‘It Was Definitely a Stretch for Them, But Not a Crushing Burden’

How did you pay for your education, Josh Fruhlinger? 

I am an only child of parents who divorced when I was three. My parents were and are pretty solidly middle class. I don’t remember any explicit discussion with my parents about what college would cost, but I also never had any impression that finances might prevent me from going to whatever school I wanted. Still, I was definitely encouraged to apply for scholarships, and I believe I had a Pell Grant and some kind of scholarship you could get for having decent SAT scores.

I graduated from high school in 1992 and went to Cornell.

At the time, the Ivy League schools called their policy “need-blind admissions.” Students were admitted (or rejected) without reference to their financial situation. Once you were admitted, the school would plug your parents’ income and assets into an inscrutable formula, come up with a figure for what they believed your family could pay, and then make up the difference between that figure and what the total cost of attending school would be (including books, room, and board) using some combination of grants, loans, and work-study. (If you came in with outside scholarships, that got at least in part deducted from the loans.) This system is more or less in place today for elite colleges, as described by Felix Salmon here.

In theory, it’s quite meritocratic: I knew kids who got more aid then they had to pay in tuition and actually got a check from the student aid office to pay for rent and food. But of course kids who are poor or middle class are less likely to have gone to a good high school that will track them into a college with an endowment to pay for this sort of financial aid, and if they do, much of their student aid will ultimately be derived from loans.

Anyway, despite the fact that I knew next to nothing about my parents finances, they were pretty open with me about what they were paying for my schooling. The school’s sticker price for tuition, room, and board was $25K-ish a year while I was there. Of this, the student aid office determined that my parents could and would pay about $11K a year, in monthly installments, which they split evenly between them. I got the impression that this was a definitely a stretch for them, but not a crushing burden.

I really don’t remember what I did for spending money when I was in college. I had a work-study job at the library, making something like $7 an hour and working 8-10 hours a week. It seems somewhat absurd that that was all I needed for entertainment, but I think that was it, other than the occasional $20 one of my parents would put into a card. I wasn’t a big partier or anything so I guess I lived on the cheap.

I graduated in 1996 and went straight into grad school at UC Berkeley, attempting to get a Ph.D. in ancient history and become a professor. (Note: this was a bad idea.) Just as there had never been any doubt that my parents would pay for college, there was also never any expectation that they would pay for graduate school. Really, when you’re going to grad school of the eventually-becoming-a-professional-academic variety, you should only do it if the school offers funding to live at least a poverty-level lifestyle without loans.

Over the course of my five ill-fated graduate semesters, I was mostly able to cobble together fellowships, TA jobs, and between-semesters office temp gigs to pay my tuition and live off of. This was possible because, at the time, in-state tuition at University of California school was only $2,000 a semester (and my initial fellowship covered the first year until I could establish California residency). Today that figure is more like $6,400, which I’m not sure I would’ve been able to pull off.

Also, that bit above about my parents not paying for grad school? Not q-u-i-t-e true. My dad, who had been sending my mom child support payments throughout my childhood, redirected those checks to me for as long as I stayed in school. It was $200 a month, which doesn’t seem like that much to me now, but when you’re living on about $12K a year it was a huge difference. In addition, I was on his health insurance plan. Also, I asked my mom for a loan one semester to pay tuition, and then she wouldn’t let me pay her back (to be fair, I don’t think I tried very hard after an initial attempt).

Thanks to this help, when I quit grad school in disgrace I had only a bruised ego, not a debt burden. I did have about $14,000 in loans from undergrad school that I had to start paying off—not nothing but again not a crushing burden by any means; my initial payment was $165 a month. Fortunately, I lived in the Bay Area in 1999, so I was able to get a decent-paying job pretty quickly. Within a year, my mother sold the house she had lived in before she and my stepfather moved in together and she very unexpectedly gave me $5,000 from that; I also inherited $1,000 from my grandparents, who had died that year. I immediately plowed that windfall into my student loans, with the upshot that I was able to pay off the rest by 2004.

Anyway, I’ve always known that I was very privileged, both by my parents’ means and their generosity to me, but actually summing it up like this makes me realize how much I owe them; I really ought to say thank you in some concrete way. And, actually, one more sacrifice made: my mother and stepfather, who had lived together since my senior year of high school, didn’t get married until a year after I graduated from college. I don’t know all the factors that went into that long-ish delay, but I think that keeping his income off my financial aid application was at least part of it.


Josh Fruhlinger runs the #1 Mary Worth fan site on the Internet, and also has a Tumblr and a Twitter // How did you pay for your education? logan@thebillfold.com


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