Confessions of a College Adviser

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When I was in high school thinking about college, the encouragement I got was "You can go anywhere. Money shouldn't be an issue." So when I started working as a college adviser, I imparted the same advice to motivate my students. I could get away with it several years ago, but lately I feel like I'm flat out lying.

What happened to one of my students this school year is a constant reminder that money IS an issue. She got into UCLA, but her financial aid wasn't enough to cover her living expenses. She had to move out of the dorms and live with friends. Looking back, I had no idea her financial aid package wasn't going to meet her needs -- or that her mom couldn't make the family contribution. So now I'm more careful. I find myself running numbers on cost of living, rent and school fees, which I never did before.

One student of mine had her heart set on Bennington College, one of the most expensive schools in the country. But her dad is a community college teacher -- and his salary took a hit this year with budget cuts. That put her family in financial aid limbo. He makes too much, but not enough. There's not enough money to go around, pitting her against her brother, whose college expenses are also tapping dad's bank account.

I went to a high school where the focus was on vocational education, not higher education. My parents were always working, so college never came up until I brought it up. I didn't really go to them for help. I handled all my applications and forms. So when the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) deadline came around, I did it myself.

My counselors -- the ones who told me I could go anywhere -- didn't talk to me about money. No budget planning. Nothing. But when it came down to making the choice, money was a factor. I chose UC Berkeley, the closest UC, knowing I could easily fund my education if I lived at home.


A practical approach to college is now more important than ever as family incomes become less predictable, fees keep rising and competition for fewer slots is a long-term reality. Sure, my job is harder now, but in some ways, it's more important.

With a Perspective, I'm Dione Lien.