Essay: College Expenses

Apr 25, 2017

Many of our social media feeds are lighting up with news of where this year’s high school seniors have decided to go to college next year.  It’s an exciting time for them, but - as Lake Effect essayist Jessie Garcia can attest - a stressful time for their parents:

It's April, which for you might mean taxes, or baseball, or more rain than sun. But for me this year has a whole new feel: college decision anxiety. My son is a high school senior. He applied to 11 schools - all across the country...from Stanford to UW-Madison to New York University. He got into six of his choices and was waitlisted at one. Stanford rejected him, so did three other elite institutions that boast acceptance rates under 6%,

The final decisions came in just before April 1st. He has until May 1st to decide. One month of stress piled on stress wrapped in stress. It would be so easy if he could just pick his favorite and start blasting it all over Facebook - or rather, Snapchat. Facebook is so 2015, I'm told. But the final verdict is not that simple: the elephant not only in the room but stomping on our heads is money. As an example, Jake was accepted to NYU. Tuition, room, board, books and related expenses? Over $70,000. We were stunned to find out that the financial aid office at NYU offer us no money. Zero. Not even work study. Without divulging too many personal details, I can tell you what our financial adviser told us: Paying $70,000 per year would cripple us. It would drain every cent we have and more. Get ready to sell the house, forget retirement...and your second son? There would be no money left for his education. So I called NYU to see about an appeals process and was told...no. They go off a number generated by two forms parents must fill out. My next stop was to double check the forms - had we made a clerical error? None that I could see. How is this possible then? After some research I discovered that many people feel the middle class is being squeezed out of affordable college entry. Schools would love for you to pay full freight - it helps their bottom line, of course. And they reserve some money for very low income families with deserving children - just as they should. But the middle class neither makes enough or too little. So they can accept lots of middle income people and wait to see who can pay.

Since these decisions came out, we have had long talks with my son about finances and he gets it, but it doesn't quell his disappointment. To quote him: "It's just the worst feeling when you work so hard to get into these schools and they offer you absolutely nothing."

Right now, unless some miracle drops on our heads, it looks like he's going to either UW-Madison or the University of Minnesota. Both are wonderful schools, and he'll be blessed with a world-class education. I also know he'll have a great time at either.

This whole process has made me appreciate state schools even more. I work at one. I teach at UWM. I know the quality of the faculty and staff. There are other benefits to state schools: the range of students, the diversity, the number of majors and activities at large institutions. The tuition at a state school will still be a stretch for us, but at least we know he won't graduate more than $100,000 into a loan hole.

Maybe NYU - and the other expensive schools that offered us no money - will somehow see the error of their ways in the future and try harder to recruit and retain deserving middle class kids. But more than likely not. And that's a shame, because it denies really great students access to schools they might love to attend. In the meantime, "On Wisconsin" or "Go Gophers." It makes all the sense in the world, for us.

Jessie Garcia is an author and former Milwaukee sportscaster who is writing her fourth book; this one on her son's high school years and the college search process.  And just an update - since she wrote her essay, Jessie’s son has decided he’ll be a Minnesota Golden Gopher this fall.