People from different generations reveal how they paid for college

How did you pay for college?

This week’s question was guaranteed to shine a light on a big difference in the financial lives of different generations. How we paid for college has changed dramatically as tuition has soared, grant money has barely increased, and loans have become the primary way to pay. A word of warning to millennials with heavy student debt: The following material may cause severe generation envy

Millennial

“My college was paid for by a combination of grants, scholarships, student loans, and my mom, whom I’m super-grateful to. I’m not entirely certain of how much she contributed because she handled the FAFSA and all my college financing paperwork, but I think it was a significant amount because I graduated with about $23,000 in loans—plus $12,000 in interest because it took me six and a half years to pay them off. That wasn’t too bad, considering one year at my college cost about $45,000. I also had five or six different work-study jobs on campus to supplement expenses like books, supplies, and social activities.”

—Glenda Yang, 29, restaurant manager, Ithaca, N.Y.

Takeaway: It’s great to have support from a parent—and better to express your gratitude for it. Ultimately, most students shoulder some of the financial burden themselves, but graduating with less debt than you otherwise would have had is a plus.

Gen X

“I went to a school that cost close to what my family made in a year, so I put together a patchwork of money sources to pay for it. First off, I was a cross-country runner, which helped me secure what was known as ‘merit money’ from the school in the form of grants. Second, I had a very lucrative summer gig that allowed me to chip in more than 20% of the cost. I had a Pell Grant and federal loans, and went before a lot of Lions Clubs and other organizations to make the case for scholarships ranging from $100 to $500. A work-study job and money from my parents covered my living expenses. Looking back, I’m not sure how I juggled all this for four years, but somehow I did and graduated owing just under $10,000.”

—Bill Novis, 48, ergonomist, St. Louis

Takeaway: It takes a ton of work and gumption to cobble together your own college funding. Given skyrocketing tuition and flatlining aid these days, an arrangement like this Gen Xer’s seems hard, if not impossible, to pull off. But any hustle you can contribute to the goal of paying for college will pay off after graduation, when you won’t have a crazy amount of student debt to stress over.

Silent Generation

“My undergraduate tuition, room, and board were paid through several sources, including a partial scholarship from the state of Illinois that covered half of my tuition. It was granted to students who planned to teach in the Illinois public schools. My parents provided some support, but most of my expenses were covered by part-time work during the school year at an Italian restaurant and full-time work during the summers at a steel mill. Pay was great for the time at Laclede Steel—$2.35 per hour. I didn’t give loans a thought. Consequently, I was debt-free when I graduated. The cost of college has increased dramatically over the years. As I recall, my total cost for a year of college was approximately $2,500. Of course, my father’s income was about $8,000 per year. If he had paid the bill, it would have been greater than a quarter of his income.”

—Jon Roth, 76, retired psychologist, Charleston, S.C.

Takeaway: A year of college for $2,500? (Well, adjusting for inflation, that’s about $20,000 in 2017.) But notice what’s missing from this college payment plan: student loans, which began to appear in the late 1950s. Nowadays, only three in 10 seniors graduate debt-free, so it’s natural to expect loans to be part of the equation. Just be smart about it: Max out federal loans before considering private lenders.

(Quotes have been edited for style and length.)

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