One question that often comes up when I am giving presentations about college is “How am I supposed to pay for this”? To be honest the question is actually something more like “My parents make too much money for the government to pay for my school, but they don’t make enough to actually give me any money for school, how am I supposed to pay for this”? If you ask this question to most people who work for colleges they will tell you that you can always take out a student loan to pay for college, and that your education is a good investment so it is ok to go in to debt for it. I’m not sure if the presenter has done any research on the student who they give this advice to, because if the student just wants to go to college to party, then it actually probably is a very bad investment.
When I am asked this question I tell a story about two of my friends from college who found themselves in a similar situation and how they were each able to earn a college degree without taking out a single student loan.
When my friend Tommy was doing research on what college to attend his dad only had one rule for him: You cannot take out any student loans and we can’t give you any money for school. Technically, it was two rules. Tommy’s dad was still paying off his own students loans and didn’t want his son to go through the same struggles with debt that he had. In the end, to show that he wasn’t completely heartless his dad did offer to pay for Tommy’s school books, but Tommy still had a long way to go on his own.
Tommy was a good student in high school (he graduated with a 3.74 GPA from Federal Way High School) but he felt he might be forced to attend his local community college so that he could live at home to save money for school. Tommy hoped to move away from his parents and attend a four year university so he began to look at what his options were. The hard work he had put in during his high school years made him eligible for a number of university scholarships that would pay for his first year of college at a four year university. Through the combination of a few scholarships, his dad paying for books, his grandma throwing a little money his way, and his earnings from his summer job at Wild Waves Tommy was set for the first year of his education.
Early in his freshman year of college he knew he was going to have to do something more to pay for the rest of his years in college because none of the scholarships he had earned were renewable for future years. He was well liked by his manager at Wild Waves so he knew he would be able to earn money each summer while living at home but that was not nearly enough to cover all his tuition and housing expenses at college. Tommy began to scour the internet and college financial aid office for additional scholarships that he may be qualified for. He worked on a developing a general personal statement that he could tailor to each specific scholarship.
In the classes that he excelled in he asked the professors if they would be willing to write a letter of recommendation for him and save it on their computer so they could print one whenever he needed it. He got involved in the university government and leadership office (like high school ASB) and asked advisors there to also write letters. By doing this he had letters from people who could speak to how he was making the university a better place and the writers could talk about how giving a scholarship to Tommy was a good investment in the future.
Tommy than turned his attention to actually applying for scholarships. He applied for every scholarship that he was qualified for and even some he wasn’t qualified for. His thinking was that if he wasn’t qualified for it, maybe no one was, and if no one else applied then he would receive it by default. Also, since he had done all the leg work of writing a personal statement and getting letters of recommendation ahead of time it only would take him 15 minutes to apply for each scholarship. It didn’t matter how small the scholarship was, even if it was 50 dollars he would apply. He figured that if he earned 50 dollars for 15 minutes worth of work it was like having a job that paid 200 dollars an hour, and how many jobs pay 200 dollars an hour (and if you have a job that pays 200 dollars an hour, you probably aren’t worried about paying for college)? Tommy also applied for a job where he would put on events for students in the dorm he live in. This job would pay for all his housing costs and since he was already so involved in campus activities, he was a natural choice for the position.
Through his combination of a summer job, a part time job during the school year, and a lot of scholarships Tommy was able to completely self fund the rest of his education and basically be paid to go to college. He was able to do this by showing scholarship donors that he was dedicated to his education and that he would be a good investment for their money. Also since Tommy has earned an Accounting and Economics degree he is very grateful he never took out a student loan after learning how compounding interest works.
I love telling this story to students and parents. They seem to be thinking “Yeah that wouldn’t be too tough, I could do that”. That is when I hit them with the story of my other friend.
While Teri was in high school she had a deal with her family that for every quarter she had above a 3.0 GPA she would earn a certain amount of money that would go towards paying for her college. With this motivation Teri graduated from high school with a 3.4 GPA and a promise of 8,200 dollars to help pay for college. Also as part of her senior project Teri was required to make a scholarship notebook. Through this notebook she applied for a handful of local scholarships and earned 2,500 dollars for her first year of school. One of the small local scholarships she earned even sent her care packages of cookies to her dorm room her freshman year.
Teri came from a very poor family which would have made her a perfect candidate for grant money from the state and federal government. The only problem was that her father was unwilling to fill out the FAFSA for whatever reason (fear of the government or lack of understanding of how much it would help his daughter). Since Teri was unable to complete the FAFSA, and unable to be declared independent from her parents, there was no way she could take out a student loan even if she wanted to.
Half way through her freshman year Teri realized that the 8,200 dollars that she was promised did not exist (remember that her family was very poor and it had mostly just been a promise to motivate her to do well in school) and that she was going to run out of money for school quickly. Immediately Teri went on the hunt for a job and found an opening at the Safeway deli. She picked up as many shifts as she could and sacrificed hanging out with friends and going home to visit her family on weekends to work instead. She also cut her expenses to the bare minimum; she didn’t buy clothes, didn’t own a car (someone gave her a bicycle that she used to get to Safeway), used a text only cell phone plan (that she paid for herself), stopped eating out and buying candy.
At the end of her freshman year Teri applied to be a Resident Assistant (RA) for the university because the job would pay for all her housing and food expenses. Teri was hired because she had shown a tremendous work ethic by having a job as a freshman and maintained a solid GPA in her first year at college. This job was a great help to cutting costs but still left Teri with roughly 6,000 dollars worth of tuition and fees to pay each year.
Before each major school break, summer and winter, Teri would call ahead to her home town and look for seasonal work. She found that seasonal jobs would give her more hours and be more likely to hire college students. Throughout her last three years of college Teri was working two jobs during the school year and there were some summers where she worked 50-60 hours a week at a local fruit stand.
After hearing Teri’s story most people are more somber then when I finish with Tommy’s story. What Teri did seems more difficult, and in many ways it is, but neither way is especially easy. The reason I share both of these stories though is to show that there multiple ways to pay for school, and what it really comes down to is a matter of how motivated are you to pay for school.