There I was: twenty-one years old, just home from work, opening a sealed envelope my brother had just retrieved from the mailbox. As soon as he handed me the large white envelope printed with the words DO NOT BEND - IMPORTANT DOCUMENTS, I knew exactly what it was. I pulled out the thin cardboard protector and opened it to reveal the most expensive piece of paper I had ever held: my college diploma.
I read my name, carefully spelled out in that beautifully printed calligraphy. I ran my fingertips over the embossed gold letters indicating I had graduated with honors. It was all there and it was all mine; I was now, officially, a college graduate.
Graduating from college is no easy thing: it takes lots of hard work and sacrifice. I certainly learned my fair share both inside and outside the classroom during my years as an undergraduate student. However, that paper represented a lot more than my academic and personal accomplishments; it also indicated I had somehow managed to pay a great financial burden not many are able to afford.
Well, not just “somehow” - I knew many years ago that I wanted the opportunity to go to college, and I wanted to do everything in my power to make that happen. Today, for those of you who are currently considering a whether a college education is a smart choice for you or your child, I would like to share a few of the tips and habits that helped me secure that precious printed document.
1. Get a job
I started working the summer I was fourteen at the day camp run by my town’s Parks and Rec department. I worked there for two summers, along with babysitting and odd jobs throughout the year. When I got my license, I started working after school at a daycare. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to make a significant dent in my college payments. Plus, when my parents saw how hard I was working and how much I was saving, they were much more inclined to help pay the difference on my college bill.
2. Earn college credit while in high school
My high school offered several AP (Advanced Placement) classes, which are specifically-designed courses available for various subjects to help you pass the AP Test held nation-wide each May. If you achieve a certain grade on the AP test, many colleges will accept this credit and count it towards your required courses. I was also able to earn credit at our local community college through a special science and technology program. The credits transferred for free to my liberal arts college and I was able to be exempt from an expensive science class.
3. Apply for scholarships and Financial Aid
Visit your guidance counselor for tips on what scholarships might be a good fit for you. Many scholarships are free to apply for, though some require a short essay. I earned a few thousand dollars in scholarships my first year, which was especially helpful since my sister was in her last year of college at the same time. Some scholarships renew every year, but some do not. Make sure you pay attention to any follow-ups you may be required to do; and it’s always nice to write a thank-you note.
Also be sure to fill out the Federal Application for Student Aid (FAFSA) to be eligible to government student aid. Some schools require an additional application form unique to their school, so make sure you understand all their instructions.
Finally, don’t be afraid to ask for more. After my first semester, my family just couldn’t quite make the next semester’s payments. I went to the financial aid office and explained our situation. Because of my good grades and and success already at the school, I was granted more financial aid and was able to stay the rest of the year.
4. Become a Resident Advisor
Each school has a different policy - and some may not compensate RAs at all. At my college, RAs receive free room for the year (that’s a savings of thousands of dollars). Other schools may pay a stipend or give you other perks. Becoming an RA is just one idea: any campus job will help you save money, meet new people, and fill out your resume for the job search after graduation.
5. Graduate early
Graduating a semester early literally saved me more than $15,000 in both out-of-pocket payments, loans repayments, and interest on those loans. How did I manage to turn my tassel so soon? Remember how I earned college credit while in high school? That certainly helped. I also took the maximum number of credits I could each semester without having to pay an extra fee. My course load was never too heavy, though, because I was able to fill in some spaces with simpler electives - like college choir.
This is obviously not an option for everyone, and it takes some planning in advance. However, if you think you can manage it, I highly suggest skipping out just a step ahead of your classmates. As an added bonus: you get a leg-up on the job search, months ahead of the rest of the colleges!
What tips do you have for affording a college education? What are your long-term and short-term financing solutions?