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It’s been a while since I finished my undergrad degree. My family wasn’t able to help me pay for college, but I made it happen. And it’s made a huge difference in my life. Since then, I’ve had a few opportunities to volunteer by speaking with graduating seniors in my area about training for their future and how they plan to pay for it. A lot of times, the tips they’ve gotten on how to pay for college are all about what they can do before their freshman year. But then what? What if you find that your savings is running dry or what you thought was enough financial aid, really wasn’t? Here are some of the tips I like to share with them from my own college experience:
Fill out the FAFSA every year and do it as early as possible
The FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) needs to be filled out every year. It’s a pain in the butt, but needs to be done. And the earlier it’s done, the better. Most colleges and universities have only a set amount of financial aid available. This is totally a case of the early birds getting the worms.
Also, parent involvement varies by family – some are helicopter parents, some are forgetful and yet others are just not involved. Regardless, I think it’s a good idea that parents and kids work together on filling this out. In my case, I used to fill it out for my parents and then have them sign off on it. Even though they obviously wanted what was best for me, I couldn’t take the chance of them forgetting. The idea of leaving my future in someone else’s hands was just too much for me to handle.
Notify your school’s financial aid office ASAP if anything changes in your family’s financial situation
The summer before I started my first year of college, both my parents lost their jobs. Even though they couldn’t help me pay for school, a percent of my tuition bill was for parental contribution. But, just because the school said they had to pay it, it didn’t mean it would happen. And I was responsible for it regardless. So their job loss turned out to be an opportunity for me. I wrote my school a letter – we did that kind of thing back then – to let them know what happened. To my surprise, they increased my amount of grants that first year. The takeaway here is that nothing is set in stone. Even after you’ve received your financial aid award letter, you should still communicate any change in your or your family’s situation to the financial aid office. The worst they can say is “no.”
Meet with your financial aid office regularly to review your situation and check for more opportunities
It’s a good idea to meet regularly – face to face – with someone in your school’s financial aid office. It may seem like overkill, but sitting with someone in the financial aid office at the beginning of each semester can’t hurt. You can take this time to review your financial situation – what you were awarded, your income, what you owe, any changes, etc. While you shouldn’t necessarily expect a change in your financial aid award at each meeting, this is an opportunity to find out about any scholarships, grants or other opportunities that may be freshly available. And creating these relationships is also a good way to network within your school.
Keep looking for scholarships!
I looked for scholarships before graduating high school. But then stopped. And I stopped, really, for no other reason than that I just didn’t think about it again (so much for being smart!). I wish I would have thought to keep searching after already being in college. Scholarships are free money and there’s a ton of them out there – and not just for brainiacs either. Be wary of scams that ask you pay them money, but make sure to check with local businesses, organizations, and whatever else you can think of.
Need motivation? Take a moment to listen to this interview from the Mo’ Money Podcast. One of her listeners scored over $60k in scholarship money! Make sure to listen to it and be ready to be inspired!
Get a job. Then get a second job!
Except for a few types of degree programs, chances are you can work at least part-time while in school. And whether or not it’s an immediate need, the money will come in handy at some point. I went to school full time, had multiple part-time jobs to make ends meet and still studied, went out with my friends, did a few road trips, went to the gym, etc, etc. I’m a bit baffled by what students that don’t have a part-time job do with all their time…
Plus, any work experience you can get will help prepare you for your “real” work life. There are basic work etiquette norms that can only be learned in the workplace. A lot of employers prefer college grads that have at least some work experience versus none.
Escalate your appeal for financial aid
Sometimes, even after busting your butt – you have a track record of hard work by doing well in your classes, regularly interacting with your professors, consistently holding down at least a part-time job, are involved in school activities, and so on – you may still find yourself not able to afford your schooling. In need of help, you reach out to the financial aid office only to be told that there’s nothing more they can do for you. Yet, this may not be the end of the line. Before giving up all hope, escalate your appeal to someone higher up the chain. In my case, I scheduled a face to face meeting with my school’s provost.
School provosts are typically responsible for a number of things relating to carrying out the mission of the school. This often includes ensuring the retention of students that have shown to have potential. Remember, as a future alum your success can mean greater school support from you down the line. If you’re that student that has been busting your butt, but are still in danger of having to drop out of school, make sure to escalate your appeal for more financial aid. Speak with your provost – or similar position at your school – about any final options before you leave. For me, doing this made the difference between finishing and not finishing my junior year of college. And for that, I’m incredibly thankful.
When all else fails, it’s ok to take a leave from school to work your butt off
***If you take a leave, make sure you clear it with your school first and formally submit a leave of absence or whatever forms your particular college or university requires. Otherwise, you risk not being allowed back.***
I had to do this. Between my junior and senior years in college, I took time off to work and save more money before coming back. There is nothing wrong with this, but you have to be disciplined. When I look back, I wish I had been more disciplined than I was, but I was still able to save enough to finish off my last year and earn a bachelor’s degree. Know that you may have to cover your ears from all the naysayers. People kept telling me not to take time off because it was the kiss of death and I would never finish. You have to believe in yourself and tell them to scram and take their negativity with them.