Law School

The Guilt that Comes with Family Financial Contributions

A million years ago I watched the documentary about the Baltimore step team and one of the girls was heading to a top college.  But she started to get concerned because the FAFSA form included a line of how much her family was expected to contribute and she felt guilty at asking her parents to give so much. Her parents got her all the way together and told her to not worry about their finances. She was their responsibility and they would make sure she got to school.


Not everyone has parents with this type of philosophy or have parents that can (or maybe even want to) provide the financial support that is expected for those getting FAFSA. And even if they do contribute, if you grew up in a household where money was tight, it can feel overwhelmingly guilty to know your parents are sacrificing even more for you.

What can you do about that guilt?

First, EFC is a joke. It is a way to try to make sure parents have skin in the game but imo furthers the need to show you’re “really” poor and not just trying to get one up on the financial aid office…hmmm this is the time where I say that if admissions were really concerned about stopping fraud and not simply trying to punish poor people they would recognize rich people scheming to get their kids admitted in schools they had no business getting into…but I’ll be the bigger person and not say it…

Anyway, regardless of this being another barrier for poor folks, the reality is that often parents are expected to contribute to your education. And because higher Ed is ridiculously over-priced, their contribution amount may as well be a million dollars because it feels so unattainable. In my case, after adjustments and walking through our options my mom did contribute a small fortune each year. Sadly, I was not aware of the strain it caused until my Junior year when the bubble began to burst in the upcoming recession. There were a whole host of things I could have done differently to better afford my schooling, but when you’re 18 you’re not super financially savvy enough to plan it all out. All the people I went to high school with were going to college, their parents were paying for at least some of it, and no one in my house thought differently.

But even if you’re super proactive about how you pay for school, what do you do with the guilt you feel if your parents are struggling to help you pay? Especially if you come from a culture or family where everyone chips in and/or you have contributed to the household financially in some way and no longer can?

One. Mitigate tuition damage. Leverage your financial aid package and scholarship options to get as much covered as possible. That means you really have to hustle to find appropriate scholarship options to make up the difference and lessen what your family really has to contribute. Also, plan for the following year–map out other scholarships or work study opportunities you couldn’t get this time and see if you can apply for them later

Two. Respect their decision. It is so common to feel like you have to protect your parents or don’t want to be a burden that you opt yourself out of a school rather than asking them to help. As the grown folks say, stay out of grown folks business. If the parental figure(s) in your life have said they are going to help you, accept the help with gratitude and keep it moving. Your parents likely want the best for you and don’t see this as a burden, but rather as the next phase in their parenting. All that talk about wanting a better life for you? This is part of it. Don’t decline their help just because it makes you feel bad.

Three. Talk it out. For many first-gen students this experience can feel isolating when other classmates may not feel guilty or pressure by having parental help. Find others in similar situations and talk through what you’re feeling and how to feel better. This is where your school’s multicultural office comes in handy as does their health clinic –feel comfortable using those resources as you advance in unknown territory. I think you’ll find that similarly situated folks have felt the same way and are learning coping mechanisms to keep going without feeling so much guilt.

I know not every family is supportive or has the means to provide even if they want to–all of this is emotionally difficult and more so if you throw guilt into the mix. It’s helpful though to realize your parents likely see this as a step to better opportunities to things they couldn’t have. They want you to succeed–we all do. And once it’s all over, you’ll have your degree(s) but even better you will know the system inside and out, so that when it comes time to helping your kids or the children in your life, the struggle for them won’t be so tough. The guilt may linger, but it won’t last.