How to Afford College in Seven Steps: Step One: The Investment
Welcome! I thought I would present this “webinar” a bit differently so I asked my former student Amber Granato to join me for this digital conversation. Amber is an incoming freshman at San Jose State University this fall. Nearly all of her tuition and expenses are covered all due to her incredibly hard work and tenacity. This would be impressive for anyone, but Amber has some especially unique and difficult circumstances that made college necessary and reducing the cost to as close to nothing an imperative. This means that Amber also is not taking out any loans. While Amber’s achievements are impressive, they are not impossible.
With that, STEP ONE: THE INVESTMENT
I realized after reading a ton of Suze Orman books and Steve Jobs biographies, and just sort of paying attention to the habits of wealthy people (and of course reading about the habits of wealthy people), that wealthy people approach spending differently than most. Spending time and money is always an investment: what will be the return for this time and money that I am spending. I started thinking about going to the grocery store differently, how much time I was spending in front of the television differently, and even my commute differently. The formula works as follows: am I getting out as much, or hopefully more, than I am putting in? Understanding that means that we all understand that you have to pay something, in time and/or money. But you are getting something that will impact your life, your community, and generations after you.
So it might sound as though I am saying to just pay the $200,000 and be done with it. Absolutely not. Wealthy people don’t even do that. The first thing to know is that private colleges, especially those with large endowments, are going to provide students with good funding packages and match at least a majority of their need. What looks like a hefty price tag, for students below a certain income level or students who demonstrate high academic achievements, a large chunk of that will be paid for. Therefore for students who do not meet the income requirements (and for those that do), your investment comes in demonstrating high academic achievement in AP and honors courses, and even stretching yourself by taking courses at the local community colleges during the summers in high school.
Now there are only so many Harvards out there. So take a look at other smaller private colleges with endowments. At the very least, it is worth applying. I’m thinking of universities such as Dartmouth, Boston University, University of Chicago, University of Redlands, Tufts, Mt. Holyoke, USC, and Georgetown, and hundreds more.
Amber: The first thing I will say is that there is a definite amount of time spent in researching scholarships and grants, along with filling them out on time and sending them in. To me, if you are going to apply for scholarships and want them badly enough, putting in the time is a must (as much of a pain in the you know what that can be). Being raised by a single mom and a measly amount of child support a month, I caught on quick that if I wanted that college education, I’d need some financial aid. Please, please, please file your FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) as soon as it is available. Even if you believe that you and/or your parents’ income is too high, just try. You might surprise yourself with what you could be awarded. The same goes for Cal Grant awards for those in California. Fill out the GPA form, and have it verified and signed by your counselor and mail it out. I didn’t think I would get much, but almost $7,500 later, I was thrilled. A must for any student trying to deduct the price tag of a college education is letters of recommendation. They are essential to scholarships, and I’d say about 90% of scholarships ask for at least one from a teacher. Try and get one from teachers (coaches, administrators, etc.) who know/appreciate your work, as well as know you in various mediums (for example, my 10H/AP English Lit teacher was also my debate coach, as well as the advisor for National Honor Society). This, along with a solid brag sheet or resume, gives everything the teacher needs to write kind words about you which I’m sure with some polite asking the teacher would be ecstatic to help you. Most all of your teachers want to see you succeed and be a part of your journey through furthering your education.
This might come off a tad nerdy, a bit much, and leave you sitting there thinking Wow, is that really necessary?! In all honesty, it probably wasn’t to start out with. My secret, you ask? I have a gigantic maybe 5-inch D ring binder dedicated to my scholarships. Ms. Hoy has witnessed the behemoth herself. Each scholarship application/info I have on the scholarship is in a page protector, and they are organized by due date; those due sooner in the front. Additionally, they are color-coded by the month they are due. Furthermore, I also have a title page of sorts for each scholarship. On this page, I have a blank line for the name of the scholarship and underneath it I have a blank line for the due date. Underneath those, I have a checklist of sorts, with boxes to check off as to whether I need a transcript, an essay, is the actual application filled out completely yet, copies of ACT/SAT scores, etc.
