How To Pay for College Without Selling Your Soul to the Devil

Listen you lazy, entitled whiners: it’s easy to pay for college. Just get a summer job! Why, in my day I worked weekends as a fry cook down at the diner on Main, graduated without debt, and now I’m sixty-five years old and completely delusional about the inflated costs of higher education! Ask me more about the house I bought for $60,000 and how much I resent the respectful empathy of the children I raised!

Sorry, y’all. Probably should’ve started that with a trigger warning.

Whenever we write about student loans, we get at least one comment like this. Except with more caps lock. We delete them. For while we never silence interesting criticism, come on. This ain’t a public square for every old man who wants to yell at a cloud! We pay good money for this web hosting!

At least where the cost of college is concerned, things aren’t what they used to be. Thirty years ago, it cost the modern equivalent of $8K per year to attend a public college and $18K per year to attend a private college.

Today, the same year of school would cost $21K and $48K. And you’re supposed to buy FOUR of them!

If the cost of regular goods and services grows at a steady walking pace, the cost of higher education is galloping away like a Triple Crown winner whose ass just met a hornet. I didn’t even mention the cost of textbooks, room and board, and other academic fees, which are all even worse. Can’t be giving you nightmares!

Meanwhile, average hourly wages have barely increased 11% (adjusted for inflation), making the wage-to-college-cost-ratio just fucking laughable. Yet college is still a barrier to entry into not only white collar jobs, but an ever-increasing number of blue collar jobs.

My purpose here is not to unpack the absurd inflation of higher education costs in recent years (I’d need another 2,500 words, and I can only hold your attention through so many gifs). Nor is it to debate the relative value of a college degree (another 3,000 words).

Instead, I want to focus on practical solutions for people who’ve already weighed their options and decided that college is right for them. Yes, a traditional four-year undergraduate degree is heckin’ expensive as fuck. Short of The Deep Magic, how do we mere mortals even attempt to pay for it?


Over $2.9 billion in federal college grants went unclaimed in 2014. That’s $2.9 billion that could’ve been used to lessen the debt burden of recent graduates all over the country. Wasted.

And it’s all for want of a completed FAFSA form.

Grants, like scholarships, are free money for school. Whether they’re from the federal government, state governments, or private college aid programs, grants are given out on a first-come-first-served, need-dependent basis. And you nab ’em by filling out the FAFSA.

The FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) is the one and only form you fill out to qualify for financial aid for college. Filling it out should be inextricably linked in your mind with the college application process. You need to fill it out between October 1st and June 30th the year before you start college, but the sooner the better. Because remember: most of the grants and financial aid doled out because of the FAFSA are on a first-come-first-served basis, honey. Get it before it runs out!

There is literally no catch: just complete the form and send it in. And because we believe in gently guiding our beloved readers by the hand into the warm embrace of financial freedom, here’s a handy link:



One of the most lauded ways of paying for college is through scholarships.

Scholarships are basically free money. You don’t have to save it up yourself, you don’t have to pay it back, and in many cases you barely have to earn it. It’s just pure-as-the-driven-snow, no-strings-attached cash for college, full stop.

And lest you think scholarships are only for the smartest of kids who skipped homecoming to study for midterms, allow me to disabuse you of that notion! There are scholarships for everything. There are left-handed scholarships. A scholarship for making your prom dress out of duct tape. This scholarship awarded to the student who applies for the most scholarships. A scholarship for living in a mobile home (at last, a truly valid reason to love the tiny house movement). Scholarships for being tall! Scholarships for being vegetarian! And my personal favorite: the Zombie Apocalypse Scholarship.

And yes, there are also plenty of merit-based scholarships, so don’t think you can coast through senior year without doing your homework just because you’re a tall, left-handed vegetarian who lives in a mobile home and practices their crossbow headshots on the weekend. (Though if you are, boy howdy do I want to meet you!)

You might notice, in clicking the examples above, that many scholarships don’t offer much money—a few grand here and there. And while there are hefty scholarships that’ll pay for a whole year or more of college, the competition for these bad boys is fiercer than a drag queen in a Ru Paul’s audition tape.

Which is why we recommend the tactic of applying for as many of the smaller, less competitive scholarships as you can. For there’s no limit to how much scholarship money you can collect. And the little ones add up quick.

Here are some of the best places to start looking for scholarships:

Work study

Many colleges offer a federal work study program, which allows students who need financial help to work a part-time job on campus.

The jobs available vary from food service to bookstore clerk to custodian to person-who-sits-at-the-door-of-the-dorm-and-checks-in-residents. (Or my favorite: the campus convenience store clerk too busy munching on stolen Parmesan Goldfish to scold you for stealing Parmesan Goldfish.) The compensation comes in the form of actual money, not just tuition forgiveness or reimbursement.

