I work with all kinds of students in our Career Center. One thing they all have in common is the need to figure out a way to afford the plans they are making for education after High School. With the crushing student debt we currently have as a country, I am hoping to help them choose…but to choose wisely.
A few kids have a 4.0 or better. Or they may have a sky-high ACT or SAT score. That is a great situation to be in: find a school offering “Merit Aid”…scholarships awarded for a high GPA or ACT/SAT scores. Not all schools are the same, and so you want to do some hunting. Look at their websites or ask their financial aid office what merit aid they offer, and then be sure to apply for all you can. NOT ALL SCHOOLS OFFER MERIT AID, and some offer far more than others.
A few kids (and in some communities, quite a LARGE number of kids) qualify for financial aid, based on need. There are many schools offering LOTS of aid for the needy. The Pell Grant is awarded based on financial need. Some states will also offer need based grants. MANY scholarships are awarded based on financial need. If there is one convenient time to be poorer, it is when you need financial aid for education.
So where does this leave the middle class, middle-of-the-road GPA kids? They are not going to be awarded huge piles of money for grades, and their folks make too much for need-based scholarships. They are eligible for loans, and those are the source of all of that student debt. My own kids were in this boat, and so my heart is close to those parents who, like me, want to see their kids succeed, but do not want them ending up with crushing debt. Here are a few of the things I share with our kids and parents when I want them to think outside of the box:
- Not all schools cost the same. Shop around, and compare prices. Be willing to consider both public and private, in-state and out, and especially look into community/junior colleges.
- Room and board are your biggest expenses. While tuition is a large pile of money, it is nothing compared to that dorm room and food plan. There are studies showing that students do better if they live on campus…but no amount of “fitting in” is helpful if you are going to run out of money and therefore be dropping out before you can graduate. MOST STUDENT DEBT IS DUE TO KIDS DROPPING OUT with nothing to show for the months/years they racked up debt.
- Living off campus and cooking for yourself can save thousands. Many schools require freshmen to live in the dorms. That requirement is often waived if your student can live with family…so shop those schools close to relatives who might be willing to house your student for that first year. Or find out if there are cheaper alternatives than the dorm which can work… one of my kids lived in an off campus Co-Op which was far cheaper than the dorm, yet which met the campus housing requirement. Another lived with a relative to avoid the dorm costs.
- ROTC/National Guard: These are programs which cover a large portion of the cost of attending a college, with the commitment to serve a branch of the military upon graduation. There are also programs in some of the branches whereby the training a person receives earns them college credit, as well as tuition assistance. If military service is on your radar AT ALL, please speak to a recruiter from EACH branch and choose the one that is the best fit for you….they are all different, and all offer great choices, so talk to each of them. Start that conversation as early as possible, so you have lots of time to make a decision. If you are hoping to go to a service academy, you MUST start that process Sophomore year.
- States which have the oil industry often have far cheaper tuition than non-oil producing states. The US dollar is stronger in Canada, so that is another possible way to save money. A typical four-year degree only takes THREE YEARS in Great Britain. The best out-of-state scholarship (unlike anything else I have seen) is offered by the University of Alabama. Shop around!
- Starting at Community/Junior College and transferring to a four-year school represents a huge cost savings. If it is possible for the student to stay at home, that saves even more (LOTS more!). Even better, look into a certificate towards a trade or Associates degree that will lead straight into a job market that is desperate to hire you: they are out there! More college does not guarantee that you are going to find a job. You can get your doctorate in Medieval French Poetry, but all that schooling does not guarantee you a single job opening.
- Do the First Thing First: Instead of going to lots of college for what you “want to be when you grow up”….consider getting training in a TRADE. Instead of aiming for the rest of your life, get training for your FIRST career choice. Most of my students can expect to change “hats” between careers several times during their life. The question isn’t what you’re doing for your lifes-work, it is what you are going to do FIRST. This is especially wise if a student is hoping to go into an “iffy” area like art or a field with very few job openings. Being able to eat AND pay rent is awesome.
- Have the hard conversation. If you seriously have NO IDEA what you want to study, don’t head off to an expensive four-year institution to figure it out….they LOVE to help you get a four-year degree on the 6-7 year plan. Go look into the community college options to see if you can start there with something that can get you into the work force. Consider earning your GI Bill through military service. If necessary, flip burgers, save money and start when you have a better idea of what you want to study.
- Scholarships take work to apply for, but they will be available each year you go to school. There is no guarantee you will win even one, but you should at least TRY. Pay special attention to those scholarships unique to the school you will be attending and those unique to the field you are studying to enter. If you are training for a trade, look for scholarships unique to that, and don’t miss the Mike Rowe Works scholarship.
- Summer jobs: if you are able to find summer employment, that is another great way to help cover your college costs. You won’t be able to make enough to cover all of your expenses, but every little bit helps. More importantly, job experience helps to prepare you to enter whatever career field you are aiming for.
I met a wonderful woman, teaching at our local community college. She had started as a Nurses Aid, with a CNA certificate that just took a few months to earn. She later decided she liked the looks of a different job, so earned her LPN and got the new job. After a few years, she decided she wanted to get her RN to work in another area of the nursing field. Years later, she got her BSN to get an even more advanced Nursing job….and now after a long and enjoyable career, she is teaching as she finishes her doctorate in Nursing. Education CAN all be done in one big push, but it does not HAVE to be.
There is a huge need right now for people to go into the “Trades”. Many career paths can be started with a certificate that only takes weeks or months to earn. Apprenticeships lead to excellent jobs with NO EDUCATION COSTS, and you are actually paid AS you learn the job. Check out the Mike Rowe videos on youtube if you want insights into areas in need with jobs just waiting to be filled.
I tease my students that they CAN graduate and choose to live on the knife-edge of adventure…wondering if it will be their day on the fry-basket or their day to clean the restrooms at the local fast food joint. I would much rather they make a plan to get the training necessary to do a job they can be proud of. The tricky part if figuring out how to choose a path that leads to jobs with the least amount of student debt…and college is BIG BUSINESS. I am hopeful that careful planning, diligent shopping for the best value and finding ways to save on the costs of education will go a long way towards avoiding huge student debt. Good luck!
Photo credit: Nikita Kachanovsky via Unsplash