There is no free lunch, even in college

My dad is a great guy. He’s one of those people who knows everything — really. It’s kind of spooky. And he’s a great dad, too: In 18 years, we’ve only had one fight. But, oh what a fight it was.

It was about a month before I left for college. He was driving me home from work and he said, “”Jess, there’s something I want to talk to you about.”” Before I knew it, we’d gotten ourselves into a heated argument over who was going to pay for my next four years of school.

I suppose that arguments with such premises are pretty common between recent high school graduates and their parents during that time of year. But somehow, I doubt that this one fell into the conventional parameters of those arguments.

Since middle school, I have known that I would pay for college. While most kids were still getting allowances, I had a job — in middle school, mind you, which is actually legal if the job adheres to certain rules about hours and wages — a monthly budget and a mutual funds account.

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I worked anywhere between one and three jobs in high school. During my junior and senior years I held two jobs, working about 35 hours per week. During the summers, it was more like 50 hours.

So there I was, ready to head off to school with two years of tuition, room and board ready and waiting in my account. And it felt so good.

Occasionally, when I tell people about this endeavor, they’ll look at me with a vague appearance of disbelief and ask, “”Gee, how did you manage that?””

When people ask me things like that, it’s hard not to be defensive. It’s hard not to feel like I have a $16,000 chip on my shoulder.

I do my best to understand that for some people, that kind of commitment is unrealistic. Many people have a lot of legitimate obligations to things such as academics, athletics and extracurricular activities.

I’m really not interested in any sort of one-upmanship about who did more in high school because it’s not about that. All I know is that if something is important to you, you’ll find the time to make it work. Let’s just say that maybe because it was so important to me, I managed just fine — 35 hours of work per week, three advanced placement classes, editor in chief of two school newspapers and, oh yes, a grade point average of 3.8, unweighted.

When my dad told me he wanted to pay for school, I should have been thrilled. It should have meant that I had financial security ahead of me, that I wouldn’t have to work in college, that I could enjoy the next four years of my life without worrying about the performance of my stock portfolio.

In reality, it was probably the cruelest thing my parents have ever done. Paying for college was a burden I had already accepted. It was something that I had already worked for. It’s something that took many sacrifices. It was the main factor in my choice of college. Hell, I turned down an Ivy League school to come here because UCSD had a price tag that I could afford. And suddenly came the news, “”None of that matters now, because it’s not your responsibility after all.””

It is so important to me that I take responsibility for my education. So many people say that what they like best about college is the freedom, the independence. For me, it’s not freedom if someone else is paying for it. It’s my education, my life, my four years.

I’ve never understood how my peers can just let people pay for college for them. It sounds rather condescending, I know. And I suppose that just because something is important to me doesn’t mean that other people should instantly follow suit. If other people can just accept someone else putting them through school, that’s cool, but I can’t.

My parents put themselves through school. They didn’t have a choice. They say that being able to support me financially means a lot to them, and they understand that financial independence is important to me because it was important to them too.

Eventually my dad and I came to an agreement — after all, he’s a great guy. We decided that I’d pay for whatever I could, and my parents would take care of any debts I had incurred at the end of four years. And though it boggles the mind to consider the non-education-related misdeeds that such an agreement could lead to, I imagine that nothing too outrageous will show up on my parents’ bill after four years.

The second week of this quarter, I went off to get a job. I knew that I’d need one in order to make this whole independence thing work. I’m working about 25 hours a week, and I’m loving it.

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