In many ways, it’s the same as getting a part-time job off-campus, but with a few more advantages. For one thing, the applicant pool is smaller, so you have a better chance of getting a work study than an off-campus gig. And for another, if you apply for federal work study and qualify, the school has to give you a job. And the job security is pretty legit too, as the school is unlikely to go out of business mid-semester and lay you off, unlike the Earth’s last Blockbuster Video.

You’ll earn at least the federal minimum wage, which (see above) is generally not enough to cover the full cost of a four-year undergraduate program plus living expenses. So those who can get a higher-paying job off campus might be better off that way.

Working and saving

As the triggering fictional Baby Boomer of the introduction is fond of reminding us, you can get a job and pay for college yourself!

Not that anyone needs this reminder, of course. It’s the four-piece jigsaw puzzle of how-to-pay-for college advice.

Lots of people work throughout high school to save money for college. And still more keep working through their university years! Personally, I’m grateful for the time I spent balancing a job and classes. As hard and stressful as it was at times, it still taught me shit like time management and the value of money. And it gave me the perfect ammunition for firing back at assholes who insult me for using student loans “instead of just getting a job.”

I worked as a part-time nanny during college, earning $20 an hour. Cash. Under the table. And while minding the spoiled children of the uber-wealthy is its own unique form of punishment, I’m not gonna lie: it was a pretty sweet gig! But it still wasn’t enough to pay for my tuition, rent, food, commute, and other living costs and college-related expenses.

The advantage of earning money through working is, of course, that you neither need to pay it back, compete for it with other students, nor rely on the generosity of others. Trading your time for money is the kind of red-blooded, salt-of-the-earth shit you can feel proud of.

It’s also fucking hard. Scheduling a job around classes is its own sort of logistical nightmare, and choosing between studying for a major exam and taking a shift to pay for said exam is a cruel joke. Yes, you should get a job during college if you can. But it’s not the one-size-fits-all solution some make it out to be.

Go to an elite university

Super elite universities are also super expensive. But here’s the thing: they’re also super desperate to dispel their reputations as classist gatekeepers unfairly filled with legacy students. Which means they’re somewhat more likely than state schools to dispense financial aid to low-income students.

Put plainly: if you’re from a low-income family, you are more likely to get a full ride from Cornell than you are from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.

On the surface, it makes no sense. Elite private school tuition is magnitudes more expensive than that of your average state college!

And yet elite colleges also have more money than God. (Listen to the excellent Revisionist History episode on why you shouldn’t donate to fucking Stanford.) So it follows that if they want to extend a generous financial aid package to a needy student… they can. Easily.

So if you’re limiting your college search to modest state schools and less expensive institutions because you’re worried about paying for college, think again. Your reach school might be just as eager to have you as you are to get that swanky degree.

Student loans

At last we come to it: student loans.

I’m so sorry to have to tell you this, but I need you to hear the truth. You could spend hundreds of hours pursuing grants and scholarships and never get even one.

Do you know how many hours I spent answering soul-baring personal essay prompts in pursuit of money that would never, ever materialize? Many. Admittedly, many of the tactics covered here work best for great students with compelling personal stories. And while that may not be you, it also shouldn’t disqualify you from furthering your education.

And unfortunately, there are some things you can’t control that may negatively impact your eligibility for aid. For example, Kitty’s tuition bill shot up when her father remarried because on paper, his household’s income suddenly doubled. Does anyone at the FAFSA office care that it’s gauche af to expect a new stepparent to pay for her adult stepchild’s schooling? Nope! That’s firmly in the category of “shit happens.”

So if you’ve tried everything, and you haven’t found success, don’t beat yourself up.

Student loans are the great equalizer. But oh, how we despise them.

Student loans work like any other debt: the lender gives you money up front to pay for school, and you pay it back later on… with interest. For exactly why this bargain with the Devil sucks rabid monkey balls, we wrote all of this:

There are basically two kinds of student loans…

Federal student loans

If you must get a student loan or three, try to only get federal student loans.

Federal loans are provided by the federal government, rather than a private lender, and they come with a few distinct advantages. Mind you, they’re still loans, which means you’re still taking on debt, but they’re almost always preferable to private student loans. Here’s a summary of the differences:

  • Federal student loans aren’t due until after you graduate or leave school.
  • Interest rates are fixed and generally lower than private loans.
  • Often the government subsidizes the interest, paying it while you’re still in school.
  • You don’t have to pass a credit check to qualify for a federal loan.
  • They can be consolidated into a Direct Consolidation Loan.
  • The repayments can be postponed or lowered through a number of options including deferral, Income Based Repayment, or forbearance.
  • There’s no penalty for prepaying the loan or paying it off early.
  • Some federal loans qualify for loan forgiveness if you work in public service.
  • In times of extreme financial turbulence (see: right the fuck now) the federal government may pass legislation like the CARES Act to give borrowers a little relief.

