Confessions of a College Advisor

06/05/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Originally published on, the premier source for youth generated news throughout the globe.

By: Dione Lien

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 advisor, 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 have to ask: "Has anyone in your family saved for your college tuition? Is there anyone you can ask to help with expenses?" I find myself running numbers on cost of living, rent, and school fees, which I never did before.

Particularly in this economy, giving good college advice means setting realistic expectations that go beyond acceptance letters. That doesn't mean I say "get over it" when someone comes to my office with a long list of reasons why they can't imagine themselves at any other school but "the one." I listen. But I also try to be sure they are excited about all their options.

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. She is adjusting to the idea that she has to stay local or go to a public school in California, but she's disappointed. The ripple effects in her family are real. There's not enough money to go around, pitting her against her brother, whose college expenses are also tapping Dad's bank account.

Although it's hard to see it now, in some ways, she will have more security than my student at UCLA, who may spend her entire college career worrying about funding. Your "dream" school sometimes is the place that gives you financial peace of mind.

I was conservative when I planned for college.

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. They let me figure it out on my own. I handled all my applications and forms. So when the FAFSA - Free Application for Federal Student Aid - deadline came around, I didn't think of asking them. I did it myself. I was 17 years old.

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 University of California at Berkeley, the closest U.C., knowing I could easily finance 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.

When I tell people what I do, they reminisce about how much easier it was for them "back then" going to college, even to finance it. Sure, my job is harder now, but in some ways, it's more important.

Dione Lien, 24, leads the college advising program at Youth Radio-Youth Media International.

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