A Project for Better Journalism chapter

The Cost of College

     For many high school seniors, achieving financial stability in the future is a powerful motivator to work hard on college applications and attend a respectable university. However, there are limitations that, in some cases, are out of a student’s control, one being that they just cannot afford schooling.

       Many students are unaware of the true impact that their financial background can have on not only the colleges they can afford, but also on the years prior to applying for them, especially in a sheltered environment like Johns Creek. The ‘Johns Creek Bubble’ provides students the resources needed to excel that many others may not have, but in doing so, it also isolates most students from the idea of a world without such resources. Not all students are excluded from such a reality, however, as there are students at Northview and other schools in the area that do not share the financial background of others. One such student, Olivia, is a Northview senior who has the aspirations and diligence to excel in school but is limited by her financial situation.

       Olivia is just like any other Northview senior. She is in the middle of the stressful, tiresome whirlwind of college applications, struggling to find time for both schoolwork and life outside of school. But while some seniors are able to find time to eat out or watch a movie with friends, Olivia must spend her after-school hours working at her family’s restaurant to supplement her household’s income. And due to school and her work hours, she has to take time out of her sleep schedule to apply for scholarships and write her college essays.

       Due to Olivia’s financial situation, her parents must continually work hard to earn enough to afford a home in Johns Creek, where she can continue to study at Northview, and add to the emergency funds for her future schooling. Because her family had to make so many sacrifices to allow her the opportunity to attend Northview, she tries to make the most of it by studying diligently to maintain good grades and developing a story for who she is now. 

       Both of her parents never graduated from high school, so the idea of getting an education seemed like a remote possibility in her household. In her past, she lived in an unfortunate neighborhood, where she witnessed what happens when someone gives up on their own education, and as a result has to go to extreme lengths to make enough money, including selling drugs. 

       “I [saw] on a daily basis what can happen when you give up on your life in my neighborhood,” Olivia said. “They’re making a living in their own way, but I don’t want to do what they do as a low-income area, which is why I want to have an education and make a living for myself.”

       The realization that she does not want to end up like this in the future motivated her to push through high school and be the first person in her family to go to college with the goal of achieving financial stability.

       “I am really motivated to go to college, and before, I didn’t realize how big and important education was,” Olivia said. “I feel like it’s up to each person how much they’re going to put in for their outcome.”

       Olivia is considering majoring in chemistry at college, possibly going to an in-state school  that best suits her family’s budget. Being in an environment like Northview, Olivia admits such a plan is unusual for most students, but she acknowledges that her situation is unusual for most as well. 

       Olivia is a first generation American, meaning she is the first in her family to be a naturally born citizen in the United States. Growing up, she faced many obstacles due to her family’s financial situation; however, she feels that these circumstances have taught her the true meaning of hard work and given her a better sense of the difficulties she may face after high school.

       “Definitely the way I grew up was very different from the rest of the people at Northview,” Olivia said, “I got rejected from Hardship which is why me and my family had to rent a place and work in someone’s house in exchange for a room for all of us to go to school here. I know what hard work is.”

       She acknowledges that although Northview students face their own struggles, as they are under pressure to maintain good grades and participate in programs that will look good on their college applications, they are still living within the ‘Johns Creek Bubble,’ which shelters them from the harsh reality of life.

“[Northview students] work really hard in school. That’s not a lie. Everyone here is super competitive, but there’s that idea of ‘Johns Creek Bubble,’” Olivia said. “They [grew] up with all of these privileges that they think are normal, and once they get out there, they’re going to realize that these privileges must be earned and require hard work to get.”

       Olivia believes that while there are some who are aware of their privilege and that others are not fortunate enough to have the resources they do, they may not have a true understanding of the difference, as they have never had to face these hardships themselves. 

       Often, students in circumstances similar to Olivia’s end up either unaware or unmotivated concerning their options for higher education, not because they believe they will not get accepted, but because they simply cannot pay for it. Olivia finds herself being limited to certain schools because of her family’s financial situation. She has applied for multiple scholarship opportunities, including QuestBridge, a non-profit program linking students who rank in the top 5-10% of their school whose families make less than $65,000 a year to educational and scholarship opportunities. 

       But while she feels that attending college in-state may be more financially suitable for her situation, she is still considering out-of-state colleges, including NYU or an Ivy League school, as she may be able to afford more expensive colleges with the help of scholarships.

       “I definitely feel that if I did UGA or Georgia Tech, it would be easier on my family to pay for it, but if I did an Ivy League school, I would have a better chance for scholarships,” Olivia said. “It all depends on the scholarships. I know people who went to really good schools that were out of state, and they got a full ride. That’s QuestBridge, a full year for free. Then there’s HOPE, and it does help cover it, but not all of it.”

       Olivia has found a way to make the most of her situation, despite it being different from the situations of most at Northview. Although she was not able to afford classes that could help with standardized tests such as the SAT due to her financial situation, she was still able to prepare for it using several books and free sites such as Khan Academy.

       “I’ve learned to self-study, which is really important if you don’t have the money to pay for tutoring,” Olivia said. “I think that the people who do have the resources don’t take it seriously until they really need to.”

       She believes that while having access to more resources does help students get better grades and do better in the college application process, hard work is an even more important factor.