Private student loans

Private student loans are provided by a bank, credit union, state agency, or school. They should be your college tuition payment of last resort.

They truly are the Devil at the Crossroads of college payment plans. You accept that sweet, sweet tuition money up-front… and four years down the line the Devil comes to collect with a lethal dose of strychnine in your moonshine devastating interest rates and an ironclad repayment schedule.

  • Private student loans often require you to pay them back while you’re still enrolled in school, or only offer deferment with full interest during this time.
  • Interest rates are generally higher than federal student loans… and they can be fixed or variable, meaning they can “raise your rent” whenever they feel like it. And trust us: they will feel like it.
  • They’re not subsidized. You’re responsible for paying all of the interest.
  • You need to be able to pass a credit check or have a co-signer with good credit.
  • They can’t be consolidated, though they can be refinanced.
  • Postponing your payments usually comes with a hefty penalty.
  • There is often a penalty fee for prepayment.
  • Loan forgiveness? Bitch please.

This isn’t a “choose your fighter” scenario. You should be doing some combination of all of the above to pay for college. Don’t rely solely on the FAFSA (unless they give you a really, really good financial aid package) or apply for a handful of scholarships and call it good. And definitely don’t think you’ll be able to pay your room and board through a federal work study alone. Eggs! Baskets! Combine them wisely!

Elder members of Bitch Nation—how did you pay for college? And what did it cost? Share with the whole class in a comment. Bonus points for actionable tips to the wee baby bitches on their way to college.

47 thoughts to “How To Pay for College Without Selling Your Soul to the Devil”

  1. My advice to baby bitches is thus:
    1. Take the SAT AND the ACT multiple times
    – waiting till the last minute and only taking the SAT once cost me $8,000 in extra
    debt. The tests are stupid. Take them anyway.
    2. Don’t be afraid to live off campus.
    -The “college experience” is what you make it. Join clubs, go to events, staple bread
    to trees, you can still find your people for a fraction of the cost of living in a dorm
    3. Federal loan refunds are STILL LOANS
    -If you qualify for more federal loans than you need to pay for school, they will send
    you a check for the remainder, called a refund. This is still a loan! You may need that
    cash for books, or food, but if at all possible GIVE IT BACK.
    4. The gap year (or semester) can be your friend.
    -The 4 year degree is a cultural myth. There is no shame in taking time off to work,
    or for your health, or for a different opportunity. Especially right now.

    Please learn from my mistakes. Much love to Bitch Nation.

    1. Taking the SAT multiple times is good advice IN GENERAL. Agree! If you’re fee waiver eligible there’s a reason you get 2 free takes.

      But baby bitches, if you are reading this in the year 2020 know that tests are likely not being offered until next year because covid. That’s okay. Do not beat yourself up about this. Schools are going test optional for a reason. The reason is everyone is behind closed doors going “Yeah those tests are getting cancelled”

    2. +1 to taking the SAT/ACT more than once. I got a perfectly acceptable ACT score the 1st time and got a scholarship offer from my school. Took the ACT a 2nd time, increased my score to over 30 and the school increased my scholarship amount JUST for the higher score without me asking. Saved me $5k in total tuition for just suffering through a second test.

  2. School Counselor here! This is all great advice though I have a few helpful clarifiers:


    The magic words are “MEETS FULL DEMONSTRATED FINANCIAL NEED” (there are lists online) and you can get a good sense of what this looks like by running a magic thing called a “NET PRICE CALCULATOR” which will be on their website. You will get a full ride or darn close to it if your family makes under 60K, and many will end up being way cheaper than your state school if your family makes under 80K. Mooooost of these schools are super hard to get into (but this is relative). So yes Cornell. But also Colby, Connecticut College, and Kenyon. Some will ask you to “self help” by taking out federal loans but you’ll still graduate with less debt than your state school (most likely).

    Run those net price calculators Bitch Nation! They will be ENLIGHTENING.

    Also ask your school counselor. They should know from experience who gives out money (for example, if you’re in a big city there’s likely a Jesuit university that doesn’t meet full need on paper but often is VERY GENEROUS to local students).

    Omg just do it. It’s even easier than it used to be because there’s an IRS DATA RETRIEVAL TOOL which will pull your parent financial info from the IRS and autofill 99% of the form.

    Also apply for CSS which is required by MANY private schools (and some public schools). This form is harder, but most of the schools that require it have more money to give.

    3. Local/Community Colleges
    Ya’ll. If all else fails no shame in cutting those costs for a year or two by staying close to home. ESPECIALLY NOW.

    1. I wish you had been my school counselor! Back in 2000, Lil’ Baby Rumble Bee’s school counselor was literally no help, and was overheard saying “why bother helping these students when they will drop out of college eventually anyway?”

