The following is my best recollection of a recent conversation I had with a college student in my office. He was an incoming freshman who was coming in to talk about his tuition bill for the first semester.
Me: “Good Morning! How can I help you?”
College Student (CS): “Well, I’m not sure really. It seems there is still a balance due on my tuition bill.”
Me: “Sure, let’s take a look.” Pause. “Yes, it looks like there is still a balance of $14,500 for the semester after all of your financial aid has been applied.”
CS: “I don’t understand.”
Me: “Your total tuition and fees for the semester as an out-of-state student was $19,000. You received a $1,000 scholarship from our financial aid office and then you received $3,500 in student loans. Subtracting this financial aid from the total cost of the semester still leaves you with a balance of $14,500, and that is just for the fall semester. The spring semester will be roughly the same cost.”
CS: “I don’t understand.”
Me: “Could you be a little more specific?”
CS: “Why do I still have a balance? I thought I had financial aid.”
Me: “Well yes, you do have some financial aid awards but there is still a large gap between what your financial aid will cover and what your actual tuition and fees are.”
CS: “How is that possible? You accepted me as a student here, why do I still owe money?”
Me: “Yes, we did accept you as a student here, but that does not mean that we have agreed to offer you free tuition. Our financial aid office awards competitive scholarships to our incoming freshman class and they do their best to award any need-based funds where they are needed most. But again, being admitted to college in no way guarantees that you will not have to pay anything for that education.”
CS: “I still really do not understand. Where am I going to come up with that kind of money?”
Me: “Have you submitted a FAFSA?”
CS: “A what?”
Me: “A Free Application for Federal Student Aid? It is the Department of Education’s application for federal student aid. You may qualify for some additional assistance through the FAFSA.”
CS: “Oh that is only for poor people. My parents make a lot of money.”
Me: “Federal financial aid is not all need-based. You may still qualify for financial aid regardless of your parents’ income. Do you plan to work while in college?”
CS: “Me? Work? You’ve got to be crazy. I am way too busy to get a job.”
Me: “Just something to consider. A lot of students report that their grades, time management skills, and job prospects greatly improve if they work even a low-hour part-time job while in college. It would teach you real-world skills, and let you begin to get real job experience. Do you know what career path you would like to take?”
CS: “No not really. I have plenty of time to figure that out.”
Me: “So what will you do about the $14,500 still due on your account? You can’t start classes until that balance has been paid.”
CS: “Oh I don’t know. I’ll let my parents worry about it. I was mainly wondering why my gym access would not work, and they told me it was because I still owed a tuition bill.”
Me: “Oh . . . .”
What We Can Learn From Our Delusional Friend
Unfortunately, that was a real conversation I had with a student last week, and even more unfortunately, it was not the first. Not all college students are delusional, far from it! But many do not have a grasp on what it takes to actually pay for an education and how the college finance process works.
I’ll admit that it can be very overwhelming for an 18-year-old student to grasp all of the “complex” financial principles. But in the end, it’s their responsibility and colleges will treat them as adults, even if their parents do not.
Simply relying on a parent to handle all of the student’s business and ensure the bill is paid is not wise in my opinion. Even if the parent is going to pay the entire bill, there needs to be communication between the student and the parent.
Students also need to understand the college financial aid process. Understanding how this process works will help them find additional scholarships, create entrepreneurial opportunities when they pop up, and take an active role in paying for their education. I have to wonder what we are doing to our children by sheltering them from every decision and every responsibility while in college. Simply saying that “getting good grades is your job” may not be enough any more.
Even if we have the means to pay for our child’s education outright, should we?
In the case of the above college student and many others I have spoken with, a healthy dose of reality may be just what they need!
DJ works in financial services at a large public university. He lives in the Southeast with his wife and young daughter.