Considering I had to pay for college myself, my college story is pretty improbable: I’m the second oldest of seven kids, I was homeschooled K-12, and my family accomplished all of this on my dad’s modest income.
When it came time to get ready for college my parents were pretty straightforward: I’d be paying for college by myself. They would help me here and there with care packages or give me gifts of clothes, or something like that once in a while, but for the most part it would be all on me and the financial aid I could muster up.
Perhaps naïvely, I also committed to making sure that I would take no loans for my undergraduate education.
Despite these hurdles I was able to attend a private Christian college and was able to pay for it out of my own resources and the financial aid that I did pull together. I did eventually have to take some loans, but they were three federally subsidized loans that were payed off within five years of graduating. Even though I had to take loans I still consider my college finances a success story considering that the average loan amount for a college graduate is close to $30,000 and takes much longer to pay it back.
So how did I do it?
My strategy to pay for college
I made sure I worked.
I had to sacrifice study abroad and internship opportunities but I worked every summer and during the school year.
I kept my grades up.
I even tried to raise them if it meant getting a higher academic scholarship, which sometimes meant I had to sacrifice going out with friends.
In high school I applied for independent scholarships.
Even after I graduated, I routinely applied for those scholarships.
I participated in school activities that would get me either work experience or financial aid.
In my case, it was competing on Biola’s Speech and Debate team on scholarship. Professional skill development plus financial aid. Double win.
In a nutshell that’s my story, but I share that so I can provide you with these helpful tips and hints on how to pay for college:
This is old wisdom and you’ll hear it from everybody, but get your FAFSA in as early as possible.
Especially in an age of austerity and budget cutbacks, college aid from the federal government is going to become increasingly harder to get as more people demand it.
The rule of thumb is those who get in line early are going to be those who get more favorable outcomes with the FAFSA. Additionally when you have your FAFSA numbers to give to your college financial aid office that means that they now have your numbers earlier, which means you’re now in line early for need-based aid at the colleges you apply to as well.
Find out early how much school is going to cost you. When I was working in admissions as a student at Biola the number one question I would get from parents was “How much does it cost?” The number two question was, “How can we pay for it?”
Rather than wait to find out how much something is going to cost, make it one of the first things you research. Know what it would cost as a transfer student, as a commuter student, and as an on-campus student. Each of these creates a different set of numbers and also creates different sets of financial aid.
In my case, commuting to Biola may have made sense because I didn’t live too far away. However, it also meant that I wouldn’t get some of the need-based aid that I would need to pay for tuition.
Even though the price tag per year was higher for living in dorms, the amount of financial aid I got was also higher, making my out of pocket costs smaller as a dorm student rather than a commuter. Don’t just assume commuting is going to save you.
You might not get every need-based grant and scholarship that you apply for. However, never assume that it’s beyond your reach.
If there’s free money out there to cover your education you got to go for it. There are literally hundreds of public and private groups that see the benefit of college education and lay aside funds to support students who are committed to getting a degree. Don’t assume that you don’t qualify. If you don’t quality for one, there will easily be half a dozen more you can apply for.
4. Keep Those Grades Up
Academic scholarships are going to be one of the easiest scholarships for you to get.
Keeping grades up in high school is very important to ensuring that you not only get admitted to college, but it also opens the door to scholarship opportunities. Schools are always looking to keep the average GPA of their incoming classes high so they’re going be looking to get people with those types of GPAs and they’re more willing to put money behind them.
At the very least, consider your high school work to be an investment in your college education.
If you think you’re going to go to college, know that one of best ways you can pay for it is to do well in high school.
5. Make Financial Aid Part of the College Search Criteria
Create a set of numbers that give you a range of potential financial aid packages from each of the schools you’re applying to. Look at all potential scholarship opportunities and get the lowest amount you might qualify for and the highest amount. If you’re transferring in a high GPA, you’re going to get something so make your likely academic scholarship amount your baseline, then build from there.
Also be sure to talk to financial aid counselors at the schools you’re applying to because they know more about financial aid, how to apply for it, and how the financial aid system works. And no, financial aid counselors and admissions counselors are not the same people.
6. Register With 1-3 Scholarship Sites and Regularly Apply
I used FastWeb.com, the grandfather of all scholarship sites, the entire time I was in high school and college to apply for independent scholarships.
Some of these scholarships were for a hundred dollars, others were worth several thousand. I didn’t win every scholarship contest, but I did win enough so that I didn’t have to pay a cent of my own money for my first two years of college.
Every little bit helps when paying for college and so these scholarship sites are very helpful. You might think that one scholarship site has all the available scholarships, but that’s not necessarily true. Some scholarship sites are better than others so signing up for 1-3 is a good idea. More than three and you’re just going to overwhelm yourself.
7. Develop Your Abilities Outside the Classroom
Do you play sports, sing in a choir, or participate in different voluntary activities? Develop those networks and abilities to your uttermost. By doing so, you can create scholarship opportunities for yourself.
8. Join Speech and Debate
I can’t speak for every college out there, but for my experience, being part of the debate team gave me some of the best academic bang for my buck.
Besides receiving scholarship money for competing, I also built excellent oral communication skills that have been of use in every workplace I’ve been in. Additionally, it also gave me college credit, scholarship money, and a highly marketable skill set. This was the single best investment of time and energy for me when it came to paying for college.
Not going to lie, college is expensive, and it requires a lot of effort to find the money to pay for it, especially if you want to minimize loans. However, it can be done. With a solid strategy in place and time on your side (even if you’re just now starting in this summer before your senior year) you can get ahead on the road to paying for college.
If you need help gaming out a strategy for financial aid, applying for scholarships, and preparing for college contact me for a one-on-one strategy session. I’d love to help!
What are strategies are you currently using to raise and save funds for college? Let us know in the comments!