    2. YES! I went to an “expensive” private women’s college (and not a famous one – Stephens College in Columbia, MO) and they gave me all the aid I needed to graduate pretty much debt free. I did take out a few loans because I chose to study abroad for a semester. My friends who went to state schools with lower tuitions ended up with higher loans and they didn’t get to study abroad.
      Also, if you are at all interested in surrounding yourself with awesome women take a look at women’s colleges. I estimate 98% of alumnae would recommend the experience.

  3. As one of those maligned boomers, I know how lucky I was to attend a public university at a time when costs were insanely low (about $4k a year for tuition and fees). I paid for it through lots of little scholarships, some work/study, and by maintaining a heavy course load to graduate in 3 years instead of 4 (taking some advanced placement tests my senior year in high school got me out of taking several required courses). When I went back to school in my 40s, I spent the prior year taking some required courses at a community college so that I could again reduce the time I needed to spend at the more expensive school, which I paid for with savings and a small inheritance. Community colleges are a great way to get experience and required courses under your belt before transferring. Good luck to everyone trying to negotiate the current insanity.

    1. This is fantastic advice, friendly neighborhood Boomer! I feel like community college credits are unnecessarily stigmatized, but it’s another great way to reduce the overall cost of college. I took 3 AP courses in high school and completely forgot. Maybe our next one should be “How to Reduce the Overall Cost of College.” Thanks for chiming in!

      1. Even better, take some dual-credit courses at community college to knock out high school and college core credits at the same time! My junior year of high school was supposed to be dreadful, but I didn’t have to take US History during the school year since I took it in the summer and my schedule was actually enjoyably light while looking pretty badass. One less AP test AND it counted for college too! My mother and I still talk to this day about how that was the best decision I ever made in high school.

  4. Thank you for this super insightful article!
    I am currently studying in Germany and have been for quite a few years, but it’s a very different bag of financial woes over here.
    My fees are around 700 euros a year and I have a part-time job that pays just a hair over minimum wage.
    In Germany, free education exists (at least on paper) and tuituion fees are something for bougie shmucks who want to get a double degree in cooperation with a UK university or something like that. Still, most students have very little money and almost no safety net to catch them (you do not qualify for unemployment benefits as a student since you are not looking for full-time work, which, as you can imagine, is currently a big, bad situation).
    When I compared living situations with students from the US, we boiled it down to this: most US students use a mix of loans and a bit of work to pay their bills, have a touch more money for entertainment etc. (as a very generalized rule of course) but leave school with debt, while German students putter along with part-time jobs, often take longer to finish their degrees, sometimes elevating living on the financial edge to an extreme sport but leave with no debt. This produces very different financial complications. I have friends that are in their early to mid-thirties finishing their masters or PhD degree and they never had more than the next two months of rent in their account. It is very hard to not feel super unprepared (for anything, really, not just COVID-19 or retirement etc.). With that in mind, I am very grateful for not having to graduate with a huge loan hanging over me.

    Bitches, feel free to delete this comment if irrelevant – just wanted to chip in a non-US perspective!

  5. I wish this post addressed a couple areas in more detail:
    1. Difficulty completing the FAFSA: one reason people don’t submit this document and thus don’t get aid is that their parent(s) don’t understand the form or refuse to provide information for it. I know that’s a tricky situation, but addressing it seems very in line with the Bitches’ approach to other topics (e.g. the post about how to move out of a difficult home environment as an LGBTQ+ teen).
    2. Scholarships from community organizations: these were a really useful source of funding for me, BUT they can be tricky to find (do any of those orgs sound like the ones that have good, up to date websites???). The amount of paper documents I had to fill out by hand and mail in while in college was absurd. It’s hard to address this since, obviously, relevant community locations differ wildly by location. Maybe some thoughts on how to navigate applying for scholarships from the Club of Old White Men when you’re patently none of those things would be helpful. (Also things like, Should I apply for this [insert religious denomination here] scholarship if my mom is [religion] but I am def atheist?)

    1. Cabbage! This is great input. I definitely didn’t do a good job at addressing barriers to entry for getting college funding. I also should’ve addressed how to handle the FAFSA when you don’t have parents, which was a major oversight. I’ll see about updating the article.

    2. H&R block and some other tax places will help with the FAFSA when you do your income taxes– I believe this is a free add-on for low income parents, but double check with that. (There was an Obama program for this, but who knows if it still exists.)

      The bigger problem is low-mid-income paranoid parents who refuse to fill out the FAFSA, denying their kids any need-based aid while also not contributing to their tuition.

    3. The FAFSA is also a nightmare for undocumented students. Some states are working on alternatives that won’t require students to submit their family’s private data to the federal government (see the Illinois RISE Act), but it’s not widespread yet.

