How to Separate Your Self-Worth From Your Financial Worth in College

College can be pricey. One student shares how his struggle to afford college taught him the importance of separating his self-worth from his ability to pay.
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Attending college can be one of the best experiences of your life. You're at a place of personal and intellectual discovery, where you can and should feel like you have so much potential to unlock within yourself.

Higher education institutions are almost magical places. Many boast sprawling campuses, well-kept greens, and striking architecture.

On campus, you're surrounded by cutting-edge technology, fully staffed libraries, a student center offering games and entertainment, frequent campus events, and many student organizations.

Being a college student with easy access to these wonderful resources can put you in a bubble where you may lose track of the reality around you. In all that wonder, it can be easy to get distracted by the monetary commitment you're making to be there.

And it's not uncommon to run into occasional financial issues when paying for tuition, like having hiccups with your loans coming through each term.

As a student from a lower-income background, I was late on my tuition payments nearly every semester throughout my five years as an undergrad. Usually, this was either due to loan processing issues or having to work to make ends meet, with support from my family.

Until I met and heard from other students in my later years of undergrad, I hadn't realized how common this experience was. Whether you're running into issues with the bursar's office or working hard to find ways to pay for your education, you're not alone.

And no matter how you may feel about your financial situation, know that you do deserve to be there.

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Regardless of where you're at in life or your educational journey, one of the most difficult conversations you can have as a student is talking to the financial aid office about a missing or soon-to-be-late tuition payment.

Simply put, it's uncomfortable.

It can make you feel like you've done something wrong or have something to be ashamed of. It can also take away some of the luster and wonder around being in a college setting.

It's an uneasy feeling when you realize that, yes, your school is both a business and a place you love and call home. There's a real cost you're paying for that magical place you're attending — for that almost utopian bubble and feeling you often get on campus.

The idea that you could get kicked out of your school due to a late or missing tuition payment is upsetting. It can make you feel like you're not supposed to be there — like the school doesn't really want you as a person.

But this isn't the case. Many of your professors, campus staff, and fellow students care about you.

Maybe it's because you're already in a position in which you feel like things are hard due to financial constraints, but there's something about having to work with the bursar's office that can make one feel especially down.

Seeing the amount of money you're paying or taking out for college can be both jarring and eye-opening. Without mincing words, college is expensive. It's a lifelong investment you make for yourself that can yield numerous personal and financial dividends.

However, in that moment when you're just a student trying to pay a bill, you may start to doubt why you decided to be there — and why you're still there.

As a lower-income student on an affluent campus, I struggled with feeling like I truly belonged — like I was a normal student who was allowed to enjoy being in college.

But you shouldn't let that feeling eat away at you. There's nothing about having a missed or late payment to be ashamed of.

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In my first few years of college, I dreaded getting those polite yet firm "We're about to unregister you from classes and terminate your student status unless a payment is received by [date]" emails that get sent out if you're a couple of weeks behind on paying tuition.

They're impersonal and cold — everything colleges try to separate themselves from. It almost feels like your landlord is attempting to boot you out of your apartment, though the reality could be considered worse: You're about to be booted out of your community, friends, and dreams.

This was demoralizing for me on multiple levels. Those emails and conversations with the bursar's office felt like confirmation that I was just barely making it, or that I was somehow less worthy to be on campus because I didn't have access to the same cushion and safety net other students did.

It was an isolating feeling. But if you're going through something like this or you've experienced this before, just know that feeling isn't true.

You're not the only student facing financial hardship. And you shouldn't let that pull you away from your coursework, your feeling of belonging on campus, or your hopes and ambitions.

What I've seen while being in academia is that schools will shy away from telling you upfront that making ends meet as a student can be daunting.

But if you're ever in that position, understand that you're not alone in feeling afraid or frustrated. It's more common than you think to have to go into the financial aid office and figure out payment plans and loan processing issues. It's part of the reality of academia, and it shouldn't lessen that wonder you may have around pursuing higher education.

If I could go back in time and tell myself one thing about making my tuition work, it's that I shouldn't have been ashamed of having those conversations with the bursar's office.

Having those conversations is more normal than I thought — and it's a very real part of working toward a college degree that most people just don't talk about.

If you have a story to tell, learn what the process looks like and how to write it.

Meet the Author

Portrait of Christopher Ferrante

Christopher Ferrante

Christopher Ferrante is an adjunct professor at Seton Hall University where he teaches in the first-year writing program. He earned his BA in psychology from The College of New Jersey in 2018 and his MA in English (creative writing) from Seton Hall University in 2022. His passions include the craft of fiction, game design, and social justice education.