What happens when you can’t pay for your degree

Have you thought about how you are going to pay for your degree? You can just put it on HECS-HELP, right?

You would be forgiven for thinking this. I did. That is until I got an email saying I had a $96,000 HELP debt. I had reached the maximum that the government would loan me and I had seven units left to go, nearly a full year.

You might be reading this and think ‘ oh that’s not me, I don’t have that much’ but you would be surprised. Be honest, do you know what you owe? Right now? To the dollar? Yeah, didn’t think so.

FYI, the maximum limit in 2019 is $104,440. It seems like a lot, but let’s look at an average student from Australia, interested in pursuing a post-graduate degree in Data Science or IT. This table is fairly representative of the current fees. International students (except for Kiwis #fam) can’t access HECS-HELP, all the more reason to read this article.

DegreeDomestic FullDomestic CSPInternational
Ba Comp. Sci $97,500 $28,077 $124,200
Ba. Comp Sci (hons)$130,000 $37,436 $165,600
Ma. DataSci$65,000 N/A$82,800
Ma. IT$65,000 N/A$82,800

For a domestic student who has Commonwealth Supported Place (CSP) in their undergraduate degree and then goes on to do either a Masters of IT or Data Science will be indebted to the government for $93,077.

Have you thought about that? That’s a house deposit in Melbourne (sorry Sydney folks, keep saving). And if you do honours then that jumps up to $102,436. International fees are even scarier, $206,700 and $248,400 if you do honours.

So how did I hit that threshold? Two bachelors with honours and 1.5 years in law school. There was a small twist in my story, more on that later.

It’s frustrating because students are told they can ‘figure their pathway out at uni’, swapping between courses, but they can’t afford to do it this.

– Student fees officer at a Go8 University

Now don’t stress too much just yet. I’m going to take you through things you MUST be aware of if you are going after a post-graduate degree.

Find out how much you owe so far

You can check where you stand here at the UniAssist website. You will need your CHESSN. You CHESSN is your Commonwealth Higher Education Student Support Number’, these are found on the top of your CAN (Commonwealth assistance Notice). CANs are distributed after the census date each teaching period. I’ll cover census dates shortly.

Check that no mistakes have been made

If I had done this, it would have saved so many moments of panic, frustration and one broken coffee mug I may have thrown in anger; at the floor, not anyone in particular. Side note, if smashing crockery seems like reasonable anger management strategy, I recommend the Smash Room in Melbourne, where you can literally smash plates.

In early 2016 I got sick and was in the hospital for a month so couldn’t complete my semester. Because this happened after the census date, I had already been charged. Now when you are sick in the hospital the last thing on your mind is your accumulated HELP debt, so I didn’t pick up on it until the following semester.

Accumulated HELP debt — The total of any HECS-HELP, OS-HELP, FEE-HELP, VET FEE-HELP/VET Student Loans or SA-HELP debts you have incurred (including any Australian Government study loans incurred before 2005).

Fortunately, I could apply for a retrospective withdrawal and after much running around, I got an email saying it had been approved. Case closed I thought.

Rookie error. The University may have approved it, but didn’t mean the Government did.

Six months later, when I got that lovely letter saying I had run out of money, I realised that $14,800 I was still charged for that semester I couldn’t.

I had to contacted the Department of Education AND the Australian Taxation Office and after several genuinely pleasent discussions with various officers, I finally got a retraction. Shout out to the ATO becauase they were super across this.

While I was still pushing for the retraction the census date was looming for my next semester and I didn’t have the funds. This is what happened:

  • I nearly pulled out of my Masters and took the alternative exit option to get a Graduate Diploma in Data Science.
  • I hustled for a scholarship that apparently didn’t exist.
  • I begged, yeah, I begged hard.
  • My collection of plates faced some collateral damage.
  • I got a road-worthy ($120) to sell my car and pay upfront.

Fortunately, I was granted credit for my former research roles. It turns out my honours thesis was good for something after all.

How to prevent this happening to you

The following is s set of ahh….provocations for you to hopefully, avoid this senario and achieve your qualification without having to pay more than you expected.