  6. Be sure to check with your local “Community Foundation” in your county. I grew up in a really small rural county in Indiana, and there were still dozens of smallish scholarships set up to help the kids who grew up there to go get an education and claim a brighter future. I paid my whole first year with scholarships in the $500-2,500 range, and 1 of those was good for a second year, too!
    I got one for two years because my dad joined the local Masonic Lodge. I can’t comment on the cult-y-ness of that organization, but they paid (I think) $5,000 of my college.
    And I stayed on campus all 4 years because my university gave students a break on room & board for the 2nd year at 1st year prices, and I repeated that with 4th year at 3rd year prices. (I even got to stay in the same room my final 3 years, just across the parking lot from where 1/2 of my classes were held!) People always think it’s cheaper to stay off campus, but I think they forget the value of their time (and the headache) of commuting, finding parking, etc. whereas I just walked 90 seconds across the parking lot, and the best dining hall was in my dorm building! 🙂

    1. This is great advice, Josh!
      Also, if you’re going to college in a big city (like Kitty and I did), it can absolutely be more expensive to live off campus in some cases. Mileage may vary.

  7. Thanks for this excellent post.
    To add to the conversation about scholarships, one mistake that young folk sometimes make is thinking that college scholarships are something that you only apply for in high school as you are preparing to go to college. Lies! While it’s true that some of the biggest, full-ride type scholarships are directed towards incoming students, tons of scholarships are for CURRENT students. And sometimes you can even get the same scholarship multiple years in a row! But you’ll have to apply again each year.

    It may seem like a massive hassle to think that hustling for scholarships doesn’t end when you get to college, but it’s well worth your time to suck it up and keep looking for that coin. Especially because other students tend to get lazy about looking for those current student opportunities once they start college, and the competition can be less fierce. I earned a number of small to mid-size scholarships while in school for things like “person in my major who wants to study abroad” and “person planning to accept unpaid but prestigious internship.” Most of these were from my school itself. Once they’ve already let you in, colleges want you to do stuff that makes their student body look good and impressive to current and future potential donors, and so sometimes set aside money to help make that happen. But it’s up to you to ask for it.

    My biggest win was when I ended up getting a full ride for my final year of school after being previously rejected multiple times for the same scholarship. It sucked being repeatedly told no, and it actually felt pretty humiliating begging for money in front of the same review committee year after year, but really, the process didn’t take much time and the potential win was worth it to me. I also ultimately improved my interview skills a lot in the process.

    Oh, one more thing: part of that big scholarship was supposedly based on a quasi-mystical process wherein professors could “recognize your potential” and secretly nominate you to improve your chances of getting it. The year I won the damn thing, I made a point of directly asking not one, not two, but I believe 10 different professors to put my name in the hat. And then magically my potential was suddenly recognized by the awards committee. Obviously, that sort of tactic won’t always work, and getting scholarships involves a certain amount of luck, but I think it’s useful for students to realize that even with “merit-based” scholarships, getting or losing a scholarship isn’t necessarily about you being objectively better than all the other candidates. If tons of well-qualified people are applying for the same thing, how you play the game can matter too.

    1. Gah, I’m SO glad you chimed in on scholarships. This is great anecdotal evidence.
      Kitty and I had a conversation yesterday while working on the article about our different scholarship experiences. She spent SO MUCH TIME applying to scholarships and never got them, while I got scholarships I BARELY tried for. It’s a fucking crap shoot.

    2. I second this– my final year of college (at an elite private SLAC) was also *FREE* because I got a fancy scholarship for my senior year (because I did a STEM internship on campus over the summer which qualified me for a specific scholarship that also came with enough tuition for the next year to make my family contribution nothing).

      Adding… be careful about your uni’s rules about private scholarships. Some of them will just cancel out need-based aid 1 for 1, so if you have a lot of need based aid, there’s no point in applying. (My undergrad canceled out 50%, so I got to keep half of any outside scholarship money in place of family contribution and half cancelled out need-based aid.)

      1. THAT LAST PARAGRAPH IS SO IMPORTANT. It’s called award displacement, and it is terrible. I recommend making friends with your college’s financial aid officer; they can really help you navigate the whole process and stitch together your award package in a way that works best for you.

        If you do get private scholarships – which you have to report to your school even if the payment is made directly to you – and it displaces some of your institutional award, get in touch with the scholarship provider. They want their dollars to go as far as possible and often have some tricks they can use to mitigate displacement, like deferring payments for a year or allowing the scholarship to cover the full cost of attendance, which includes room and board. The National Scholarship Providers Association has an excellent white paper about displacement if you really want to nerd out.

        Also be aware that any grants or scholarships that are used to pay for anything other than exempt expenses (tuition, fees, book, or *required* equipment), is considered taxable income. And yes you can get audited if you don’t report it on your taxes like I did the year I graduated. Thanks, state of Minnesota.

        A program officer overseeing 100 private scholarships at a community foundation.

