Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Unsolicited advice!

Today I am going to offer some unsolicited advice. If you are thinking about college yourself or sending a child off to college in the near future, please read this. Anyone else, just read it cuz you love me and find my words so captivating. Thank you.

When people talk about being "ready" for college, I can't help but wonder if they truly realize what "ready" means. To be truly ready for college, one must be ready in so many ways: academically/intellectually, emotionally, socially, and financially. College ain't cheap, let me tell you. As the Director of Billing and Collections for a small private college, I can't tell you how many students, both traditional undergraduate and adult evening students, are not prepared for the financial commitment of 2-4 years of college. I can't tell you how many people think they should just be able to go to class and not pay their bill.

For traditional undergraduate students, one of the best pieces of advice that I can give to you or your family is to never make your decision to attend a college based solely on your interaction with a recruiter. They are great people, but it's their job to sell the school, literally. Same with coaches for any and every sport - if they want your child on their team, they're going to charm him/her and you. That's their job, to convince you why our school is the best choice. But if anyone tells you not to worry about the finances, don't go to that school. It's absolutely ludicrous to not worry about the finances. Your tuition needs to get paid - and trust me, the Business Office is not going to care much that Johnny is the star quarterback/pitcher/insert-other-important-position-here... you get my point. After you decide on a school, call the Business Office, Student Accounts Office, or Financial Aid office - or better yet, visit them! It's a good idea to get friendly with these people and it's a guarantee that they will be more likely to remember you if they see you face-to-face than by simply having a phone conversation. Ask them what the policies are - if you are late getting started/accepted/registered for classes, etc., what will happen? Do they assess late fees? Do they cancel courses if you aren't paid in full? Would you be better prepared if you waited and started the following semester? Don't forget to save money for books - and ALWAYS buy them online if at all possible, you'll save a TON of money!

Also - if your child's main reason for attending college is to play a sport, don't send him to a private college. There are local sports leagues that your child can join and not end up owing almost one hundred thousand dollars after playing for four years. This drives me nuts - not to mention that when kids come to college with no bigger ambition than to play sports, they end up not doing well academically. Well, guess what? It's required to have a certain GPA to play sports - so before you know it, the kid is kicked off the team, and then he really has no motivation and there goes an entire year down the drain. At my school, that year would cost you roughly $26,000.00 right now. Please - don't come to college to play sports! Come to get your degree and while you're there, have fun playing your sport! Please - don't come to college if you can't afford it. I know that sounds harsh, but it's what I really wish I could say to people when I'm at Open Houses and things like that. If you have to work for a couple of years, if you have to build up credit so that you can secure loans - do it. If it means enough to you, you will.

Now - don't go thinking "Oh sure, she probably had mommy and daddy pay for college, blah blah blah" - WRONG. My parents divorced when I was a teenager and my mom worked nights so she could afford to keep our home. My father was a drug addict and didn't help with anything. College was never mentioned to any of us, I never took SAT's and I never expected to earn any type of degree. I went from being an honors student in elementary/middle school to a little shit barely able to earn my diploma in high school. After I got married and had my first child, I decided NOW I was ready for college. It was something that I wanted to do, for me. I went to community college and applied for Financial Aid. I accepted all of the federal loans they offered and did a payment plan for the rest. I earned my Associate's degree, but it took me almost 7 years. I gave birth to my daughter a week before final exams one Spring. So when I hear girls say "I just found out I'm pregnant, I have to withdraw....." I just have to bite my tongue. No, you don't. You make your life, you make your decisions, you decide what's worth it, you know? When I did get my Associate's degree, I decided that I was going to go on for my Bachelor's but only if I could get it done in 2 years. I looked at several schools and had to turn down the one I wanted most because they would not accept all of my credits from my existing degree. The one I did choose, where I work now, accepted them all and started me as a junior. Two years and several thousand dollars worth of loans later, I graduated Summa Cum Laude with a BA in Psychology. And I believe I was the first one in my family to earn this degree. My sister is earning hers now, and I'm so proud of her.

So anyway, for our evening students, we have a completely separate program where students can complete their degree in a quicker format. The tuition is a little cheaper, but students are expected to pay for each class up front. This almost never happens. I happen to be the main point of contact for students in this program, which I love because most of them are adults like me. I have a really great relationship with most of them, but there are those few who just crawl under my skin and get to me. They are the ones who get mad every time they realize they owe money. They are the ones who are never happy with your advice or suggestions and simply want to bitch and moan and complain about every stinkin' thing. Yet... they keep coming back. I live in a city of colleges, it's not like they are stuck with us. *sigh* I had one student call the President's office on me because I told her she could not take another class until she paid her bill that has been in collections - FOR FOUR YEARS!!!!!!!!!!!!! I shit you not. So if you're an adult, or even if you're not, and you're considering going to college through one of these types of programs - please know you have to pay for your courses. Again, don't listen to recruiters - they just want to get you in a classroom, they don't care how your tuition gets paid. Again, after you decide on a school, call the Business Office, Student Accounts Office, or Financial Aid office.... see above for a repeat.

I can't stress enough how important it is to be prepared. We have had the younger kids in our offices crying because their parents told them they paid the bill/secured a loan, etc., but they didn't. We've had adults in our offices crying because they thought that loans were "automatic" and that they'd never have to pay a dime the entire time they attended classes. We've had sports players quit school and leave angry because they were promised a particular position on the team - or just promised they'd MAKE the team - and then they didn't get the position or make the team. Ask questions. Get the important answers in writing. Don't be afraid to ask for proof of promises. Most importantly - make sure you are prepared for success, you cannot afford not to be.