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Paying for College: Let’s Get Back to Basics

I’m not going to claim to be an expert with financing your higher education and there are people who do this very thing as their only living.  That being said, I graduated with all three of my degrees with zero debt.  Having received very little financial assistance from my parents, I can share some tips on how I handled college funding and how you can make it happen.

If you are a parent reading this, my first and most important piece of advice is DO NOT FEEL GUILTY!  I do not believe parents are responsible to pay for their kids’ college.  In fact, because I had to work my butt off to pay for school myself, I appreciated the degrees and the process more than lots of my classmates who were spending mom and dad’s money rather than their own.  That being said, here are some places and ideas to learn some great stuff about funding college:

  • High School Guidance Offices – I know it may seem a bit old-fashioned to go have a conversation with a high school guidance counselor, but the person in that office probably has helped hundreds (maybe thousands) navigate the college application process.  Spend some time getting to know this person.  If he/she is any good, they’ll be ready and able to give you some great tips.
  • College Financial Aid Offices – Especially look at the college you/your child wishes to attend.  These offices are often packed with valuable information if you ask.  Stating the obvious, they will direct you to file a Federal Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) for pretty much any type of financial aid (grant, scholarship or loan) you may want, so be sure to talk with the Financial Aid Office and file a complete and accurate copy of the FAFSA as early on in the process as possible.  While you’re there, ask the counselors and office workers lots of questions about scholarships and/or any other programs they recommend.
  • Finaid.org and studentaid.ed.gov – While we’re in the vein of financial aid, these two websites provide good overviews of the various student loans and helps explain the differences between those that are government-backed and those that are private.  Although I don’t want to get into the details here, please keep in mind one important thing: if you have to get a student loan, please do NOT get a private one!
  • Local Community College – I spent my first two years in a community college, obtaining an Associate’s Degree (A.S.) for my efforts.  More importantly, I transferred those credits and spent two more years at a nice private University to finish my Bachelor’s Degree (B.S.).  I paid less at the community college, learned how college worked and really made sure I was on the right track with my major and study habits without risking a lot of money and having to move away from home.  A good community college is worth its weight in gold.  Even if you want to go to a prestigious university, it might be worth spending at least a semester or two closer to home.
  • Set clear expectations – This one is more for parents, but worth sharing for those looking at this for their own benefit too.  Be clear up front how much you can afford to pay for school by setting up a budget (LINK) and sticking to it!  Don’t sink yourself financially trying to finance a college education.
  • Get the RIGHT job – I held at least one job during my entire college career (sometimes two or more jobs at once!).  One semester I took 23 credit hours (yes, that is nearly double the full-time standard of 12) and still worked 20 hours per week.  Was it hard?  YES.  But I got straight A’s that semester because I had set a major goal (finish my Associate’s Degree), was focused on accomplishing that goal, and I could remind myself it was temporary pain for long-term gain.  Each job I had (waiter at restaurant, tutor at the college, auto detailer at dealership, call center agent) met some qualifications that made it possible for me to help finance school and keep my sanity:
    • The hours were semi-flexible
    • The jobs weren’t too demanding
    • I didn’t have to take my work home or be on call
    • The pay was reasonable
    • The jobs weren’t too good to leave – if they wouldn’t work with my schedule needs, I could find something else
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  1. Christine

    HI Barry,

    These are all such good points! I wish I had learned them earlier and hope I will remember them when I have children.

    1. Barry

      Thanks for responding. I wish I had learned a lot of them earlier too! :)

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