        1. Sorry, this is off-topic, but it’s so interesting to me that you’re distributing scholarships in a community foundation! Where I live, CFs tend to shy away from giving money to individuals.

          1. Giving money to individuals is an IRS no-no (outside of a declared disaster), but scholarships for students seeking a degree or certificate at an accredited institution are allowed because furthering education is considered a charitable activity. It’s pretty much the most highly-regulated kind of charitable giving you can do, but as long as the organization complies with the Pension Protection Act (i.e. the donor doesn’t control the selection process) and selection is made through a competitive, objective, and nondiscriminatory process, it’s allowable.

            A lot of CFs avoid scholarships because they require a huge amount of administrative work and donor relations can be tricky, but there are plenty that have scholarship programs of all different sizes. If the program is designed so that students can apply for multiple scholarships with one application and donors just plug into that program without creating a whole new process, it’s actually a really great way for donors to give in a way that’s meaningful to them for a relatively small amount of money, and it’s a much better use of the students’ precious application-completing time.

        2. Sorry, for some reason it’s not letting me reply under your original comment!

          I should have said at the start – the CFs I’m familiar with are definitely not in the US, so there will be legal differences! It probably matters that education is not as prohibitively expensive here as it is in the US, so there is less of a drive to give to scholarships. That said, we are actually using something similar to the “pooled scholarship fund” you describe to manage Covid relief right now!

          (See also: I work for a CF, but I’m an office manager, so I hardly ever have a reason to speak to anyone at another CF, let alone abroad, and I got excited.)

  8. One more trick: instead of going directly to college full-time, find a job (yah I know, laughable right now but neither Covid nor the current economic depression will last forever) with a tuition reimbursement benefit and go part-time. After one year at university on a student loan where I discovered I was too emotionally immature for college, I dropped out and worked odd jobs for 7 years (savings exactly $0 in the process; BTW I’m a Boomer, so much for the saved-up-my-tuition BS). Then I landed a job at a university (not the one I’d attended) with an employee benefit of waiving tuition for one class each semester. 5 years later I was in the equivalent of my junior year* when I dropped out again due to family reasons and a job change. (*Another advantage of going to college in my mid-20’s: my school had a program for students who had been out of high school at least 5 years where you took 3 years of nighttime special classes in a seminar series and it was equivalent to 2 years of FT day school.) Later (10 years?) with a different job that would reimburse one class/semester’s tuition, I returned (humanities major, wouldn’t have worked with STEM), waived 2 of the 9 semesters I still needed via the CLEP test, and was in night school for 3 years + 1 summer for the rest, using one semester’s reimbursement rolled over to pay for the next one. While it sucked to only get my BA at age 45, it beat having no degree at age 45.

    There are also scholarships aimed at older adults if you work first then figure out going to college. It really comes down to, are you good with just getting the degree, or do you need The College Experience of partying in a dorm with your pals? (I will say, the latter gains you lifelong friends for your network, whereas it’s a lot harder to connect as a commuter student old enough to parent some of your classmates. OTOH when I returned to school for those last 9 semesters, I paid exactly $900 out of pocket over those 3+ years, at a university that charges ~$50K/year FT tuition.) One other advantage: if you go to college as an older adult, you have a pretty good idea what you actually want to major in.

  9. One more thing: if you get a grant/scholarship through your parent(s), you probably need to remain a legal dependent. Hubby had such a grant, then eloped with his girlfriend (not me) b/c she wouldn’t sleep with him without a ring on her finger. He not only lost the grant due to becoming legally independent through marriage, the grant’s rules required him to pay back every dime they’d given him. He was still paying it back when I met him, newly divorced, years afterward, and he never finished college. Make sure you know the rules of each scholarship you’re awarded to avoid nasty surprises down the road.

  10. 1. In my experience “apply for a fancy private school” = 10,000x yes, especially if you are from a lower cost of living (LCOL) area. For example, I grew up in Florida, where my family was working-middle class. My parents paid I think $100k for the house and land we lived on. I now live in a HCOL area, Boston, where you can’t buy a house with land around it for less than $1mil. I also went to school at an expensive private college in Boston that wrote off 3/4 of my tuition. My parents’ earnings equated to a working-middle class life in southwest Florida, but the same dollar amount would have made us very poor in Boston—and THIS WORKS IN YOUR FAVOR when it comes to colleges! If you are working or middle class and especially if you live in the south, the midwest, or any other LCOL area, I would like to give a big ol’ plus-one to this option.

    2. Yes to “live off campus”, mentioned above! I literally had no idea how much anything cost, so I didn’t know that I was paying too much to live on-campus. I was just scared to move off campus because I was a lil tiny baby and I wasn’t getting much guidance from anyone. But could have saved a bunch of money by moving off campus.

