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I Can’t Afford to Go to My Dream School & I’m Freaking Out

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Figuring out where to go to college is a very long process, and this is the home stretch. But for many students trying to decide where to go to school in the fall, this time of year is also the worst part. The journey that started out with so many exciting (albeit stressful) unknowns is coming down to a few hard, cold facts: where you’ve been accepted, how much money the school is giving you and how much money you’re going to have to spend to go there.

There’s no more wondering if or hoping you’ll get more scholarships, grants or generous aid packages. There’s just a lot of math with big numbers and the possibility that you’ll be in a lot of debt by the end of all this. As the financial aid award letters started arriving at her home a few weeks ago, one high school senior started to worry she’d end up in much more debt than she originally thought.

Delilah, a 17-year-old from Maryland who asked we not use her last name because she’s still waiting to hear from some schools, didn’t get any financial aid other than unsubsidized federal student loans from the first two schools that sent her letters. Still waiting to hear from her dream school — $64,000-a-year Oberlin College — she started to worry there was no way she’d be able to afford the schools she loved. In matter of days, the excitement she’d felt for months about going to college evaporated.

“I’m more nervous now,” she said. “I don’t know what’s a large amount of student loans. … How much is the debt going to screw up my financial life?”

As happens to so many students and their families, Delilah’s Expected Family Contribution (determined by information filled out on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, aka the FAFSA) is much higher than what her parents told her they’d pay for college. Her EFC is $60,000 for the next academic year (it’s determined on a yearly basis). Her parents said they’d give her $10,000 a year.

“It’s kind of catching them off guard,” Delilah said. She’s the oldest child in her family, and her dad worked through college to pay for it. “They thought it was totally reasonable to have me pay my way through college.”

Now that her potential schools are sending her financial aid award letters, she and her parents see she may need a significant amount of federal student loans to pay for school. She has some scholarships and merit awards, and she can get varying amounts of college credit through her AP scores and some community college classes she’s taking, but this, combined with the federal student loans and her parents’ contribution won’t cover everything, it seems.

On top of all that, Delilah wants to study history and doesn’t expect to have a lucrative career. She’s struggling to grasp what’s an acceptable amount of student loan debt, but it’s hard for her to process working with such massive sums of money.

“I feel like right now I wouldn’t want to take on more than $40,000 or $50,000 [in debt] but I’m not used to dealing with this much money, ” she said. “I know people who think that $150,000 of student loan debt is the total norm.”

It’s not. The average student loan borrower from the class of 2015 owes about $35,000, according to an analysis of government data by Mark Kantrowitz, publisher at Edvisors — though those six-figure debt loads aren’t unheard of, even for undergraduates.

This is Delilah’s biggest financial decision so far, and she has to make it soon. For months she’s had her heart set on Oberlin, but with a month left before she has to commit, she’s trying to figure out how to love other schools.

“I don’t want to come down to going to a school I don’t like, but finances are the biggest thing right now,” she said. With AP credits and lower tuition, the in-state school she applied to, St. Mary’s College of Maryland, could end up being significantly cheaper than her first-choice Oberlin. Still, Oberlin is her favorite. She has a lot to think about and little time to make a decision. “It really frustrates me. I think the price of college is just ridiculous — it blows my mind.”

We’re going to check in with Delilah in the coming weeks as she finalizes where — and how much she’ll pay — to go to college. (You can see how your student loan debt may be affecting your credit scores by viewing your free credit report summary, updated each month, on Credit.com.)

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