The “choosing a college” process is expensive: Even before financial aid packages arrive, fees to take the SATs and to submit applications can easily cost a grand or more. This sticker shock is how I found myself sending a panicked late-night application to a school I never visited or even Googled, all because they offered a free “VIP” application that required no extra essay and sent rolling acceptance letters.
When I found out I got into that last-minute decision school, I was relieved to know I was definitely going to college. The acceptance also meant I could scratch off a few safety schools from my list. However, when the financial aid package arrived… let’s just say, financially, it definitely wasn’t a safety school.
In fact, by the time every college acceptance letter rolled in, the best aid packages I received were from the toughest private schools I had applied to.
By comparison, my friends were horrified at the “affordability” of Massachusetts state schools, even when their MCAS scores earned them free tuition. (My mom described seeing the early price estimates for college as “a nightmare.”) But the high cost of fees and room and board meant even the public schools supposedly designed to be accessible couldn’t stack up against the offers from private colleges with large endowments.
Harvard had recently started offering its Zero to 10 Percent Standard, drastically reducing the amount families were required to pay and how much financial assistance was in loans rather than grants. That meant my Harvard package was nearly free, which made it a little difficult for my parents not to pressure me away from Wellesley (the school I ultimately chose to attend).
“You got a somewhat even deal and, in the end, you had to go there, not us,” my mother recently told me when I asked what she remembered about the college application and financial aid process. (Although there was one offer from Wesleyan, my parents told me straight out they wouldn’t pay, since it cost an astronomical amount compared to higher-ranked schools.)
“It was understood that you'd have a job in college. I think you knew that you were coming out with loans,” she said. “It was important that you knew how much your education was costing.” And she was right—although neither of us could remember one explicit sit-down conversation about how we were paying for college, I knew they had taken out an equity line and I knew I would graduate with debt, which I paid off three years after I graduated.
I was fortunate to pay it off so soon: The Wellesley financial aid department was generous and our family finances had changed dramatically since my sister had started there five years prior, before the real estate and mortgage business crumbled. And our family had the good luck of my dad’s experience as a financial advisor and being well acquainted with Wellesley’s financial aid team by the time I rolled into the school.
He recalled talking to Wellesley’s Student Financial Services office after my sister’s package came in, which was based on a pre-crash FAFSA. “I built a case from my background,” he said, explaining that financial aid officers are essentially underwriters.
“I was well into a 60 percent pay cut and I was trying to get some accommodation from them,” he said—and it worked.
Going through school, I thought little about the debt I was accumulating and more about how to keep my bank account from shrinking into nothing. I worked two part-time student jobs, applied for and received grants for my summer internships, and more than once stretched myself thin by interning 9-to-5 and adding on a part-time restaurant gig.
In hindsight, perhaps I shouldn’t have paid off my student loans so aggressively. The interest rates are unbelievably low compared to auto loans or that far-off dream: a mortgage. But that feeling of freedom when the final Stafford loan is paid off is almost as freeing as getting accepted. The loan company even sent me a letter starting with “Congratulations!”--just like they had with my college acceptance letters. The best part? This pat on back had no price tag attached.
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