Still wondering why I use page protectors? As I compile the necessary information needed, I add it to the page protector, along with the If the scholarship requires a letter of recommendation, I have a title page for that, too. On that page, I put how many letters of recommendation I need for the scholarship (I would advise getting at least 3; I have almost a dozen from various sources but get as many as you can. Please don’t ask that math teacher you had freshman year for one trimester/semester for one, either. Chances are that teacher is not going to have a strong memory of you, especially if you aren’t in his/her class now. (Do not be that kid.) On that letter of rec page, as I stated earlier, I put down how many I need for that scholarship and which letters as I am going to choose to add to my application. These title pages of sorts are the most important aspect of this binder organization. By opening the binder, I can see what is due, when it’s due, and see what I still need to get that scholarship app done and delivered (I check off in the top right corner once I mail it so I know it’s 100% finished). I credit those title pages for keeping my sanity when it comes to scholarships; they keep me organized and on top of things in terms of essays I may need to write or anything like that. Another thing I might add is to invest in some manila envelopes and normal letter envelopes. Just about any store you go to (Target, Walmart, etc.) is going to have what you need, because let’s face it: unless you’re submitting your application online, you have to send the scholarship in something. Have your materials ready to go. Speaking of materials, I usually keep around 8-10 copies of the following in page protectors in the binder for easy access so I’m not constantly going back and forth from laptop to binder (and if I don’t have my laptop with me): Resume, Brag Sheet (can vary from Resume), ACT/SAT scores, list of academic achievements, list of extracurricular activities (with hours spent towards each activity per week, for the more selective scholarships), list of athletic achievements and so on and so forth.
With that said, you may still find that meeting a majority of your need isn’t enough or that you are not admitted to the private colleges. Those AP exam scores are going to come in handy again since they may be able to transfer at the public universities. When we are talking about saving time and money, remember that public universities in the US are now taking five years on average to graduate. In California, that can go as high as six years. Entering with some of your units completed will save you money because you are saving time. I am always cautious about advising students to go to community college in order to save time and money since community college doesn’t typically do either.
Amber: I definitely agree with this, as many students are electing to do 2 years at community college and then transfer to a college or university. A small side note of this is the Board of Governor’s Waiver. Should you be able to qualify, you could be waived of paying for all of your units. Definitely something to look into. Info on it can be found as the same website as the Cal Grant information (hint: purple background, you’ve found the right website). However, as Ms. Hoy said, it’s not usually the best option. For those who have absolutely no clue what fancies their interests and they want to still gain some credits, sure I guess I can understand that aspect. But even in that sense, there are multiple universities and colleges that don’t have you declare your major until the end of your sophomore year. Think that mindset is just for little podunk colleges? Think again! Stanford has that in place, in addition to other bigwig secondary educational institutions. Everyone understands that the human mind can at times, mirror the mindset of Doug, the dog from Up! (SQUIRREL). I myself would just go for the 4 years, but please do your research and choose what you think will best fit you.
Declaring a major after the general education requirements are completed is the rule for liberal arts colleges and may be for public schools depending on how you were admitted. We’ll talk about this more next time in Step Two, but for now, keep thinking about time and money investments and if that return on investment will occur for you, if you go the route of community college or vocational school.
Thinking about time and money for college as an investment also means plotting out the time to apply to scholarships. I often times say that applying to scholarships will be like taking an additional course during one’s senior year of high school. I’ll let Amber speak more to that.
Amber: If I had a dime for as many times parents and teachers and colleagues have told me I should teach a class on all this… If you’re going to go full throttle, as which I’m sure I can be described, you’re going to have to set aside time, as I stated earlier. This is not for the faint of heart, and I will raise my hand in full guilt of blasting music and talking to friends while perusing social media while doing homework or studying for a big test. Most every student is guilty of it. But if you want quality work and want that money, then you have to earn it. I myself enjoyed it because it provided a break from my AP English Lit, AP Spanish and AP Gov homework amongst other things, but you catch my drift. Believe me, if there was a student who really didn’t have time to spare, I fit that mold. Captain of the golf team and either practice or matches 5 days a week, along with more practice by myself on the weekends. Add on an ROP Nursing Class with an internship at the local hospital and special projects and such related to that class. Stir in an academic course load with 3 AP classes and hours and hours of homework along with tests. Lastly, don’t forget to thoroughly mix in the extra-curricular activities with Debate Team and National Honor Society and various community service events and you will end up with one very tired, very coffee driven, Amber Granato. If anyone knows procrastination like a familiar friend, it is me. You will need to shape your day so you are able to do what you need to do. If paying for college is that imperative to you, you will get it done. Because of my financial situation, I was liable for almost $12,000 to pay for my first year at San Jose State, and an average year at SJSU costs around $25,000. Now, we all know not everyone is going to get that much aid. But $12,000 is still a hefty bill for a kid with no job, no car to get to a job even if I had one, no steady income, and no parents to fall back on. Hence, my drive to get scholarships. If you put in the time and pour your heart out into the essays (which I should tell you are quite limited, think Twitter limited), I can almost guarantee you that it will pay off. Perhaps not to the extent it has for me, but it could certainly help to lighten the load.
