Wes Cannon and his parents thought he had a plan for paying for school.
“Things didn't really work out the way they thought it would 10 years ago,” Wes said, giving a quick rundown of his family’s detour to Iowa, where his dad attended chiropractic school and his mom homeschooled Wes and a younger sister before the family returned east to settle in New Hampshire. He was a freshman at a small Massachusetts college when the plans for his parents to support his college career unraveled as they realized their funds weren’t going to be enough.
“It sort of caught everyone by surprise—it just didn't quite go how everyone thought it would,” he said. “Halfway through the first semester, it was like ‘Wes, we really can't help you out as much as we want.’”
He struggled briefly to pay for the school, which he described as “not known for their financial aid,” but the cost to pay his family’s expected contribution was simply too high.
“I don't know exactly what I was thinking—it just wasn't possible, even with working that summer and doing work-study at school, and having a part time job as well,” he said. “Second semester, I just couldn't do it and I had to drop room and board. I essentially ended up living out of my car, kind of hopping around dorm rooms, staying with some family friends for a period time, but was ultimately a couch surfer. I didn’t want to drop out of school outright, but also I couldn't afford to stay there much longer.”
As Wes applied to a second round of schools, hoping for a cheaper education, he paid far more attention to what the bottom line would be for him financially.
“I needed to find something that I could afford, and if it had a film program that's great,” said the current Media & Screen Studies/Religious Studies major.
“My mom was very helpful with the whole process, really figuring out what do I actually have to look at here.... what numbers actually matter. The sticker price isn't that important anymore.”
Instead, Wes looked at what percent of financial need schools met, and what that meant for the out-of-pocket cost for him. He created a set of spreadsheets to compare all the schools he got into, with some surprising results: “It was crazy: living at home commuting to UNH Manchester was more expensive than going to Northeastern.”
Wes said his GPA at his first school helped as well, as it made him a better candidate for merit scholarships than his SAT scores did. Now in his third semester, he has yet to take out any student loans for Northeastern.
“Most of them are going to be from [my freshman year],” he said of his loans.
As an RA, Wes’ Northeastern room and board is free, which makes a big difference in what he owes.
“If anything, that's the real hidden cost,” he said.
When asked about the image of Northeastern as an unusually expensive school, not an affordable one, Wes noted that the university recently made a substantial effort to increase the non-loan aid they provide.
“Recently they've really really stepped up their aid, what they're giving, not just merit aid but their financial income-based aid... they're definitely in that top tier of 90 or 100 percent [when it comes to] demonstrated need...."
And while it took Wes a while to find the right school for his budget, he said he doesn’t think his high school self would have been as thorough with a search--even if he had known all the particulars.
“It's been a really good exercise for really growing up,” he said. “On the one hand, it's been really hard paying for school myself, but after it's all said and done, I think I'm going to be really proud of what I was able to do and everything that I've learned through the experience.”