    3. Make use of any kind of help/resources that even might be available to you through your college: you can ask anyone who works at your college to meet with you 1:1. It’s allowed. I never felt like I could ask for that when I was a student, but now I see that it is literally their job. You can ask for meetings with financial aid officers. You can ask for meetings with career officers. Even after graduating, it is in the college’s interest to make their alumni feel happy and warm and fuzzy—I called the career office of my college several years after graduating and had a helpful appointment with someone. Make it partly the job of these professionals to help you, with anything you might need. What questions do you have? No question is too dumb. If you run out of questions or don’t know what kind of help to ask for, ask: Is there anyone else you would recommend I connect with? And then ask them for an introduction.

  11. 1. Look for opportunity (or help someone do this) long before you need it. Where is the money now? In my home state graduating high school in the top 10% meant automatic tuition free at the state schools. While I lucked into it I may have made more informed choices had I been aware how grades matter.

    2. Look at total cost and grind off the entry courses at a more economical place. This might be community college in a different county than where you are living.

    3. Be honest with yourself with the expected value. Paying (especially by borrowing) a lot of money for a passion that doesn’t lead to prospects for a job may not be the best choice.

    4. Time is non-recoverable. Make the best use of it.

  12. Huge warning for those of you applying for scholarships and planning to attend a private university. My school decreased the amount of aid they gave me in the exact amount of outside scholarships I received. For me applying for outside scholarships was a complete waste of time because I ended up in the same place.

    Consider community colleges and any relationships they have to four year universities. In the state of CA, if you get an AA ddegree from a community college you get guarenteed acceptance to one of the Cal State universities. Many states offer free or reduced community college. Even at full price, the school I work at is $49 per unit. As compared to $1500 per unit at the private university I attended.

    As far as my university costs, I don’t know the exact costs. I think it’s around $125,000 for tuition, room, board and books. I took out $25,000 in my name which I’ve paid off. My parents took out I think around $100,000. I attended a tier one school with a well known name. That cost was me paying around 40% of the list price. I worked two part time jobs on campus for a total of about 20 hours per week all of university in addition to taking 16-18 units per semester.

    I want to bring up race and higher education. I am a black queer woman. Especially for my parents, I was the first generation to have the ability to apply to let alone attend a tier one school. My parents attended a state college where black people were allowed to attend not because it was their first choice school. In the discussion of money, there was also opportunity that previous generations in my family didn’t have. For many people, the choice of which school to attend isn’t only about money.

  13. A view from the frozen north (aka Canada):

    Tuition is typically lower in Canada, and tends to be in the same range across universities in the English-speaking provinces, at least for undergraduate programs (tuition for professional programs varies a lot more). In 2007 my base tuition for first-year undergrad in Ontario was about $5,000 CAD/year and it rose to around $6,000 CAD/year by the time I graduated. My out-of-province tuition for law school in Montreal was about the same as my undergraduate degree in Ontario. At that time, law school tuition at the University of Toronto was around $25,000 per year (it’s now more than $30k). I picked the cheap school.

    So in Canada, living expenses are typically much higher than undergraduate tuition. As a result, at the undergraduate level in Canada, the greatest college hack is LIVING WITH YOUR FAMILY. I didn’t do this, but most of my friends who graduated debt-free did this for at least part of their university career. I just had roommates, lived in cheap apartments, and kept my food budget down. We all had great university experiences.

    If you are going to move to a different city, research the cost of living and factor it into your decision. Basically everything is cheaper than Toronto and Vancouver, but smaller cities like Ottawa, Kelowna and Victoria are more expensive than you might expect, and Montreal is (or was) cheaper than many medium-sized cities.

    The second great Canadian college hack is not driving to school. Cars are expensive to own and drive (especially in Canada), parking at universities is expensive and hard to find, and many university students have a bus pass included in their mandatory fees. If you must own a car, buy a used one and drive it as little as possible. Although waiting for the bus in a blizzard sucks, so does student debt. I have never owned a car, which must have saved me $100k since I graduated high school.

    A car-free lifestyle can be difficult to combine with the “living with your family” hack, since they may not live near campus. If transit is inaccessible where you live, consider carpooling – either all the way to campus, or to the nearest mass transit station – to reduce costs.

    When choosing where to study and live, the cost of housing and the cost of transportation should be considered together. Rent in Vancouver is expensive, but it’s easier to live car-free in Vancouver than in Calgary. The additional cost of a car might erase the difference in rent. (Car insurance rates also vary a lot between provinces).

    The availability of scholarships and financial aid varies between universities. Ontario universities often offer a lot of grades-based entrance scholarships – the one I went to gave me basically a full-ride on the combination of my high school grades and my performance at the university. My law school in Quebec gave me a large entrance scholarship, which would have been a full-ride had I been an in-province student. But because I was from out-of-province, it only covered half my tuition.

    I got way more scholarship money from these automatic entrance scholarships than from smaller scholarships I applied for. I’m not sure if that pattern holds across Canada, or is just unique to me.

