Hard Conversations About College And Money

Postal service boxes

U.S. Postal Service boxes filled with Stanford acceptance envelopes for the undergraduate class of 2013. This was the largest applicant class in Stanford history, close to 30,500 students. 2,300 were accepted, less than 8 per cent. Cindy Carpien hide caption

itoggle caption Cindy Carpien
William Nelligan

Youth Radio's William Nelligan is a high school senior in Portland, Maine, and a member of the youth media organization Blunt Radio. He hopes to study history and economics in college, and eventually have as many pieces of legislation to his name as his hero, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. Claire Holman hide caption

itoggle caption Claire Holman

Live Web Chat:
12:30 p.m. ET Thursday

Have questions about how to pay for college amid the recession? You can participate in a live chat with experts Tally Hart and Bill Hiss at 12:30 p.m. ET Thursday at NPR.org.

I can't forget opening that first letter: "Dear William: Congratulations on your admission ..."

This one was an acceptance from one of my "safety schools." But whether it was the University of Wasilla or the University of Pennsylvania, what an exhilarating moment. Now that the notices from the rest of the schools are coming in, the hard reality of financing my college education is starting to hit.

One college offered $2,000 in aid; another, $13,000. Until now, I never thought very much about paying for college. I always thought my parents could take out a loan, I would get a boatload of scholarships thanks to good grades and test scores, or I would be covered under my university's aid plan.

All of this is still on the table. But my parents are putting things into perspective. Here's my dad, Bill:

"We've been trying to save since you were born, but the economy hasn't really cooperated the past few years. The value of your investments for your college fund depreciated substantially."

Substantially means 75 percent. That's huge. But I don't want to think about putting one of my acceptance letters back in the envelope; neither do my parents. That's what makes the honest conversations about money and college so hard.

My friend Anna Flanagan broached the subject with her parents, Jim Flanagan and Carrie Stephens. "The schools cost $43,000," said Anna's mom. "And I guess you've heard that we've never made $43,000 in a year and aren't likely to start now."

When Anna asked how the family is prepared to pay for it, her dad said, "Ill prepared at this point. When I got sick, that was pretty much the end of it. If I hadn't gotten sick, I might have put that money in the market, so it would have been gone anyway. So what's the difference? Plenty of people put money in the market and lost 40 percent of it. We didn't. We spent it. On bills."

Her mom then added, "It's going to be a hard year for everybody. Not just us. ... I don't think kids have any understanding of what it means going into debt."

I'll admit I'm one of those kids. Anna is way more practical than I am — willing to make a decision based on the school that gives the most financial aid.

I'm ready to stretch myself to go to a school I really want — hopefully Brown or Harvard. But $200,000 for an education is really daunting. I know that means that I will have to work through college and immediately after, and I won't have any flexibility when I graduate — I'll need to find a job.

I don't really know what it's like to work paycheck to paycheck to pay a bill. That is scary.

Honestly, I worry about my parents, too. My dad quietly goes through the numbers himself, and so I'm wondering: Are they going to take out loans? Are they going to try to get that money from family? I don't want my college education to be the end of their livelihood. That's worse than debt; that's an emotional debt.

But my dad always used to joke that in exchange for financing my education, I'd have to buy him a house on a golf course one day. I'm hoping if he invests in me this time, maybe I'll be able to give him the Myrtle Beach home he always wanted.

Youth Radio's William Nelligan is a high school senior in Portland, Maine, and a member of the youth media organization Blunt Radio. He hopes to study history and economics in college, and eventually have as many pieces of legislation to his name as his hero, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.

Related NPR Stories

Web Resources

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.