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A few days ago, I received an e-mail from my college announcing next year’s tuition. After one look, I almost had a heart attack. Tuition had risen 3.8 percent, and the new total was startling. I could already imagine the look on my parents’ faces when they found out how much money they would have to fork over for my education next year.

This should not be a big surprise. The cost of college is a burden that all students face, and is one that seems to increase every year. Because of this, students have to consider the cost versus the benefits of attending college. Many of my friends have turned down prestigious private institutions for less-expensive city and state schools due to exorbitant tuition. Students must weigh their career choices as well, considering which jobs will pay off a hefty student loan the fastest. The days of dreamers and the “anything is possible” mantra are disappearing. You need to make decisions that are financially wise.

For a middle-income family like mine, paying for tuition can be a challenge. Like many other students across the country, I rely on financial aid. Financial aid packages contain three major parts: a grant or scholarship, a loan, and a work-study program.

Grants or scholarships are free money that the college gives out for those who struggle to pay. Schools do not expect students to pay them back. The amounts and types of grants and scholarships vary from school to school. My school, for example, gives out book grants, so that all textbooks and materials are free for those on financial aid.

Loans get paid back, with interest, after graduation. They are not as welcome, since today’s interest rates are high.

Work-study programs fall somewhere in between. Many private colleges offer students the chance to work to pay off a portion of tuition. I am expected to find a job on campus and also work during the summer to contribute to my education. This is a lofty goal for a first-year college student to meet, and I have struggled to meet my college’s high financial expectations. Nevertheless, in my attempt to complete my work-study and find a useful, paid internship for the summer, I have learned the value of money.

Budgeting 101

I have also rarely thought much about money throughout my life. My parents never felt the need to limit my spending by imposing an allowance. However, because I never had an allowance, I never learned how to budget or manage money. Prior to college, I had worked summer jobs, but bringing home a paycheck had not meant much, because I rarely spent my earnings.

This changed once I got to college. With my parents paying down a large chunk of my tuition, it is my duty to help pay for as much as I can, too. My share comes from my job at school. I work as an events assistant at the theater. I am getting paid a little bit more than minimum wage. During my first semester, I worked frequently, signing up for shifts every month and leaving time for other extracurricular activities, as my parents suggested. I was proud of myself for working this job, and was happy to be paying for my education. In my mind, I was making plenty of money and was easily dusting through my work-study. Yet, at the end of the semester, I was shocked by how little I actually earned.

Work vs. play

When I looked back at my time cards and checked everything over, I realized that making money was a lot harder than spending it. I calculated my spending in terms of how many hours of work I would have to put in. I was startled by the results. Just having a meal off-campus at the local deli would be an hour of work. Seeing a Broadway show? That’s a whole semester of work right there.

Learning the value of money in this way has made me more frugal and more prone to grab unique opportunities from my school. I eat meals on campus, trying to take advantage of the 21-meals-a-week plan that has been prepaid. On overnight trips, I grab a little extra from the hotel’s continental breakfast for lunch. When my school has special events or shows, I make sure to get my complimentary tickets from the box office.

The ideal internship

Searching for an internship for the summer has also been a struggle. As a freshman, I do not have many options. The two criteria I have for an internship are to gain a meaningful experience in the field of my interest and, of course, get paid to do it. Unfortunately, many internships in the city are unpaid. I am expected to make a decent amount of money this summer to pay for my education, but the cards seem stacked against me.

Minimum wage woes

Working to pay off my education has also opened my eyes to a bigger issue facing our country. I am fortunate enough to have parents who are willing to make sacrifices for my education, but not all students do. Plenty of people have no choice but to work minimum-wage jobs. In New York City, that’s $8 an hour. The city is one of the most expensive places to live, making $8 an hour is almost inhumane!

The lesson to be learned her is it sucks to be paid so little.

Maybe, it will spark a fire in us to study harder to avoid such low pay. Nevertheless, I can only hope that we remember what it is like to work at the bottom. If we do, perhaps, we, as the future, can help those who need a leg up.

Aglaia Ho is a freshman at Williams College and a native New Yorker.

Updated 4:53 pm, July 9, 2018
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