How I Paid for College

Photo by Lexi Ruskell on Unsplash.

There’s no secret behind the fact that going to college is expensive. Whether it’s a four-year university or a two-year community college, finding the funds to pay for classes (and the thousands of dollars of fees tacked onto them) is difficult—and impossible for most. It should have been impossible for me.

Neither of my parents went to college. My family made a staggering $34,000 during the 2015–2016 fiscal year. Paying hundreds of dollars in class fees or thousands of dollars in housing costs is typically not a possibility for a student coming from a low-income family.

But I’m writing this from my college dorm room in a city a hundred miles from home. I found a way to attend the university I wanted, even with every boundary possible standing in my way. Was it hard? Yeah, of course.

Was it possible? Definitely.

People don’t like to talk about how they pay for college; they like to say loans without saying what kind. They like to talk about scholarships without any specifics. They like to say the government helped them or their parents could afford it, but no one ever wants to talk numbers. This was my biggest frustration during my senior year of high school, when I was trying to figure out how I could afford to move to a four-year public university within my state. No one wanted to give any specifics—and no one wanted to talk about it.

I’m a first-generation student; my grandmother went to college, but that was back when she could work for a summer and then afford to attend a university in the fall, paying in cash. My parents knew nothing about about loans, grants, or scholarships—only that, inevitably, I would have to get them.

I come from a high-ranking high school; we boast amazing SAT results and high passing rates for AP tests. This high school, as you can guess, is filled with bright, intelligent teenagers, many of whom came from upper-middle-class families. While I had tons of friends relying on Pell Grants and loans, I also had the friends that would say “my parents are just paying for it.”

The adults—administration, teachers, guidance counselors—were so concerned with getting us into college that they didn’t spend much time talking with us about what comes next. Neither did many of my friends. After the celebration in the spring when we all turned in our enrollment deposits (personally, I had a waiver), there was an overwhelming sense of what’s next?

So, what is next? Here’s the breakdown:

Tuition and fees

I attend a public, in-state university in Florida. Florida is known for their ridiculously cheap tuition prices compared to other in-state universities. Some people even choose to come to Florida because the out-of-state tuition is still more affordable than the in-state tuition in their own state.

My undergraduate tuition for my first semester, taking four classes (12 credit hours), cost $1,260.84—roughly $105 per credit hour. And then there were the fees: a transportation fee of $109.20, a technology fee of $61.92, a health fee of $130.08, a differential tuition fee of $530.40 (I still am not sure exactly what this is for), a capital improvement fee of $81.12, an athletic fee of $171.84, an activity and service fee of $140.04, a service and access fee of $10 and— last but not least—a financial aid fee of $61.92.

Yes, they charged me money for receiving financial aid. I laughed when I saw the charge, double-checked the page, and laughed again.

Room, board, and books

I picked the cheapest housing available to me; I share a bedroom with one other girl and a bathroom with my roommate and two other girls (three people total). I love my room and my suitemates, and although the building is old, it’s close to the center of campus and all of my classes are a five-minute walk away.

My rent for the fall semester was $2,700.

My school did not require me to buy the $4,000 meal plan that it offers—which is good because I can buy $50 of groceries every other week and eat for much less money. The meal plan assumes you’ll spend $21 on food per day, or $7 per meal if you eat all your meals at the dining hall (which most students don’t). I buy $50 of groceries every other week, which comes to $3.57 per day—although I also eat out a few times a week with friends for about $10 a meal.

And finally, my books for my four classes—several of which I rented, and two of which I was forced to buy because a new edition had come out this year—came out to $353.62.

Therefore, the total amount of money I owed the school for my fall semester was $5,610.98.

When schools show you the estimated cost of attendance, they are accounting for meal plans, gas money, car insurance costs, etc. When they tell you it will cost $21,000 a year to attend their institution, they’re probably right. However, most of those costs can be made much smaller by spending money wisely: skipping the meal plan, for example, or using your car less by taking advantage of shuttles and buses.

By the end of my freshman year, I will have paid about $12,000 in direct costs to my institution, not $21,000.

That’s still a ton of money—remember, my parents only make $34,000 a year. So how can I afford to be here?

Grants, scholarships, loans, and waivers

My school required a $250 enrollment deposit. My parents were really struggling to find that money, so we put it off for weeks. Finally, a few days before we were required to pay, my university emailed me and told me that I was eligible for a waiver.

I could not, however, find a waiver for the $250 housing deposit. If you can, always ask your school’s financial aid and enrollment offices if they have any waivers or if you qualify for them. Even if you don’t—or even if you think you don’t— it’s always worth the ask. The worst they can say is no.

I filled out my FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) the second it was made available to me. After putting in my parents tax records, income, and assets, it quickly determined they would be expected to contribute $0 towards my college education—as expected—and that I would be eligible for the maximum available Pell Grant.

Pell Grants are federal grants that are given to anyone that fills out the FAFSA and qualifies; you can receive any amount between $0 and $5,920, but because my parents’ income was so low I was automatically eligible for the maximum of $5,920. This means that each semester I would have $2,960 available from the federal government to help fund my education.

Florida also has a unique scholarship program called Florida Bright Futures. Along as you make a certain GPA, meet a SAT score requirement, and work a certain amount of volunteer hours, you will receive a scholarship. Before the 2017 school year, it covered a little more than half tuition. Now, it covers full tuition and fees and provides a $300 book stipend.

So housing, tuition, and books were almost completely paid for through Florida Bright Futures and my Pell Grant. I opted not to get a meal plan.

But I did take out $2,250 in loans.

My $2,250 is a federal subsidized Stafford loan. It was deposited into my checking account as a “refund” from the school, even though it isn’t free money. This is the money I’ll be using to pay for my food, gas, and car insurance during my fall semester; I also plan to get a job and earn additional income.

I didn’t have to take out this loan. My parents told me they could help me afford food, but I wanted to keep as much of the financial burden of college on my own shoulders as I could. I did not want them to have to take out loans or struggle with providing a food allowance to me when I knew I could easily solve the issue myself.

If you’re going to take out a loan, do whatever you can to do so through the Department of Education rather than turning to private sources. Private sources will charge absurd interest rates upward of 10–15 percent.

The Department of Education has strict limits on how much you can take out per year, and only a certain amount of it can be subsidized. I was extremely lucky; all of my loan is subsidized, meaning the government will be paying the interest on it until I graduate, rather than interest accruing as soon as I took the loan out. The interest rate on my loan is 7 percent; much more manageable than the 15 percent I could be paying elsewhere.

Going to college is hard—it could be the first time you’re garnering complete and total independence and control over your life. I was lucky enough to figure out how to take the financial cost and burden of this independence into my own hands. However, I was only able to do this after hours of research, writing, and trying desperately to get someone to talk numbers with me. No one wanted to talk about how college is not affordable; about how it’s expensive; about how everyone is struggling to keep up with the cost.

If we want our kids to stop graduating with tens of thousands of dollars in student loans, then we need to talk about money. We need to talk about how much college costs. Eighteen-year-olds, though legal adults, are practically still children. They can’t be asked to take out a $40K loan to attend NYU or Yale, or even a $5K loan to attend the in-state public university down the road, without a discussion of what that means and the other options available to them. We need to encourage and inform our future students about the cost of college, regardless of the discomfort that comes with talking money.

To me, it’s all just numbers—and the more you understand those numbers, the more you can use them to get where you want to go.

Cassidy Bowen is a college freshman permanently vacationing in Florida. On occasion she can be seen tweeting from @cassidybowen_.

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