NOTE TO PARENTS: Even if you are not helping to pay for your kids’ college, it is still important that you take an active role in supporting their college search and funding process. For example, your kids will need you to help them fill out the FAFSA and CSS Profile. Beyond these things, there are steps you can take from a financial planning perspective to help your child qualify for more financial aid. For more info, attend one of our free webinars or workshops and check out our Tuition Cents Blog.
Paying for College on Your Own: It’s Scary But Doable.
I remember when I was in my senior year of high school; it was hard enough to think about my major and what career I was aiming for, but to then think about how to pay for college on top of that was rough.
Luckily, there are a lot of options out there for funding college and even more than I had realized back then. I wish I knew then what I know now!
The Situation I Faced
My parents told me during my senior year that I was going to have to pay for college myself. Not ideal, right? But that’s life.
At the time I was interested in personal finance and knew that I didn’t want to take on more student loans than necessary. Unfortunately, many high schools do not help in preparing students for the financial aspects of going to college, so it is crucial you do your own research and recruit family and friends for help.
Community College vs Four-Year College
Originally, I wanted to go to East Carolina University (ECU) in North Carolina, but when I saw the out-of-state price tag on ECU versus the in-state cost of Northern Virginia Community College (NVCC, or affectionately, NOVA), my plans changed.
Community colleges are a great option for many reasons:
- They’re less expensive than going to a four-year university.
- I ended up saving about $45,000 dollars just by going to community college for two years instead of out of state.
- During the first two years of college, many of your classes will be core classes that typically aren’t related to your major anyway.
- Many people tend to overlook this! You pay for very similar classes, but at a community college you pay less money for smaller, more personable intro classes.
- If you’re unsure of your major, it allows you to start earning credits while you figure out what you want to do and where you want to transfer. In other words, it gives you more time to find the RIGHT FIT.
- You’re able to transfer from community colleges to four-year schools, often with relative ease.
- Bonus: Some states have Guaranteed Transfer Programs where you can get into participating state universities or even private colleges by maintaining a certain GPA and taking certain courses. For example, here in the Old Dominion, attending community college may provide a far easier path to acceptance into one of the most prestigious public schools in the country: The University of Virginia. You don’t want to go to UVA, you say? Well, Virginia Tech, George Mason, Virginia Commonwealth, William & Mary, and many more schools have Guaranteed Transfer Agreements.
- You can earn certificates and/or vocational associate degrees, which are all that’s needed for certain occupations.
- There is much more flexibility in your schedule.
- Many community colleges offer night-classes because their students are working part-time or full-time jobs.
- I ended up working through my senior year to save money for NVCC and was able to pay it out of pocket. After I got my associate’s degree, I applied to George Mason University (GMU) and was accepted!
The Main Argument I Hear Against Community College
Many high schoolers—and even some parents—look down on community colleges because they feel they won’t offer the “true college experience.”
It’s really about perspective: if you go to community college and then transfer into a four-year university, you will have gotten your core credits out of the way, received more personalized attention and guidance from professors, focused in on what you want to study, and possibly qualified for more financial aid, all while saving thousands of dollars. And you still get two years of the “true college experience” if you want them.
If you decide college is not right for you, you haven’t lost as much as you would if you entered a four-year university.
On a more personal note, I don’t feel I missed out on the college experience because I still had a lot of opportunities to get involved with clubs and sports, and I made many friends at both community college and the four-year college that I’ve kept to this day. I wasn’t as involved as students that were on a university campus but in the grand scheme of things, I learned many valuable lessons that have carried forward with me—financial lessons, time management skills, self-discipline, and more, all while focusing on school and graduating with less student debt than most of my peers.
FASFA and Student Loans
I wasn’t going to be able to pay for George Mason University (GMU) out of pocket, so I knew I had to take out student loans.
One of my counselors told me to fill out and submit the FASFA to see what type of financial aid I could receive. I ended up qualifying for a $5,000 grant per year and I covered the rest of my tuition with federal student loans that were offered to me as part of the FAFSA application process.
IMPORTANT: Individuals that don’t believe they can qualify for financial aid should still fill out the FASFA. The FAFSA may help you qualify for federal student loans and even merit-based aid.
Taking out federal student loans is typically a better decision than getting private student loans. Federal loans have more flexibility with repayment, and they usually have lower interest rates.
Note that subsidized loans do not accrue interest while you’re still in school, but unsubsidized loans do. Either way, they’re generally better than private student loans which typically have higher interest rates and less flexibility with payments.
If you are not sure where to start with regard to student loans, check out this post.
Schools that Offer Merit and Need-Based Aid
The price tag of the school is probably not what will you pay based on federal, institutional, and private aid that you will receive.
What I didn’t know when I was in college is that many schools have merit-based aid packages in addition to financial need packages.
You don’t have to qualify for one to qualify for the other. For example, if your parents have a lot of money saved, have a healthy income, and have assets in other places, then you may not qualify for financial aid. You may, however, still qualify for merit-based aid if you have a good GPA and if your SAT scores are good, or you have a unique talent or interest.
Some colleges offer more aid than others, and it’s no secret! The College Board website is a great resource that shows the percentages of aid schools will provide. For example, George Mason University meets 61% of need whereas a school like Cornell University meets 100% of need.
You can also see what percentage of the aid is scholarships and what percentage is loans. By comparing how much aid the schools provide, you can make better financial decisions about where you should go.
In addition to institutional scholarships (merit aid from colleges), there is a ton of free money out there from companies and organizations. The good news: you don’t always have to be some uniquely talented, excellent student to obtain these. You just have to be willing to put in the work!
But don’t focus only on these sites. Look in your own area for scholarships from the chamber of commerce and local businesses. These may not even be listed on the internet, which means less competition for you! Search for scholarships on social media and Google using keywords to target your interests. Some of these scholarships may not be listed in the online databases, so again, less competition means better odds!
If possible, don’t wait until senior year to start applying for these!
There are some companies out there that may help you form a plan and process to apply for outside scholarships, like The Scholarship System.
To be clear, in general, you should never have to pay for private scholarships.
If your parents have made it clear they will not help you pay for college, do not panic. As discussed, there are many strategies you can employ to make college a reality and not be crippled by student debt:
- Attend community college (the most underrated strategy).
- Submit the FAFSA.
- Get a job and stick to a budget.
- Search for schools with low sticker prices.
- Seek out schools that are generous with institutional aid, both merit-based and need-based.
- Apply for private scholarships.
- If student loans are needed, consider federal loans first.
Just because your parents aren’t paying for college, doesn’t mean they are not going to support you in your pursuit of it. Ask for their help with the FAFSA and the scholarship search.
FOR PARENTS: There are many things you can do from a financial perspective to make your child more eligible for aid. This is why a proper financial plan before college is crucial. Register for one of our upcoming webinars to learn more.