Amber obviously applied to more than just a handful of scholarships because she knew the importance of getting that degree. She also knew that $500 here and another $750 there would definitely be worth the time commitment she was making.
The above spoke mostly to investments in time, from taking AP classes to applying for scholarships, and I’ll go more in-depth in Step Two. But you are going to make financial investments, regardless of how many scholarships and grants you acquire.
The first step in understanding this is to create a budget, regardless of how far away you are from actually attending college. Prices change so this will be a guide. Make a list of the items you believe you will need to purchase on a regular basis and what these things cost. You should include everything from clothing to books to leisure. Look again at your list and consider the return on investment piece: Where can you get a higher return on your investment? I’ll talk more about this in Step Four and Five, but for this moment, consider the clothing expense. If you are using the time wisely in college, you should be interning and going on interviews. Interview clothing is important, way more so than the club gear. If you spent money on a great interview outfit, could you see yourself spending less on everyday clothes?
When I was at NYU, education majors began observing classrooms right away. This meant that I was 17 doing daily observations in a high school classroom. I started student teaching when I was 20. I couldn’t do anything about looking older, but I could at least look professional, especially since I was around the people who would eventually write my letters of reference every day. And then there were the cross country and track meets where if we traveled on a plane, we had to wear suits. Having a few good suits that I could interchange became critical.
What about books? Books are expensive which is why there are a lot of book rental and used book services available. Universities are also requiring students to use online platforms more and more. Could you invest in an iPad, Chromebook, or other notebook computer and rent books or buy cheaper digital copies rather than hard copy books? What else could the iPad, Chromebook, or other notebook computer do for you (e.g. taking notes, writing papers, doing research, access to online lecture notes) that will impact that time investment in high school (AP classes) and coursework in college?
I kept one book from undergrad. It is a Statistics textbook that the professor didn’t order until partway through the semester. Although the course was nearly finished, he refused to put the chapters on reserve, meaning we all had to truck it to the bookstore to buy the book for $75. Two weeks later, we were back to sell the book back to the bookstore. A bookstore employee informed us that in the time we were waiting for the book to arrive, a new edition came out, meaning we were only offered the minimum, $0.25. I was stunned as the person in front of me begged to get at least the cost of a subway token home. I refused to sell it back. If only there were book rentals then.
Amber: I’m taking Stats 95 next semester; you think your book from undergrad will come in handy? Hahaha, just kidding, Ms. Hoy. But yes, budgeting is a must. I have already done it in terms of what grad money I received. Do I spend it on the concert ticket I really, really want? Well possibly. But then the rational side of me kicks in and thinks of how many meals I could get at the Dining Commons with that money (yeah I think more in terms of food than anything else; books are great but food’s universal). Also in terms of rushing for a sorority or fraternity, you have to pay registration dues just to rush, not to mention the additional dues per semester. With this in mind, that job at the Dining Commons or the bookstore isn’t looking half bad now, is it? I’m in that position now. I really don’t want to work (who does honestly) but my schedule gives me Fridays off and my other weekdays relatively free (classes over by 2ish). Chances are you’ll find me soon enough working in the Spartan Bookstore! It happens, and I can assure you that no one is going to think of you any less for working to have some extra money or to pay for your school. Everyone is in the same boat when it comes to college, and everyone shares the mutual pain it can be. Welcome to higher education! 🙂
If the 95 is referencing 1995, I can probably help you out! We are also going to talk more about working while in school in Step Six.
That was a lot of information so to recap, first think about the time and money you are spending in and for college as an investment, rather than a one-time cost without a return. Next work efficiently to get the return on your investment, as Amber effectively demonstrated. How you make those decisions in terms of prioritizing is the focus of our next conversation: STEP TWO: PRIORITIZING AND ADMISSIONS. We will also talk more about community college versus four-year colleges and when to submit applications in order to get the most of your time and finances.
See you next Monday!