Keeping College Within Your Means

Tue, Jul 31, 2012

Financial Advice

Students these days are faced with a double-edged sword. They are repeatedly told how important it is for them to get their college degree, yet colleges and universities keep raising their rates, fees, and tuition—making it an ever-more expensive, unattainable goal. Add in the bad economy and job market and it becomes an even bigger problem.

With NPR recently reporting that student debt in the U.S. is estimated at $1 trillion, it’s easy for potential students to get overwhelmed and opt out of their pursuit altogether. However, this would be a mistake. Not having a degree in these economic conditions is pretty much a career death sentence and will only hurt you in the long run.

So, in hopes of providing some hope for those looking to further their education, I think I should share the story of my niece, Jennifer. Last May, she did what seems to be the unthinkable and graduated completely debt-free from a traditional four-year, public university—with little to no help from her parents.

Now, first of all, I want to stress that it’s not that her parents weren’t there for her—they’ve always supported her 100% in everything she’s done. However, being raised by a mechanic and bank teller, Jennifer always knew her family didn’t exactly have the means to put her through four years of school. Realizing that, for her, not going simply wasn’t an option, she did what she could to make it out with a debt-free degree. Below are some tips and tricks she employed to help her graduate on time, without loans.

Be Honest About Your Options

Shopping around for the right college for her was the first way Jennifer sought to control her collegiate expenses. As tempting and perfect as that college across the country seemed, she knew it was out of her price range. Leaving her home state wasn’t an option for her, because out-of-state tuition can take quite a toll on your checking account. Knowing that it was completely up to her to foot the bill kept Jennifer honest about her school selection. Sure, the pool from which to choose was a bit limited compared to some of her peers, but at the end of the day a degree is a degree and it’s better than the alternative of dropping out due to too much financial pressure to make ends meet.

So, when senior year of high school rolled around, Jennifer settled for a small, local college that is still very competitive with others across the nation.

Research Scholarship Opportunities

Another step Jennifer took on her road to getting her degree was researching her scholarship options. Many institutions recognize the great financial need of the majority of students, so they have expanded their reach to more than just the super smart kids. This is not to say that Jennifer didn’t make great grades. She maintained a decent GPA throughout her high school years, but going to a rather competitive high school left her only about middle of the road in terms of class rank. However, as she started applying for schools, she found she was instantly eligible for several scholarships, based on a combination of her work, GPA and extracurricular involvement.
Just as technology has changed with our ever-evolving world, so has the world of educational support. Institutions and organizations offering scholarships recognize that the lives of today’s students are much more complicated than those of past generations. Realizing this, Jennifer seized the opportunity.

Additionally, her research didn’t stop once she got accepted. She continued to pursue other scholarships throughout her college career and ended up qualifying for three more before she graduating—helping lessen her financial burden even more. Many students think that once you get in, that’s it—you either got a scholarship or you didn’t, but that’s just not the case. Some places even offer scholarships specifically for upperclassmen—so whatever your situation, there is bound to be a scholarship for you—you just have to apply.

Get a Job

Although your schedule may seem ridiculously busy and impossibly full, it’s important to try to make time for a part-time job. It will teach you time and money management, while helping you better network. It’s unrealistic to expect to coast through these four years without lifting a finger. Plus, many organizations on campus offer flexible schedules to accommodate random class times for students. Jennifer got a job working part-time with the on-campus bookstore until she was able to get an internship within her field. This allowed her to save her money, so if she ever had to pay an unexpected fee she could do so out of pocket, rather than relying on a ridiculous student loan.

Live Within Your Means

The best thing Jennifer did to keep her expenses at a minimum was simply living within her means. She was honest about what she could and could not afford. Sure, she missed out on some opportunities but she’s in a better place for it now. So, eat that crummy food. Stay at home for a couple of years or get a roommate or two. Whatever you have to do—just do it. Better to suffer now than for the next 5-10 years with an interest rate hanging over your head.

College can be affordable as long as you are realistic about your financial situation and the economy.

This guest post comes courtesy of Mariana Ashley, a freelance writer who offers online colleges advice throughout the interwebs, and welcomes responses at

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