       “It’s not about the resources you have, it’s about the work you put in,” Olivia said. “When it comes to the application process, grades do matter, but it’s also about the story, what difference you make.”

       Regarding scholarships, Olivia believes it is important that people realize the value of scholarships as they are one of the first steps to closing the education gap between those of high or middle income families and those of low income families. 

       A common phenomenon among privileged students, like many in Johns Creek, is that their  families make too much for them to qualify for need-based scholarships, but not enough to actually afford the tuition at more expensive colleges. Northview counselor Cindy Lee notices that students in this area often struggle with this and believes the current system may be unfair to those who are financially stable.

       “I believe colleges are providing students enough opportunities to get scholarships for financial aid,” Lee said. “However, in regard to financial packages, it does seem like it is unfair to those that are already financially stable.”

       Lee feels that FAFSA, or the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is geared towards family household size and family income, in that if someone is financially stable, they will not get as much of the financial aid package when compared to someone who is not as financially stable.

       However, there are still several ways for students in the Johns Creek area to afford college. This includes in-state tuition, which tends to be lower than out-of-state tuition, along with merit-based scholarships, which are granted for merit in academics, arts, or athletics. 

       Senior Gabriella Bartlett feels as if seniors at Northview are not as aware of all the resources accessible to them due to the preconceived notion that not qualifying for need-based scholarships eliminates other opportunities. She feels as if seniors should look into the scholarships available and explore different opportunities as one may turn out to be helpful in the end. 

       “The students aren’t aware of all their options. I didn’t know how many scholarships were available to me until I looked on websites,” Bartlett said. “There’s so many things out there, and most of us don’t know about all these smaller scholarships through individual schools.”

       Lee agrees that students are not taking full advantage of the resources that are provided to them, as the counselors are constantly making efforts to inform students and encourage them to apply for scholarships.

       “The opportunities are definitely there.  I don’t think [students] are taking ahold of the opportunities we have, but we update the Northview counseling website very often with scholarship opportunities,” Lee said.

       Even before the college admissions process begins, there are many ways students can expand their skill set to increase their chances of getting a merit-based scholarship and a decent college. One such program that juniors and seniors can participate in is Governor’s Honors Program, a free summer program for students who demonstrate outstanding ability and potential in certain areas. Junior Shiv Trivedi attended GHP for computer science the summer before this school year. There, he learned a new programming language and improved his audio processing skills. GHP is known to be a prestigious program, and due to its reputation, attendees are at an advantage in the college admissions process, and are exposed to different people of different backgrounds. 

       “It’ll look good that I got into a program like GHP,” Trivedi said. “I definitely made lifelong friends there. Recently, when I went to a robotics event, where there were a lot of people I knew there from GHP. It’s just nice to know a lot of people all over Georgia.”

       Not only is GHP an opportunity to meet students with similar interests to their own, but it is also a resource for students of all financial backgrounds to utilize. 

       However, even with the help of merit-based scholarships and in-state tuition, many students are still struggling to afford the cost of higher education, as increasingly high tuition rates are outpacing the rise in the average American family’s income. 


Principal Brian Downey believes that colleges should be providing more financial aid to make up for their high costs. He reveals that when he attended college 25 years ago, tuition and living cost combined cost $16,000 a year. Today, the same school costs more than $50,000 a year.

       “Over the course of 25 years, it’s grown exponentially in most colleges and universities, and it’s becoming harder and harder to afford it,” Downey said. “What you guys are facing in terms of that challenge to attend the college of your choice looks very different today than when I was in school.”

       He feels that although certain universities, such as the University of Alabama, provide more financial aid than others, the country as a whole is not doing enough to make college affordable for students.

       “The federal wealth programs and federal loan forgiveness programs are not working in our favor,” Downey said, “Post college, when you try to work debt off, these programs aren’t as supportive as they could be or should be.”

       Trivedi disagrees, as he believes that while colleges could always provide more financial aid, they are doing enough to help students right now. Two of his older siblings, one of which attended Princeton, have already been through college.

       “There’s need-based financial aid and merit-based scholarships at a lot of great colleges,” Trivedi said. “I have two older siblings, and they’re already through college. I saw them get through college, and they’re okay.”

       Trivedi believes the high costs of many elite colleges are justified due to the extra opportunities that are open to students there.

       “A big part of going to college is the resources that are available, so that’s why some colleges are more expensive,” Trivedi said. “They’re able to provide more resources for you.”

       Downey advises students to attend a mediocre university that may not offer as many resources as elites over a more highly-regarded university, which increases a student’s chance of success but may also cause them to go into debt. Aside from the networking that students will benefit from at elite colleges like Harvard or Stanford, he believes that the school students attend does not make a very big difference, as it is the college experience that prepares students for the future, not the brand name on a college. 

       “The name on the degree means less than the degree itself. Once you get your first job, no one cares where you graduated from,” Downey said. “What they care more about is whether you have to skill set and the talent to step into that role. That’s something to think about as you apply for colleges.” 

       Ultimately, it is a student’s choice whether to pursue an elite college over an average one, but cost will definitely play an important role in this decision. Olivia’s story is merely one out of many, and although uncommon in this area, there are thousands of students out there with financial limitations on their potential for a higher education.