Jul 05 2011

Financial Advice for High School Writers: How to Minimize College Debt

I know some graduates that have $100,000-$150,000 of student debt and it will probably take them 10-20 years to pay it off.  Here are some tips about how to graduate from college with as little debt as possible.

1. If you’re still in high school, I highly recommend taking as many Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses as possible. Several of my classmates entered college as juniors because they had enough AP credit. That will give you the option of graduating 1-2 years early, which would save you tens of thousands of dollars. Alternately, if you’re really committed to spending four years in college, you could spend two years doing an undergraduate degree and then two years getting a master’s degree.


2.  Complete all of your financial aid paperwork as quickly as possible.  Universities tend to be more generous with students that file before the priority deadline.

3. Unless you are thrilled with your financial aid letter, send the school’s Office of Financial Aid a letter explaining any unusual financial circumstances and asking for more aid.  For example, maybe there’s a serious illness in your family requiring thousands of dollars of care, or you have several siblings going through college, or your parents are divorced or getting divorced, or maybe one/both of your parents have been laid off. Offer to provide documentation of how severe these financial circumstances are.  The worst-case scenario is that the university stands by its original aid plan, but frequently universities (particularly private ones) will come up with more aid.  A letter costs you nothing and it might save you thousands of dollars. That’s a whole lot of ramen.

3.1 If  you could not see yourself attending the school unless you received a more generous aid package, you could also try using another acceptance letter as leverage. For example, one of my brother’s classmates used a Harvard acceptance letter to get a full ride from another elite university. Unlike merely writing a letter asking for more aid, this is a riskier strategy that could rub Financial Aid the wrong way. I would only do it if you’re such a desirable prospect that the school would be reluctant to write you off. (For example, if you’re a preternaturally gifted student, considerably outperforming other students from your socioeconomic/racial background, or have an Ivy League acceptance letter lying around).

4. Consider two years of community college followed by a transfer to a four-year college/university.  If you do your first two years at community college and then finish the last two years at, say, Notre Dame, you’ll still get the same degree as a four year ND student but the sticker price will be $85,000 lower.  (The average American community college charges in-state students $2700 per year).  In addition, if you didn’t do as well in high school and/or on the SAT/ACT as you could have, 1-2 strong years in community college might land you a spot at a better university than the ones that would accept you right out of high school.

4.1.  If you do community college and plan to transfer, make sure that you select courses that actually will transfer. Most colleges have lists of courses they accept as transfer credits.  If you’re not sure, ask someone that handles at the admissions department that handles transfer applications. Also, please ask which courses they’d like to see in transfer applications.  (For example, Notre Dame requires that Arts and Letters transfer applicants have at least six hours of mathematics: any combination of Calculus I, Calculus II, Statistics and/or Finite Mathematics).

5. Please graduate on time!  Double-check your required courses and speak with an advisor at least once a semester to make sure you’re still on schedule to graduate on time.  Otherwise, you’re paying for at least one more semester, which will probably cost you tens of thousands of dollars.

6. If at all possible, work part-time through the school year. Most on-campus jobs for students are around minimum wage, but some schools also subsidize on-campus jobs with partial tuition reimbursement based on how long you work. Check on your campus. If the combined payment package is not competitive, I’d recommend working off-campus (for example, most large universities have a Kaplan tutoring center within biking distance) or online (Tutor.com pays college students $10/hour to tutor students online, which I found highly enjoyable).  If you can work even 10 hours a week over your four years, that’s $16,000 you won’t need to come up with later.  Again, that’s a whole lot of ramen.

7. If at all possible, stay away from summer school.  Most schools don’t offer much, if any, financial aid for summer courses.

I’ll do part two later this week: How to Earn a Degree that Can Actually Pay for Your College Debt.

