make birthday money last, and that asking to go on that two-week trip to Paris with my high school French class was out the question.
But college was different. I’d grown up on stories of my mom’s time at her small New Hampshire liberal arts school with ivy-covered walls and all I wanted was to find a place like that. There was never a question of whether I’d go to college, just where.
So when I got my first copy of the U.S. News and World Report’s “Best Colleges” at 14, I pored over the list of top liberal arts schools. Off my list came any school on the third or fourth tier. Off came schools with a gender imbalance or schools where I thought I might end up being the smartest girl in the room. The location had to be temperate: I needed four seasons, and there should be no sororities. I rejected schools because they were too conservative. I rejected a school because when I toured it everyone was wearing skinny jeans. I refused to tour another because the campus looked terribly drab from the admissions center parking lot. And, in an incident that has now become family legend, I once turned to my parents while wandering the grounds of a school and said, in disgust “none of the buildings here match.”
Affordability? Why Does it Matter?
Yes, I was a brat. It’s OK to think it; I definitely do. My only defense is that I was young and things were different then. In the early 2000s, the conversation about college was also different: Record numbers of students were applying, and with the advent of the Internet, we could go online and research schools across the country easily from our living rooms. Very few of us talked about affordability.
The advice I remember reading said you should spend your time worrying about finding the right fit. Loans weren’t a big deal, really, as long as you didn’t take out more than you could expect to make in salary after graduation. Plus, as a high achiever, I was sure I’d get merit scholarships.
After all was said and done, I ended up applying to nine schools I was excited about. As a safety measure, I also applied to a well-regarded but easy-to-get-into state school.
April was, in my mind, supposed to be this happy month where I got to explore my many options and pick the one that would offer me the most opportunities to shine. Instead I spent it looking at contingency plans. One school accepted me with just barely too little aid to be affordable; and there was always the state school.
The day before the first of May, when colleges require a deposit, I came home to find my mom looking over financial aid documents at the kitchen table. “We can make it work, if you want to go to Earlham,” she said. That was the last thing I heard all night; I was getting what I wanted.
We sent in my deposit check, and the school sent me a T-shirt. I met my roommate and lots of other incoming students on Facebook. I signed up for voice lessons and classes.
That July, my mom called me to the living room, where she and my dad told me, stony-faced, that they did not, in fact, think Earlham was an affordable choice; I could no longer go there. I tearily suggested private student loans, but they demurred. Lots of crying and fighting followed, and it took a few days, but we finally reached a compromise. I could go to Earlham, but only for one year.
My one year there was everything a freshman year is supposed to be, with heartbreak and intense friendships, midnight trips to the diner, all-nighters in the library. I was doing well in all my courses and getting solos in the choir. It already felt like home. And then I had to leave.
Time for a Transfer
The school where I ended up — for my sophomore year, at least — was big and Catholic and in the middle of the Bronx. I hated it. People were nice, but coming in as a transfer and an introvert, it was hard to find my people and my place. I spent most of my time in bed; I decided to try for a fresh start again.
My third and final college was in Iowa, and it’s a lovely, tree-lined campus with buildings that remind you of Hogwarts when it snows. I hoped, when I started there, that I’d find my people. I didn’t; transferring is hard, but much harder when you’re an introvert. But things were easier; I started to enjoy my time alone. I went to professors’ office hours. I got recommended for internships that I never would have gotten had I had a social life. And most importantly, I had a full-tuition scholarship.
Most of my friends and acquaintances left college with a fully formed social group and connections that are still strong three years out. They feel a tie to the alumni groups that meet in our city. They smile thinking about all the fun they had in school. Many of them also have a lot of debt.
I’m now a person who thinks about money. Part of that is because my job in project management has me working with accounts payable and receivable, sending invoices, and helping to set department budgets. Even in my personal life, I’m always pulling up my bank app, fiddling with my 401(k), and reading articles about budgeting and saving. And every once in a while, like when I open up Nelnet to look at the (tiny) outstanding balance on my student loans, it looks a little bit like penance.
I feel fortunate that my parents didn’t let me take out the loans that I wanted to as a desperate 17-year-old. My loan payments have always been manageable, even when I was underemployed, and that has given me so much peace of mind. The cost of transferring was almost entirely social, and — even though that’s not quantifiable — it feels high.
My family learned a lot of lessons from my experience. My younger brother is headed off to college in the fall, and the advice my parents and I gave him is so different from the advice I received that I can hardly believe it. We talked to him about things like what his student loan payment would be, per month, if he went to school A vs. school B, and how being one of the smarter kids on campus only means that you’re more likely to have scholarships and opportunities thrown at your feet. He made a good choice, I think, and he’ll be able to stay at his school for all four years. We sat down and did the math.
This post originally appeared on TheBillfold.
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