Are you eligible for any credits (not exclusions)?

Credits mean you don’t have to do or be charged for a unit. These are usually given if you have done an equivalent unit at the same level e.g. post-graduate, or for appropriate work experience which you need to prove.

Credits saved me but you must speak with your university if they are the most appropriate option.

Can you take the path of least resistance?

Think about your strengths, is writing your forte, take more writing intensive units. Do you do poorly in exams relative to in semester assessments? Take units with no exams. Are you kind poor in the math department? Don’t take as many mathy units, ok that kind hurts me to write, but it’s true.

In the degree I teach we have two streams, one is quite rigid and has some heavy technical units. I see so many students pursuing this stream and failing unit after unit, racking up more and more debt. All because of they envision some sort of prestige attached to that stream

It’s not a minor. It doesn’t even go on your degree, no one will ever know you did that.

– Me, literally every semester when I have a failing student crying in my office

If you want to have a career in academia, you need to get a thesis under your belt, if not usually a capstone. A thesis usually has a hurdle which means that you need to get a certain WAM or do certain units. You really can’t afford to fail a unit. Take the easy route.

My course directors advice to me during this time, still sticks with me, a sign of my slowly developing the Machiavellian tendencies, a necessary requirement to succeed in academia (aledgidly).

Play the game.

– Jaded academic

Understand what Census dates mean

How many times have you seen that email or notification about census dates…..and promptly archived or deleted it? Stop doing that. Read them, for the love of god read them.

Census date — This date is set by providers and it is the legal deadline for various requirements, like making an upfront payment of your student contributions, applying for a HECS-HELP loan or formally withdrawing your enrolment so you do not incur a HELP debt.

Sometimes students enrol in units incorrectly or spend two weeks in them before deciding to bail. You have a period of time each semester before you get charged for a unit, so you must do this before the census date. This also goes for credit applications. See your faculty administrators to do this.

For CSP students (mainly undergraduates), you must submit enrolments and re-enrolments forms declaring yourself as a CSP student prior to the census date. If you don’t you are going to go from a $4,679 semester to a $16,250. That’s the price of a brand new small car.

For all Australian students, make sure you have a Tax File Number (TFN) well before your first semester. You will need this to apply for HECS-HELP. Apply for one here.

Remember each university, and sometimes even faculties with the university, have different census dates. You need to get across them early.

Can you afford to pay some upfront costs?

If you have run out of available funding can you afford to pay some of your units up front? Looking at all of your options early in your degree or even before, may allow you to save for a year or so until you exceed any remaining cap. If you are close to the cap but look like you can finish the degree, save for a unit anyway just in case you fail.

Try to get a Scholarship

If you have a good WAM (80%+) you may be offered a scholarship or partial scholarship for your course. For most universities this is the WAM of your last degree, not your current WAM. You will need to check with your university about these. There are often equity scholarships available for students from disadvantaged backgrounds as well. But for the rest of us, there is sweet FA.

Consider a loan

I don’t recommend this option, but if needs be. Personal loans for tuition fees and living costs are taken up by many students, but remember, you need to pay them back and that starts from the minute that money is deposited in your account. The interest rates can vary but they can be as high as 15% for unsecured loans. You should also think about how this will affect your future credit rating and quality of living (Mi goreng packet noodles are not a food group). Have a look at loan rates for tuition here. Applying for multiple loans is a one-way ticket to a Crappy credit score. Check your score here.

On the topic of loans, avoid payday loans. Actually avoid isn’t strong enough. Do NOT get a payday loan. Why? Because a 47% interest rate isn’t going to work out for you in the long run. Read the story of how a $600 loan turned into a financial nightmare.

Hopefully you have learned something helpful here. As always, please retweet our articles to share financial wisdom. 

Photo by Kevin McCutcheon on Unsplash Give some love to Kevin and check his work out.

All information given in this post should be considered as opinion only and not a reflection of any specific university. You should conduct further research and not regard this article as a comprehensive and full accurate article. Pretty much, I take no responsibility for what you do with the information gained from this article.