Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The college process: Unanticipated expenses

Getting a kid enrolled in college and getting them through the paperwork and processes is no small feat, but just when you think you're home free, all of the unanticipated expenses of actually getting them to the college and set up for college life rear their ugly head.

I know some parents plan years in advance for the moment their child will go off to college. Most families I know, too burdened down by trying to manage paying the rent each month, have never even thought about saving or planning for college for their child(ren).

Yet, when the kids decide to go to college, some parents rally to get them what they need, despite all of their other financial obstacles. Just a couple of weeks ago, as I was getting ready to visit a college student, a parent brought me some things she hadn't had the time or money to get for her daughter when she had first taken her to college. As we loaded the things into my car, we talked about the financial aid process that her daughter was still trying to figure out. She then said to me, "Janet, I didn't know college made you poor!" To which I replied something about how I had to downgrade when I went to college, too. She quickly corrected me. "I'm not talking about the kids, I'm talking about me!"

Despite her slightly above minimum wage job and despite her own mother being on disability and having health problems, the family still managed to provide their new college student with some of the things she needed to make her college experience like that of other kids. The whole family rallied. Mom and grandma provided a phone, bedding, toiletries, snacks, etc., aunt contributed some of the offices supplies like a stapler, tape dispenser, and those kinds of items, older brother took her to school. The school (thank goodness) has small refrigerators and microwaves already in the rooms so they didn't have to make that investment.

But then they have to buy books. Probably 75% of the students I have known have gone without at least one book during their college career (and most, as a result, made a "D" or an "F" in the class). They tried to beat the system and borrow a friend's book or check it out from the library because they didn't have enough money to pay for it. Taking 12 hours (which is the least you can take and remain full time) costs around $400-$450 just for books. Unless they go to a community college, students rarely have enough financial aid to cover books. Besides that, even if they do have financial aid, it often doesn't come through at the beginning of the year. Students are often forced to drop and re-sign up for classes when their financial aid is finally processed. Some students go without books for the first few classes because any extra money they might be receiving doesn't come through and they don't have the money to front the registration and book fees. (Those of you who have purchased books know that used books are cheaper, but have to be purchased early. It's a little difficult to do that when the money doesn't come through until 1-2 weeks after classes start. It's hard to save money when you're poor.)

There are other hidden costs that could be prevented had a student known that if he/she dropped below 12 hours they will lose certain grants...or that they have to maintain a certain GPA to keep scholarship money...or that if you drop classes, the school and financial aid will make you pay it back. Sounds commonsensical, but when you're 18 and figuring out the process on your own, people don't tell you these details and they often find these things out by experience...and often don't even know or understand the reason and don't ask the questions to figure out why they don't have the same amount of financial aid they had before.

Colleges are eager to get students in by offering them many different financial incentives. But I've noticed those incentives don't always continue past the first year. I also have heard this great new financial package by many colleges that offer "FREE" tuition. But that's the only thing they're offering. Tuition. It doesn't pay for books, room and board, or any of the other fees. It's not as free as it seems on the enticing news reports.

The more I work with college students, the more daunting the college process seems to me. I am thoroughly amazed and impressed with the kids around me who make the decision and have the stamina to go to college. Going through the hoops of attending without money is extremely challenging and exhausting! It would be so easy to give up.

I pray that they don't.
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