Excuse me – how much?

Stunned and stupefied at my daughter’s first college fair

I recently took my 16-year-old daughter to her first college fair so please excuse me if I seem a little bewildered. And by bewildered, I mean whatever the word is for “missing money we haven’t even made yet.”

Did you know that college is very expensive? Of course you did, because unlike me, you are not a big dummy. I‘d heard the cautionary tales about the cost of higher education for more than a few years, but I thought my typical approach of “ignore it and it will go away” would serve me well yet again. Turns out it didn’t in this situation. I probably should’ve gone with something more like “plan ahead” or “save more money” or “be wealthy.”

Since I had none of those things tucked into the back pocket of my rich guy pants, I went in with visions of ivy-covered brick buildings dancing in my head and not much else. I only knew that I was determined to get her through college without incurring the kind of debt that’ll have her paying until she’s my age — by which time schools will be accepting spacebucks.

She’s still a junior in high school, so we thought we’d get a bit of a jump on research and campus visits. It started with the college fair, which ended up being like a science fiction movie where people appear completely normal, but must be body snatchers because they speak a slightly unfamiliar language and say unsettling things, like: “expected family contribution.” I’m sure it roughly translates to “stop going to Disney and buying guitars.” (And I couldn’t quite get the dialect, but I’m also sure it also included the phrase, “you big dummy.”)

We stopped at a table to talk to a representative from an upstate New York school with gorgeous imagery and some great programs. The room was a little loud and it was difficult to hear, so when she answered my first question — “How much?” — I was a little surprised at how reasonable it seemed. That misconception was quickly cleared up.

“Oh, I didn’t say $16,000 a year — I said $68,000 a year.”

We laughed and laughed. Oh, how we laughed. Only she was serious, so we stopped laughing.

When my daughter and I started walking up and down the lines of tables, I was a youthful man, full of hopes and dreams for my whip smart child. By the time I asked “how much?” to the 15th young college representative, I had aged — my shock of dark, auburn hair now white, my eyes hollow and hopeless. And while I may have held on to my vigor, I dropped my vim back by the UNH table and never bothered to pick it back up.

Stafford loans, Direct PLUS loans, subsidized/unsubsidized loans, scholarships, grants, interest rates — I was told there would be no math. Actually, no one told me that at all. I was just hoping it would be a little easier.   

Bill Burke is the guy hitchhiking down the road wearing a barrel and carrying a hobo’s bindle. He lives in southern New Hampshire with his wife and daughter and is also the managing editor of custom publications for McLean Communications.

Categories: Dad on Board