The high cost of college for family trailblazers

Deciding which college to go to can be stressful, and it doesn't help that a plethora of misinformation exists out there. But what if the misinformation comes from your parents -- from your family? Or what if you don't get any information whatsoever?

I like to joke about coming from across the sea, from Hungary, a post-Commie country -- but there is nothing funny about my journey to get to the United States. When I was six, my mother told my then-best friend's father that I would go to Stanford or Princeton, because those were the best colleges and her daughter deserved the best. The father laughed and told her it was very hard to get into those schools -- and that I wouldn't make it. His laughter galvanized my mother's resolve and as an adolescent, I was reared to prove that I would be a good addition to this country. I would not let this country down; I would contribute to its prosperity. I would go to Princeton, or Harvard, or Stanford, and become a scientist and cure cancer; a politician and reform something that needed reforming; or an astronaut and colonize Mars for the United States. I was an immigrant, so therefore I had to do great things ... I had to prove my worth.

But then came high school. Puberty hormones set in and I rebelled. I rebelled with my studies, I rebelled by coming home late, I rebelled with my friends, my make-up, my clothing, my speech, my music, I rebelled in every way imaginable. How do you explain to a raging teenager that they must continue to grind away with schoolwork so they can go to a good college, because the college you go to defines your life? I didn't want to throw my youth away (at least that was my impetuous thinking). I scoffed at the notion that the college I went to would determine my adult fate.

Before I knew it, college acceptance letters were mailed back and surprise, I didn't get in to Princeton. I didn't get in to Yale, or Harvard, or the University of Chicago. I have shamed myself, and my family. What was the point of my mother toiling away in a new country if I can't even get into the best schools? So I went to Loyola University, a private college, because the thinking is private colleges are better. Private colleges must be better because they are more expensive.

No one sat my single mother down and explained how education works in this country. Back in Hungary, the price of a higher education does not equal the price of three luxury cars, let alone a large house -- but Hungary has no shortage of geniuses or Nobel prize winners. So my mother never put aside a separate bank account for my college funds. The idea of saving a hundred dollars a month for her daughter's education never computed, because we had more important things to worry about: like learning the language, getting our citizenship, and paying the rent. The enormity of how much college costs never hit me, or my mother, until it was too late and I was already in debt with private loans over $40,000. If I were to follow the monthly payment plans, I will pay back more than $120,000. Now when I speak about college and expenses with my mother, we both admit we were unprepared for the financial reality of higher education.

After my "Losing Battle with Private Loans" Money College article, I received a ton of responses from people whose situations were similar to mine. Our socio-economic position, combined with our massive debts, connected us.

Dawn Crawford Parker of Brooklyn, N.Y. is going to college for the first time, and is the first in her immediate family to do so. Dawn is 39, has five kids, and doesn't like to use the word "poor" to describe her financial background -- she says "less fortunate, I wasn't born with a silver spoon in my mouth." We chatted on the phone briefly, and she believes citizens have a right to education, but that universities have "become like the banks."

Dawn got a $4,000 grant, but still had to take out $53,000 to attend Full Sail University -- a university she found online. Dawn doesn't know how she'll pay it back, saying she'll just "keep on going, take it one day at a time, just graduate, and hope for the best." Dawn says she waited until her kids were a little older before going to college, and wanted to attend college because, "I've had so many disappointments in life, now I just have to do what I have to do."

Anthony Hatfield from Cincinnati, Ohio is the first person in his family to go to college. He too was raised by a single mom, and says no one ever told him to stay at an in-state school, so he attended Ball State University in Indiana. Even though Ball State is a state university, tuition is close to $30,000 a year.

With grants, Anthony was able to get his yearly tuition down to $20,000, but he still had to borrow money from Sallie Mae, saying it was "the first company to help me out, and at the time I was like, 'awesome!'" Anthony now owes more than $160,000, and explained over the phone that one of his loans has a 13% interest rate. During the loan signing he "didn't even know what an interest rate was." Now Anthony can barely afford his monthly payments on his private loans, let alone other student loans.

Says Anthony: "Money is a huge issue, it is something I am worried about every day. No one should have to go through life worrying about money this much, there is no help out there, it's not worth it, and if your family cannot help you, go to a school that is cheaper."

The funny thing is, everyone I talked to wouldn't take their own advice if they could go back in time. Both Dawn and Anthony would go to the same schools, because they chose their universities for their majors. Not Loyola, Full Sail nor Ball State University are Harvards or Princetons, so why do they cost so much?

In a time when the percentage of the population deemed poor, immigrants, or being raised by single mothers is rising, why is higher education so expensive? If we as Americans want our citizens to be able to compete globally with China, India, Iran, Denmark and the rest of the EU, we need to make our higher education easier to obtain. Not to echo the former Communist thoughts of my motherland, but America should not be governed by only those with summer homes, yachts, and whatever else Ivy League alumni have. Where is there democracy in being ruled by the rich?

Tuesday: Read the week-long "Tuition Ignition" series to learn why a growing number of liberal arts colleges and private universities now charge more than $40,000 per year for tuition.And if you have a tuition story to share with us, feel free to email at
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