Down to the dollar: The privilege of paying


March 15 and Oct. 1 are two days flagged in my calendar every year. If these dates mean nothing to you, it’s hard for me not to make a jealous comment. 

The latter is the day that FAFSA opens, and the former is when financial aid documents are due. 

I learned the hard way to take these deadlines seriously. 

My decision to attend Lehigh was based solely on a generous aid package. I never saw, heard or researched much about Lehigh until after my acceptance came with a breakdown of the bill. I committed right away. 

Although, I didn’t really pay much attention to the remainder I saw in the eBill suite. 

At the start of my first year, I got monthly emails with my late balance. I assumed my federal loans were still being applied. But in the midst of enjoying my life as a college freshman, I simply ignored these messages.

“I’ll get to it tomorrow!” I frequently reminded myself. 

It wasn’t until late November that things got serious. It turns out that not clearing even a small balance from your Bursar account isn’t the minor nuisance I thought it would be. My account was put on hold, preventing me from accessing my academic records and registering for classes. 

Waves of embarrassment came over me as I had to confess my carelessness to my family. My naivete could halt my education entirely. 

Resolving this was troublesome, but I managed to stay enrolled. I vowed to do better. And from then on out, I became as knowledgeable as I could about the process of paying for school. 

The FAFSA, CSS, federal subsidized and unsubsidized, private loans, work-study, grants and expected family contributions now stay at the top of my mind, year-round. 

About 2,000 of Lehigh undergraduates were awarded need-based financial aid in 2020, equating to 41% of the undergraduate population. 

However, I’ve found that the culture at a prestigious university discourages the disclosure of finances. There are many parents, especially at a school like Lehigh, who manage their child’s bills so that they can focus on their education. I commend them. 

But there are a considerable number of students who don’t have this experience, myself included. 

The first time I connected with a friend over our financial aid process, I was immensely relieved. While being transparent is sometimes challenging, it’s ultimately rewarding. 

Recently, I talked to a friend who suggested we open our spreadsheet bills together. We talked about what we could do to put ourselves in better positions for the following application season. A few minutes of unabashed receptiveness resulted in the exchange of a lot of helpful information.

I’ve spent the last two summers carefully calculating loans and savings to best match what I need at school for the lowest cost possible. I aim to maximize my work hours both at home and at school to offset precarious costs. My efforts might not always be enough, but right now they are. 

At any given time, I know down to the dollar what’s coming in and out of my accounts. And yeah, it’s taxing! 

But at least I know that in the present moment, I have the privilege of paying.

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