Sunday, June 16, 2019

In Which I Try to Decipher our First College Bill

So I received the first bill from UVA for The Boy.  It covers his first semester.

As an object of interpretation, it’s remarkable.

I won’t even address the total amount, other than to say, the decimal point is obviously misplaced.  But sticker shock isn’t the half of it.

Among other things, it doesn’t have a topline figure.  It just starts listing deductions. It deducts the deposit we’ve already paid (sure), the grant aid he’s getting (yay!), the subsidized loan (hmm), and the unsubsidized loan (ugh), to wind up with an improbably high number we’re supposed to pay.  It then says that the due date is listed below.

It isn’t.

I tried calling the number on the bill to ask, but it put me on “your call is very important to us” hold for longer than I thought decent.  A subsequent scour of the website suggested August 21, which is odd, because the “payment plan” they offer -- for the low, low price of $45 -- breaks payments into June, July, and August.  Which means that I’d be paying extra to be allowed to pay early? Um, I’ll pass, thanks…

The Wife pointed out a more basic issue.  “Does the bill cover room and board, or just tuition?”

Who knows?  The absence of a topline figure brings with it the absence of a topline label.  I actually don’t know. It’s not a trivial question, either; I’d hate to pay it, thinking I’m covered, only to get an additional “room and board” fee in a few weeks.  

Yet I did find other, more peculiar details.  For instance -- and I didn’t know this until now -- apparently 529 plans require that whatever is spent from them be used that same calendar year.  (529 plans are the tax-sheltered college savings plans that legislators decided could substitute for actual operating funding.) For the fall semester, that’s not a big deal; we take money from it in the summer to be applied to the fall.  For spring, though, bills are due January 6. Assuming that New Year’s Day is a holiday, and assuming there’s a weekend in there somewhere, that means the window to draw down 529 plans for the spring semester is open for about twenty minutes.  To use a technical term, that’s silly. I know they know that, because I read about it on their website. You’d think they would have made an adjustment by now.

It’s also unclear to me how 529 funds could be applied to off-campus housing, should that matter, but that’s mostly theoretical for us; the tuition charges are high enough to absorb everything we’ve set aside and much, much more.  File that one under “problems that only apply to people with far more money,” like when the dowager in “Gosford Park” complains that there’s nothing worse than breaking in a new maid. I’ll just take her word for that.

You’d think that billing would be relatively straightforward.  Standard practice would include information like “here’s what you’re paying for” and “here’s when it’s due.”  Having paid my share of bills over the years, I’ve come to expect versions of those. Instead there’s a figure covering who knows what, due at some mysterious point, unless I want to pay extra for the option of paying it early.  But early payment doesn’t apply to 529 plans, which is the one time it might actually make sense.

I work in the industry, have a doctorate, and obsess over college economics, and I can’t make heads or tails of this.  

It’s gonna be a long four years...