Nearly 90 percent of American families “always knew" that their child would be attending college. Around 40 percent, though, didn’t know exactly how they would pay for it when it was finally time.
My family fit into both of those categories. My whole life, I’d heard all about “when you get to college..." and had been asked “where are you going to school?" rather than “if you go," or “are you going?" as is the reality for many.
Come application season, I had a list of around ten out-of-state institutions that I could picture myself loving. That’s when my parents sat me down and explained to me that I needed to reevaluate my choices. The cost of attendance -- tuition, room and board, meal plans, books, and other assorted fees -- would amount to $46,5000 per year at the one public university I’d chosen and up to $66,000 per year at any of the nine private ones.
After some careful thought and conversation, I ended up applying to seven colleges: six in-state, three private and three public, and one large state school in South Carolina. I was accepted to six of my seven choices and had identified one as my “dream school;" unfortunately, the cost of attendance hovered around $50,000 for the private in-state university. That was around double what my family had decided we could pay.
That’s not a new or unique dilemma. In 2008, 58 percent of families reported that they had been deterred from some colleges due to the cost. This year, 68 percent of families said the same. It’s understandable: the average year of higher education in the U.S. sucks up around $23,000. Things seem even more bleak when we consider how tuitions are rising nationwide while salaries are generally stagnant.
Scholarships, grants, and loans make up the largest chunk of families’ college payments. Many states have incentives to keep students in-state for school that help cover some costs, such as the HOPE and Zell Miller awards in Georgia. As a HOPE recipient, around $4,000 dollars will be knocked off my tuition, but more than half a billion dollars meant for these programs are reportedly sitting unused even as Georgia students struggle with finances and drown in loans. Some students have dropped out due to the overwhelming costs and now must pay back their loans without a college degree and the stable career they may have obtained had they graduated.
I’m lucky enough to have avoided the spider’s web of federal loans. I spent several months during my senior year of high school as well as some time during my summer applying for scholarships to help cover my education and was able to reduce my cost of attendance at Mercer University to a manageable amount for my family. Nationally, however, (according to Make Lemonade) there are more than 44 million borrowers with $1.3 trillion in student loan debt, making student loans the second highest consumer debt category -- higher than both credit card and auto loans. The average student in the Class of 2016 is left with $37,172 in loan debt.
I’ll move in on August 14 with a sense of relative security about funding my education, but I recognize that I’m one of the lucky ones. Colleges are improving as an advanced degree is becoming more and more necessary for job security and success -- but is it fair that 17-year-old college hopefuls must sign up for loans that will linger like ghosts past graduation and take an average of 21 years to pay off? It’s an investment that not enough of us can afford to make.