The Pros and Cons of Going to College for Free

It’s hard to tell people I go to school for free, so I usually don’t.

Silence (or rather, mumbled half-truths) is the safest route, really—no risk of people lobbing textbooks at your skull as the rest of the college-going world burns in the fire of a billion flaming credit cards. Hell, I’d probably join in and chuck a tome at myself if I were in most people’s shoes. But by far the most difficult part of confessing how not-at-all my bank account is sucked clean by the university’s tuition vacuum is explaining why. My parents must be rich, you say! Nope, no sir. My grandparents, then? Good guess—half of them are Asian, after all—but still no. And then the gears start screeching in people’s heads: There’s no way Obama shells out that much for need-based aid, is there? Worry not, the government isn’t tossing out any secret pots o’ gold—at least not my way.

The process of elimination leaves only one possibility: a scholarship. A ridiculously, er, thorough scholarship that happens to, ahem, cover everything. Full-ride merit-based scholarships are rare to say the least, but they do exist, like a surprise fairy godmother come to stab her wand through the throats of those fire-breathing warthogs that feed off of empty wallets and bounce up and down on a big red button that says “Tuition UP!” like a Mario game.

Well, a fairy godmother who takes applications based on standardized test scores and hovers over your shoulder during the SATs, hissing, “Demolish this test or you’ll have to pay your own way through college like everyone else! Heeheehee!” But I digress. Let’s get into the pros and cons of sitting pretty in the high ivory towers of Scholarship Land! It’ll come as a pleasant surprise to most, I presume, that it’s not all rainbow kisses and unicorn stickers up there.

Pros:

No Debt

I’m not here to lie to you, dear tuition-payer: The feeling of not having to subsist on a diet of Cup Ramen and a bag of stale Honey Nut Cheerios you forgot to close just to afford rent is pretty fucking dazzling. I admit it.

I’m sure I don’t need to elucidate all the reasons why having those giant dollar sign-shaped anvils lifted from your head is satisfying, especially to a financially unremarkable suburbanite who wouldn’t otherwise be deemed worthy of much aid at all. Essentially generating your own funds lifts an enormous load off your shoulders, especially in an academic environment where borrowing against your mother’s life and your finest jewelry from that Piercing Pagoda stand in the mall is the norm.

But one of the best parts of having a school-issued scholarship, in my unashamedly anti-establishment opinion, is that it’s the college itself that’s paying all those suspiciously unnamed university renovation fees that somehow add up to more than an 18-year old Starbucks part-timer makes in a semester. Instead of your parents’ retirement funds, it’s the system you’re screwing lousy out of thousands of dollars!

Doesn’t the devilish irony just fill you with glee?

…No? Just me? Well, I suppose I’m used to shaking my fist at the man alone in this salty, rebellion-filled corner of mine.

You’re Spoiled

Imagine the stereotypical revered Greek god from cartoons who gets showered with flower petals upon entrance and lounges in his throne all day while his attendants anoint him with oils and feed him grapes fresh off the stem.

Now replace the throne with a scratchy dorm-issued couch cushion and the flowers with stacks of cash, and you have how universities tend to treat their full-scholarship kids. I’ll be the first to admit that the system is broken and the attention isn’t totally deserved—but boy, do those grapes taste good. (I could do without the anointing, though. Please don’t rub oils on my body, subservient cartoon strangers; I can do that myself.)

The institutional ass-kissing mostly comes in the form of unsolicited privileges, as you’ll sometimes get first choice of housing, and possibly even classes, too. I’m not proud, exactly, but early sign-up has rescued my sorry ass more times than I’d prefer to recall.

Cons:

No Financial Know-How

This particular brand of economic cluelessness may be born out of some of the cushiest possible circumstances, sure—but that just means full-riders are that much less enlightened when it comes to real-world budgeting. (In fact, I’m not even sure I know the definition of the word “budget.” Boy, am I in for it.)

Four glaring examples of fiscal dunces reside in none other than my own living quarters. My apartment houses three other girls on the same full scholarship as me, and oh, oh, is the financial illiteracy atrocious! Ask the residents of my room how to take out a loan, acquire a credit card, or hell, even pay rent, and you’ll most likely receive four looks as blank as the checks we write out to UCF. You can practically see our combined intelligence dwindle down to -1 on the Wechsler scale.

I can’t speak for every student bathing in the brimming pockets of the university president’s wallet, but I feel woefully unprepared for life on the streets (translation: “life after college,” for you non-English majors). For the love of god, I don’t have the foggiest notion what it means to pay a bill! Not that I imagine I’ll be taking very long showers in my cardboard box under the Seattle freeway, but it would still be nice to know.

Peer Divide

Not being able to relate to everyone else around you moaning (and rightly so) about the tuition costs skyrocketing so high they’re practically orbiting the ISS can be rougher than you might think. Friends who have to pay for college sometimes can’t see past the injustice of it all, get the wrong idea about your financial situation or simply feel uncomfortable about your radically different circumstances, even if they try not to show it.

Maneuvering around the gigantic bowl of dough you get from the higher-ups every semester is often a tricky thing indeed, and the uncomfortable looks that creep onto people’s faces when you finally admit why you don’t have to pay for anything don’t make it any easier.

My biggest advice is to clamp your money-coated lips shut while others gripe about scrounging together enough student loans to pay for one more semester of this “higher education” thing that costs so damn much. It’s sometimes tempting to chime in with a lighthearted joke about being exempt from the rule, but astonishingly, those doesn’t tend to go over so well. In fact, cracking money-based banter with people who actually know what a personal loan is and how to make one (file one? Write one? Paint one?) often elicits more pain than you bargained for.

Crippling Guilt

In the interest of unbridled honesty, I’ll come out and say it: I probably don’t deserve to get as much money as I’m getting. The checks are big, guys. Really big. The first time I saw my scholarship come in, I felt the sudden urge to locate a Party City to buy a top hat and some Santa sacks, for I had just become the guy on the Monopoly box, Rich Uncle Pennybags.

To an eighteen-year-old whose idea of a financial windfall was $50 of birthday money for CDs and Nintendo DS games, suddenly being showered with other people’s money felt both thrilling and wrong at the same time. All I did was score highly on a couple of standardized tests—I’m being rewarded because of my aptitude for the very same kind of blanketed educational regurgitation I’m fundamentally opposed to.

So is all this fanfare truly justified? Wouldn’t the money be better spent on someone (or more aptly, multiple people) who needs it more than I do, someone who wouldn’t even be able to afford college otherwise? And Christ, does my refund check really have to be that gigantic?

…Well, there you have it. Hope you enjoyed this week’s episode of Thoughts That Run Through My Head As I Continue to Spend Other People’s Money. These lovelies are just some of the myriad of doubts that overthinking scholarship kids like me can look forward to whilst lounging on the lap of luxury. See? Going to college for free isn’t a total walk down Happy Funtimes Lane. Of course, I’m eternally grateful that this particular system happens to lean in my favor, and I’m certainly not turning down any refund checks any time soon. But I’m also horrified by the notion that I’m floating in a pile of undeserved riches that could easily spell my demise when it comes time to actually know stuff later in life.

As I think I’ve made plain, cognitive dissonance is a just party and a half. Almost as much fun as rooting through the ol’ university’s pants pockets and coming up with so much cash I’m bleeding with paper cuts. You know, in between dodging the torches and pitchforks hurled through my window at night. It’s all a matter of perspective.

Leave a Reply