Managing Finances

To better understand the student experience, navigate across these themes to hear from students who have shared their stories with us.

Managing Finances

In the last decade the cost of a college degree has doubled. Students rely heavily on financial aid and often enter into debt with only a marginal understanding of the long-term consequences. Students who do appreciate the full extent of their borrowing decisions are faced with a difficult choice--assume debt or forgo a college education. Moreover, students have little in terms of “consumer protection” when it comes to purchasing an education. Even if a student is unhappy with the experience, students are not refunded if they withdraw. Students who are unsatisfied must finish a semester or drop out and transfer to another school, reducing a student’s return on investment.

Unexpected Expenses

Many students underestimate the full cost of their education. Published information about college expenses often gloss over variable costs like cost of living, books, supplies and wages lost to time in class. Healthy dialogue about managing finances is scarce and most students end up learning by trial and error. Almost every school publishes a general cost breakdown but these estimates, intentionally generic, can be misleading. It is understandable that schools cannot provide individualized information about costs to every prospective student. However, financial aid requests are also based on this generalized information. The unintended consequence is that students often face funding gaps that push even the most determined student out of school.

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Phil, Undergraduate Student
Phil was caught off-guard by all of the extra expenses not factored into his school tuition costs.

Assuming Debt

Many students report seeing debt as an unavoidable component of attaining a post-secondary degree. Assuming additional debt to cover living expenses is commonplace and frequently seen as a "normal" financial management. Information about interest rates and repayment schedules typically do not deter this behavior. For many students, dealing with consequences related to financial management decisions are deferred for many months and sometimes even years, allowing students to make risky many financial decisions with little insight into the real world implications of excessive debt.

JC, Undergraduate Student
JC knows that taking out living expense loans will add up to significant debt, but feels it is a necessary evil in order to maintain his standard of living while in college.


“It's hard to say no to student loans. In contemplating whether or not to take loans, one student described it best when he said, "You are damned if you do and damned if you don't." The choice to borrow is often seen as fundamental to attending school at all. I haven’t really thought about [my loans] yet. I know that when I get out of here, I’m going to have a student loan payment every month. I haven’t really thought about it very much, but I know that I probably should.” —Jillian, Undergraduate Student

Understanding the Investment

The idea of education as an investment wherein one weighs risk against likely return is oddly foreign to many students. Students use very personal criteria such as dreams, inspiration and a sense of purpose to choose their school and guide financial decisions related to enrollment. Many students believe that to be the best they need the "best" education, with "best" being tied the perceived value of a school's brand. While high quality education is crucial, it is equally important for students to understand what they are getting in return, what that experience actually costs and what that means in terms of achieving their long-term goals. Few students recognized this concern.

Phil, Undergraduate Student
Phil feels that regardless of school, your education will be valuable as long as you put in the effort it deserves. Phil is an older student who had the benefits of a professional college counselor to guide his academic career, so he is very sure of the choices he has made. He is hard working and understands the value and cost of education as an investment but was shocked by the extra costs that were not accounted for. In spite of having to work nights and take classes during the day, he is pushing forward to reach his goals.

Work / School Balance

Working and attending school is a tough balance for most students. Many students have no option but to work full time. Students who work must deal with scheduling conflicts and a rigorous schedule that many find exhausting. Students who work full time also often find themselves cut off from the social activities that often define a campus community, leaving many feeling cut off and isolated.

Valerie, Technical School Student
Valerie talks about how it is going to be difficult to balance work and school, especially when her school schedule becomes more demanding.

Kristen, Undergraduate Student
Kristen's inflexible work schedule keeps her from taking the classes she needs.

Getting Guidance

Students rely heavily on information about managing their finances that they receive from friends and family. This is true even for older students. However well meaning, these sources of information may not always be the most up-to-date or reliable. Some students use financial aid advisory services, including non-profit organizations, for guidance and achieve good results. Yet many students do not discover these services and ultimately struggle through the process unaided.

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“A lot of the financial aid stuff I had no clue about because I am pretty bad at math. And there is no one you can really sit down with.” —Dan, 19

Rebecca, Not in School
Applying for financial aid can be a frustrating process. Luckily for Rebecca, she found a non-profit organization that give her the guidance she needed.