Comments on the First Tuition Bill

Readers know that I have three children – Eldest, Middle and Youngest – and as it usually happens, life changes.  In this case, it changes because Eldest is moving off to college in a month and if the proliferation of empty boxes awaiting use didn’t bring that home, the arrival of the first tuition bill did.  Within a one week span of the bill’s arrival, she also received other correspondence offering student loans and if I didn’t know better, I’d almost think that it was serendipity that such mail would arrive in such a timely fashion.  What went through my mind in the moment and afterwards?

First was the simple realization that the bill was addressed to The Parents of…  While she’s now eighteen and nominally an adult – are our high school graduates truly adults (hmmm, there’s a question) – the money enchilada comes back to us.  This was especially interesting since we learned at parent orientation weekend that the institution could only send us report cards for the first two years unless the offspring signs a permission form allowing them to do for the final two or so years.  At least we’re clear that our role in the eyes of the college establishment monolith is that of a financial donkey.

Second, the simple question when did this happen?  My flashback was to a two-year old toddler posing for a picture on her first day of preschool, a small blue tote bag slung over shoulders wearing a bright yellow play shirt, face framed by fine brown hair cut in a page-boy style.   At that moment, she was an only child and in the intervening years would be joined by her two younger brothers.  That question was followed by a momentary panic with such questions as have we done enough? and could I have done a better job of investing what was saved?  The pit-of-the-stomach queasiness was only made worse when I tore off the computer envelope tabs and looked at the dollar figure for the first semester.  Despite the fact that I’ve run the numbers and knew what they already were, the emotions exploded out of the box like a knife-wielding, meth-addicted jack-in-the-box. 

Third, despite having run all of the numbers ahead of time, actually looking at the amount of the first bill was a gut-checking experience and especially since the dollar figure in the amount due box was significantly less than what I expected.  My family knows that when truly surprised, my standard response is what the hell? with the register dropping on the second word and then rising – along with a crescendo – on the word hell.  After momentary confusion, I found that the difference was accounted by the school’s assumption that some of the money was coming from a federal direct unsubsidized loan despite our never telling them that that was what we’d be doing.  The college financial aid office explained that their bills automatically include that and I had to specify that our intent was to handle this without debt, although circumstances with two other kids might force a future change.  It bothers me that the institutions continue to raise the costs with the expectations that the families and kids are having to incur even more debt.  While some increases are expected, the fact that the past two decades of rises have far outstripped family incomes.  It all comes back to the fact that higher education is a big business; if you don’t believe it, consider that student debt is now higher than credit card debt or auto loans.

Fourth, within days of the tuition bill’s arrival, Eldest received separate credit offers from Sallie Mae and Citibank.  Sallie Mae’s offer openly played to the emotions with the line that time was running out for a loan before the start of the school year but they’d sweeten their offer with some manner of free credit insurance for a period of time.  Citibank’s offer was more bland but again, the timing was supposedly serendipitous.  Honestly, if you’re faced with the prospect of having to take on tens of thousands of dollars, you shouldn’t be rushed into it and kids can simply be tricked into the sense that it’s now or never.  The matter should be approached in such a manner that the prospect of a Sallie Mae letter is irrelevant and can be directed immediately into the trash and teens/nascent adults don’t have the perspective and experience to realize it.

Fifth, now that the bill is here, what is the mechanism for drawing money from the 529 to cover this?  Money has been plunked there periodically for years but what has to happen to actually get it out in a timely fashion?  By now, Eldest knows that the bill is certainly here and has to be covered by a certain date and this presents a learning moment in how to handle processing.  The question was answered in a few minutes and she walked through the withdrawal paperwork with me so that she could see what was involved.  Can she do it going forward?  No, since it’s in my name as her custodian but it’s helpful for her to see the background structure, something about which the great mass of kids are woefully unaware.

The process is now in motion and the bill filed away until mid-August.  Now it’s time for her to cull and gather and fill those boxes for the trip out.  And then, the reality will sink in again.


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