10 responses so far

10 Responses to “Financial Advice for High School Writers: How to Minimize College Debt”

  1. Mynaon 05 Jul 2011 at 9:05 am

    Atmos, 4.1 is SO helpful, thank you! I always miss that part, but if I do go to college, I’m probably gonna do a two-year community college and then two years at another college, and I gotta keep that in mind…

  2. B. Macon 05 Jul 2011 at 9:55 am

    “if I do go to college…” I recommend it. You obviously have the writing ability. 🙂

    PS: If you’re doing ROTC and are feeling really good about going on contract with them and committing yourself to a service tour, ROTC will give you a full scholarship pretty much anywhere. However! If you go on contract with ROTC and later decide it’s not for you, you will have to repay it back in full and you won’t be able to get financial aid for past semesters.

  3. Mynaon 05 Jul 2011 at 7:04 pm

    Heh, thanks. xD Yeah, I’m looking into military, although I’m not sure where I should go from there, ’cause I don’t think I would stay in the military my whole life. I know a friend who’s planning to go army and be a medical examiner there, though. That option is particularly interesting to me (I’m big on med stuff) so I might look into that. Thank you for that info though, I didn’t know that.

  4. B. Macon 05 Jul 2011 at 7:46 pm

    Actually, I might have been mistaken about the need to repay all ROTC scholarships in the event of withdrawal. At at least one college, freshmen can withdraw from Army ROTC without repaying any scholarship funds they’ve received by that point. I’m not sure if that’s typical, though, or if it applies to NROTC.

  5. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 07 Jul 2011 at 6:20 am

    I just paid my tertiary education fees, for the next six months. It came to $585. University is probably gonna cost me round about another $5000 before I’m done (Bachelor of Arts in English, doubling that with Creative Writing, and possibly a teaching degree).

    My friend joined the army and she doesn’t have to pay anything, because it’s all on-the-job training. She’s going to be a medic. 😀

    Yeah, I think education in Australia is pretty freakin’ sweet. It seems that our university fees are MUCH lower in general. Those price tags listed above kinda scare me. o.O;

  6. B. Macon 07 Jul 2011 at 12:52 pm

    “Those price tags listed above kinda scare me.” Well, those are the STICKER prices. In my experience, American private universities tend to be very generous with financial aid, particularly if the student is financially poor and/or really qualified relative to other students at the university.

    I did a year at the University of Illinois (a public school) and received something like $500 of financial aid against a ~$25,000 annual cost. Notre Dame was vastly more generous, so much that my years at Notre Dame ended up costing me less than the one year at Illinois.

  7. brandonthbrokenon 09 Jul 2011 at 2:55 am

    It always amazes me to hear how much Americans pay for their post-secondary/higher education; in Canada we pay, on average, $5,000 annually. Even our international students only pay $15,000-20,000 (triple cost) before housing. On average, how much does a state school student pay per year?

  8. B. Macon 09 Jul 2011 at 2:25 pm

    According to CollegeBoard:

    “Public four-year colleges [in the United States] charge, on average, $7,605 per year in tuition and fees for in-state students. The average surcharge for full-time out-of-state students at these institutions is $11,990.”

    “Public two-year colleges [i.e. community colleges] charge, on average, $2,713 per year in tuition and fees.”

    “Private nonprofit four-year colleges charge, on average, $27,293 per year in tuition and fees.”



    One of the things that amazes me is that some mediocre colleges somehow get away with charging $45,000+. For example, Wesleyan University’s yearly cost of attendance is $56,000.

  9. The Jedi Penguinon 18 Jul 2011 at 11:13 pm

    *looking at prices, wincing* Ow… Ow… Ow…
    I seriously wish my school offered more AP/IB classes… Despite all that I hear about their difficulty and the lack of sleep they require from my boyfriend. Because that’s saved money…

    If you look around though, there are tons of scholarships you can apply for though, and I’ve heard private schools offer more financial aid than public schools. I seriously hope this is true…. otherwise I’m gonna be a very broke young adult…

  10. B. Macon 19 Jul 2011 at 12:44 am

    My mother helped a few students find scholarships. I think the ten students she worked with totaled $600,000 in scholarships/grants.

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