So the university where I'm taking my Italian class has screwed up my registration status, and hence my billing, and hence pretty much everything else. Which means I'm getting what for many students is the Authentic College Experience.
As the spouse of an employee, I qualify for free tuition, but it turns out that only in-state tuition gets reimbursed (which we weren't told) and Registration classified me as a non-resident (which we also weren't told). Although my specific circumstances are unusual, the results weren't: my account kept showing a balance due; Human Resources kept telling us to ignore it; and then a massive late-payment fee got added. Whereupon I contacted Treasury Services, which told me it wasn't their problem; whereupon I contacted Registration, which gave me an eight-page form to petition for immediate residency. It will take at least a week to scrounge up all the necessary attachments, and even then there's no guarantee the petition will be approved.
Although I've heard a lot from my advisees at RU about their problems with the Financial Aid and Registration offices, being in the midst of it is a real education. I've never heard of an institution that lets students register and attend classes without first having squared away their financial obligations. If I'm getting stressed out, when I only owe seven-hundred-odd dollars and spend every hour I'm not on campus sitting on my ass at home, I can only imagine how stressful it would be to discover, mid-semester, that I owed thousands--while also taking a full courseload, holding down a job, and providing at least emotional and practical support to various family members, as the vast majority of students at this urban, commuter campus do.
I'm married to an employee of nine years, who's friends with the union president and who knows people in the Registration office. Our ability to navigate the system is pretty high--and, worst comes to worst, we could find the money if we had to. In college, my parents handled the money end of things, and though they made some real financial sacrifices (and I had a work-study job during the school year and worked full-time every summer), I never saw a bill or worried about paying it. Most students in America have no such advantages.
I'm not going to pretend I'm now like those students; I'm less like them than ever. But being enmeshed in the same bureaucracy and sharing a milder form of the same financial stress does forge a deeper sense of identification. Spending all those hours staring at the price-tag attached to my coursework also makes it hard not to start calculating whether my class is "worth" any of those figures.
Now, I know that tuition bears no direct relationship to faculty salaries. In fact, even the out-of-state figure for my one class is lower than the going rate for adjunct instruction. But when it's your own money we're talking about, and your resources are already stretched thin, making cost-benefit analyses and comparisons is unavoidable. The question isn't, "is this class well-taught?" Or, "is the subject worthwhile in itself?" Or, "does the professor deserve a fair wage?" The question is, "can I afford it?" Or, "is the knowledge I gain worth having no money if my car breaks down this month?" Or, "is this class six times the value I'd get from buying Rosetta Stone instead?"
It's never been mysterious to me why students and their parents care about the bottom line or the return on investment, or why they might choose majors that seem to track them directly into a job. But the immediacy of their anxiety has felt foreign to me: just wait and see! Explore different majors! The long-term payoff is worth it!
But when you're living close to the edge and every gamble means something else you can't afford, short-term decisions may be the only ones you can make.