In February, Penn announced a 3.9 percent tuition increase for the 2016-2017 academic year. The new total cost of attendance: $66,000.
I am fortunate to have hailed from an upper-middle class family and have been afforded many privileges due to my financial circumstances. Growing up, I was able to travel, study overseas and focus on academics and extracurriculars rather than working to help support my family. If I wanted, I could try to blend in with many of my classmates at Penn. I’ve played the charade before: mentioning my family’s house on the Cape or my small boarding school in New Zealand when I began to feel out of place at a school whose social hierarchy is largely dictated by where you are from and how much money your parents make. But my carefree attitude towards money would be just that: a charade. Since coming to Penn last year, finances have been a consistent and significant source of stress, because at 21 years old I will graduate $60,000 in debt.
My parents were hesitant about sending me to Penn. Tuition was outrageously high, and I had the opportunity to attend other universities for free. But Penn was my dream school, and it boasted a “no loan” policy and generous financial aid. I was certain that between outside scholarships and financial aid, I would be able to make up the difference between the $40,000 a year my parents were willing to put towards my education and the total cost of attendance. This dream was quickly shot down when I received my first financial aid award letter in the mail: I had received no aid.
I do my best to make my financial situation work. I saved enough money from my high school job to pay for books and day–to–day expenses. I make payments on my student loans throughout the year. I am cognizant about my spending. This year, I began working as a student–athlete tutor on top of my already packed schedule. I knew college would be expensive, so I carefully budgeted for the cost of tuition, housing, food and expenses. I even set aside some “fun” money. However, I quickly learned my “fun” budget would fall laughably short at helping me navigate the incredibly frivolous spending culture at Penn. $30 at Copa for margs with friends. BYOs every weekend. Downtowns and parties where students drop hundreds of dollars in a single night without batting an eyelash. Once, bored in the back of a lecture hall in Huntsman, I counted the Cartier bracelets dangling off the wrists of several of my peers and realized that my classmates were literally wearing my college tuition as an accessory.
Few students at Penn openly admit to the “broke college kid” stereotype that is considered the norm at many other universities. However, according to Student Registration and Financial Services, 32 percent of Penn students take out loans, with an average debt of $18,900. Although almost a third of students at Penn graduate with debt, the subject remains taboo. Instead, students like myself silently struggle with the burden of debt while simultaneously attempting to keep up with the Joneses. The paradox is that although you may see them downtown at an upscale venue or having a carefree brunch with friends, the threat of impending student loans may still be a constant stressor influencing almost all of their financial decisions.
Personally, I am grateful for the opportunity to attend Penn and for parents who are willing to invest so much in my education. Despite my student loans, I don’t regret choosing Penn. Managing debt at a school so obsessed with money helps students develop personal finance acumen that will prove useful in adulthood. As Ben Franklin once said, “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.” An investment in tickets to that random downtown in February? Not so much.