Updated: Jul 29, 2020
I'm not going to tell you to go to college -- the world needs more blue-collar workers, more electricians and plumbers and carpenters and musicians and Steve Jobs. But if you want to be challenged, if you're not ready to enter the workforce, if you want to learn more about the world, if you want to study a particular field and become an expert, then college might just be for you! And this blog post is to tell you that money should NOT be the thing that stops you from going.
Not to mention, college graduates earn an average of $1 million more over their lifetime than high-school graduates. Plus, the unemployment rate is cut in half for college graduates. So college might not just be totally fun and amazing and such a blast, but it also might be the practical decision.
Don't feel like you are out of options if the $75,000 (private) or $25,000 (public) bottom line is out of reach. If your family is low on money, or they don't support you, then this is the time for you to shine. This is the part of your life where the world pulls together to help you get where you want to go. Universities, rich people, and the government all want you go to college. And they're gonna send you there.
If you can get in, competitive private schools will often be free or cheaper than public schools. For example, Harvard is free if your family makes less than $65k, and only 0-10% of your annual income if your family makes $65,000-$150,000. Many other private schools also have very generous financial aid policies.
* Step 1: Succeed in high school! This isn't absolutely necessary, but it does make everything else much easier. It shows that you are smart, hardworking, and care about stuff. Which you totally do. Colleges want students who do well in high school. Do your homework, be nice to your teachers, and try not to get caught smoking pot. Additionally, get a job and/or do sports and/or volunteer.
** Step 2: While you're rocking high school, take a minute to think about your four years after graduation. Where do you want to live? A city, the country, in-between? How far do you want to be from your family? What might you want to study, and where is it offered? Ignore the cost of college for a while, and just dream. Imagine yourself in these places and virtually walk through the campuses online. Find clubs that sound cool and read about the courses you might take. Figure out what the application requirements are for a handful of schools -- tests, forms, transcripts, essays? Don't worry, you're well on your way.
*** Step 3: With a handful of schools in mind (3+), do everything you need to do in order to apply. Take the SAT/ACTs -- note that College Board will often cover the cost of these if you can demonstrate financial need. If College Board accepts your request and covers your exam fees, they will also give you a handful of application fee waivers, so you can apply to colleges for free! Talk to your guidance counselor about how to do this.
Try not to stress about the tests too much -- remember, you are smart. That's how you got this far. Take them a couple times, if necessary. Submit your transcripts. Ask your teachers (you know, the ones you were nice to) for letters of recommendation. Write a killer essay, or two or three, and ask an English teacher to help you edit it. It's their job and they've seen it all before, so don't feel weird about asking. When you write your essay, try not to describe a service trip or regurgitate your resume. Write about what matters to you and what makes you unique.
**** Step 4: The money part. The FAFSA comes out October 1st and is usually due in February, although you should check the deadlines for your schools. Fill it out carefully with your family. It is the most important thing you can do to help with paying for college and takes less than an hour. The FAFSA qualifies you for financial aid, federal grants, and federal loans. Afterward, you'll get an email with your Student Aid Report (SAR) that estimates how much you should have to pay for college. This value is called your Expected Family Contribution (EFC). But colleges never listen to the SAR, so don't put too much stock in it.
***** Step 5: Fill out any and all other financial aid applications required by your colleges. You should easily find these requirements on their website, otherwise reach out to the financial aid department. These "other applications" could be annoying and invasive. They might include the CSS Profile (don't get me started) or some school-specific forms. Jump through any and all hoops so you will qualify. Don't miss deadlines. Send emails asking questions if you are confused or think they've made a mistake.
****** Step 6: Apply for local and wide-spread scholarships. You have a much better chance of getting the local scholarships, so focus on those. Apply for anything you qualify for, and then more. The amounts may be small, but they add up fast. Search online for scholarships that work for you, based on grades, sports, religion, eye-color, on and on.
******* Step 7: Wait and watch.... until you get your college decisions and then (what you're really waiting for) your financial aid decisions! They should arrive a few days after your initial acceptance emails. Compare and contrast your offer letters, and decide which schools are feasible. As you start hearing back about scholarships, make a final decision about where you will attend. Make sure to take money AND other things into consideration. $10,000 more may be worth it at a more prestigious university that is your dream school. On the other hand, consider how much in loans you'll be able to take out and pay off. Talk to your family, friends, and counselors. Then make the decision for yourself.
******** Step 8: Choose a college (HURRAY!), have a party to celebrate, and then figure out a way to pay for it. If you can't fully pay for the school you've chosen, you have a couple options.
Ask the school to re-evaluate: You can ask for an appeal of your financial aid if you think the college didn't take your whole situation into an account. If a family member lost their job, changed jobs, has a health issue, etc, you can express that to the university and ask them to re-consider. They might ask you to fill out some more forms and then, fingers crossed, offer you some more aid. It worked for me :)
Apply for more scholarships: Apply, apply, apply. There are stories of students who won $100,000 for college through scholarships. It's competitive, it's a matter of luck and persistence, but it can help.
Take out loans: This requires a little more explanation. Let me jump back out into paragraph form.
Loans are a sticky web. What if you hate college and drop out? What if you hate your major? What if your major doesn't get you a job? What if your post-college job only pays you $20k? What if you can't make your minimum payments? What if your parents disown you because they have to make your payments for you? Think through some of the possibilities (although these were a little extreme, I'll admit).
Some more serious questions you might want to consider: Do you have someone who can act as a cosigner (a parent or family friend with a stable income)? What are your job prospects after you graduate? How much will you be able to pay per month? What would your minimum payments be if you took out x dollars in loans? When will you have to start loan payments? Can you pay the loan off early if you want to?
Some choices you have for school loans:
* Years to pay off the loan (5, 10, 15)
Longer periods of time have lower interest rates
* Interest rate: fixed or variable)
Fixed rates cannot change but start higher
* Amount of money to take out
The more money, the higher the interest rate
Your university will decide if you are eligible for federal loans (through the government), and for how much $$$. These loans typically have low fixed interest rates and you won't need to make any payments until after you graduate. The government has additional requirements to be eligible for subsidized loans, meaning they pay your interest while you're in school so your debt won't grow during that time. If you don't meet those requirements, your university still might offer you un-subsidized federal loans, where interest accrues during your 4 years, but you don't need to start paying until after.
Your last option is private loans. Almost anyone can get a private loan, although without an income or a good credit score you'll need a cosigner. These have higher interest rates, stricter rules, and even higher interest rates if you don't start paying while you're in school.
Look up how much a student loan will cost you on websites like Sallie Mae, Citizens Bank, SoFi, and others. Then, with that interest rate in mind, use this Bankrate calculator to determine your monthly payment post-graduation.
Long story short: Put in the time, and you will get to college. Ask for help when you need it. Go through the stupid steps to get financial aid, scholarships, and loans. There are thousands of success stories online if you need inspiration. I'm one, and soon you'll be another!
What are you doing to pay for college?