Ask a fifth-year: Managing college finances

Dear Will,

It’s my second year here at Lawrence and I constantly worry about how I’m going to pay my student bill. I’ve never been very financially independent and I keep relying on my parents to help foot the bill, but it’s becoming more clear that they have less and less to give me. I’m working as much as I can but it doesn’t even come close to what I owe. I love it here and I don’t want to transfer. What should I do?

Broke in Brokaw


Dear Broke,

It’s my fifth year and I’m still trying to figure this out. It’s incredibly frustrating and here’s why: Throughout high school, most of us have it pounded into our heads that college is necessary for success and the better the college, the more likely future success. This is all true to a certain extent, but what is often downplayed is the enormous financial responsibility that college entails.

Some of us, for whatever reason, aren’t experienced with managing our personal finances. And when the $200,000 reality of a Lawrence degree hits someone who has never possessed more than a thousand dollars in their bank account, it is understandable how it might seem insurmountable and unfair. Perhaps your only options are to drop out or transfer.

Because I’ve been through this for five years, and still am, I have some advice for you that will help you get a better sense of how it might not be as bad as you think. I don’t have any secret magic tips that will make it all go away, but hopefully thinking in this particular way will help you focus and worry about what should really matter: Your academic success.

First of all, don’t ignore any details of your financial life. This was by far the biggest mistake I made. Because at times it seems so unrealistic for us to be able to pay our student account, it is easier to keep it unreal, pushing it out of our minds and agendas until it becomes truly impossible to succeed. As scary and complicated as it may seem, getting all the numbers out of your head and onto paper or an Excel spreadsheet is the first step to visualizing and approaching your situation.

Once you do visualize the whole picture of how much you owe and how much you earn, you may feel just as uneasy as you did before. Realize that “$2,014.78” is a far more approachable problem than “a lot of money.” Objectifying and truly understanding your debt will allow you to find the most efficient and realistic ways for conquering it.

The next step is to actually find the money. I can’t think of better assistance for this than the Financial Aid Office. Meet with your counselor in person. They are helpful, understanding people who are truly interested in seeing you succeed and graduate. It might be hard to believe sometimes, but Lawrence wants to keep you. Financially and reputation-wise, it’s better for them.

While you shouldn’t expect them to instantly solve your problem by giving you more aid, your Financial Aid counselor has a wealth of knowledge that will help you find the best ways to overcome your debt. That might be through increasing student loans or taking out a private loan, or reviewing your need-based information to ensure you are receiving the maximum loan and grant amount available. If you show up to a meeting prepared to explain your situation as best as possible, I can almost guarantee you’ll leave feeling much more confident and optimistic.

The road probably won’t end there, however. You still will have work to do on your own. You might have to find a good private student loan and a worthy co-signer, apply for scholarships and grants and pick up more hours wherever you work. However, as long as you keep that sense of ownership and responsibility for your debt, there are so many viable options out there for you.

As much as a liberal-arts education seems to elegantly dance around the real-world problems we face, this is one of the ways that we will really learn how to be a financially responsible individual. Sometimes, going to school here seems like a financially irresponsible move, but keep in mind that optimism paired with an informed and responsible approach during your college education can help you lay down the foundation for a lifetime of success and prosperity.