    I’m not that familiar with OSAP or Canada Student Loans, but as in the USA, generally the government loans should be your starting point. Private loans should be a last resort.

  14. 1. Definitely consider those smaller private schools that are out-of-state! I went to a small private liberal arts college in the southeast as an out-of-state student from Pennsylvania. About 60% of the student body was from the local tri-state area and I was a priority for geographic diversity, so I got a $25k/year merit-based scholarship from my school (plus I had good grades, test scores, etc.). On paper, annual tuition was $35k before room & board, but that scholarship plus grants meant that my out-of-pocket cost was the same as than a meh-range in-state school and definitely less than the more competitive in-state schools.

    2. MAKE ADMINISTRATIVE STAFF YOUR FRIENDS! About 20% of my graduating class didn’t go to college, 10% joined the military, and 50% stayed in-state at regional/community schools. Most of the rest that went out-of-state went for athletics. Not to knock those paths but to say that my counselor didn’t have a lot of help to offer for smart-sports challenged-theater/choir nerds that didn’t want to go to Penn State, Pitt, or stretch for Temple or Penn. You know who DID have a ton of advice to give? The administrative assistant for that office that had been at the school for 10 years and could tell me right away who had been on similar paths in the past, where they went to school, which scholarships they applied for, etc.

    Once you get to college, make friends with the admin for financial aid and let them know what sort of things you’re looking for. While you’re at it, get to know the admin for your academic department. Trust and believe that they know EVERYTHING that happens and are usually the first ones getting notices about outside scholarships, PT job opportunities, tutoring, etc. I also got many a babysitting side-job and even an on-campus one because I had my wonderful admin friends looking out for me, and post-graduation they sent me job opportunities when I was looking.

  15. My path (in the Greaty Eighties): a little of all of the above — including (I kid you not) two classes my senior high-school year which I tutored at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. Five years of haphazard effort in my twenties rid me of the last loan.

    My older daughter’s path (just graduated undergrad): dual-enrolled during high school, CLEP and AP tests, summer courses, and challenge exams particular to her school — these let her step out of freshman orientation as a rising sophomore. We parents matched the scholarships, and grants filled out the rest. Work-study went straight into emergency-fund, and she even landed a plum paid internship for fall term. She came out a year early, no debts, and will invest what the family gifted but went unused.

    Younger daughter’s path will look similar, I expect.

    The big boost came from dual-enrollment and CLEP/AP/challenge tests. Pay zip or a few hundred each to earn credit for a few courses each — thousands saved right there. Surprised you didn’t mention this!

  16. Your degree only says where you finish, not where you start. Community college is a magical more affordable place where the other people might not even be exactly like you. I loved it. Please, once again for the folks in the back YOUR DEGREE ONLY SAYS WHERE YOU FINISH NOT WHERE YOU START. (…And you’re like candy to those admissions people when you transfer as a known entity, easy peasy.)

    Also, I was a financial aid worker at the community college I went to. Started in work study, ended up running a department.

    Oh, also I was a high school drop out.

    Oh, also I never took the SATs.

    Got that BA degree along with all those more traditional students.

  17. Older Gen X’er here. I was lucky to get my degree in the 80’s when higher education was far more affordable. I was fortunate to graduate with just a couple thousand in student loans (but unfortunate to graduate in a recession). I worked and saved all summer long, had an on campus job I worked about 10 hours per week (I could schedule an hour or two here and there in between classes) and had an off campus weekend job delivering food for a place called Fatburger owned by these two guys Ahmed and Mo from Lebanon. (I hope they were not in Beirut for the explosion!) That job accounted for another 15-20 hours per week, and came with inexpensive to free food. These days, I would highly advise starting with a 2 year degree at the local community college before proceeding to 4 year University. There are good jobs available with just that degree and you can live at home to save living expenses. For those with who would rather learn a trade such as HVAC repair for Automotive repair, this is a great choice. After obtaining that degree, one could work a few years at a better paying job to save money before working the 4 yr degree, or transfer the credits and immediately continue on. Another choice could be online only degrees, since they are designed around the needs of working adults. Western Governor’s University offers flat rate tuition, with the undergraduate programs generally running ~$3250 per 6 months. The faster you work, the less you spend. Good luck to all the young learners out there!

    1. Forgot to mention! Many larger companies offer educational benefits such as tuition reimbursement, so if they are already working go ask the boss or HR about it!

  18. Bitch nation has so many smart people! My two cents won’t apply to some, but if you’re in a unique situation like mine…

    My father was getting his PhD when I applied for college. He had his own student loans, my mom’s income was small and went entirely toward his education, and they had no money for me. So:

    1. If you’re “lucky” enough to be poor, the FAFSA might be all you need. It paid everything I needed with the inclusion of a work-study gig that allowed me to pay for secondhand textbooks. A few small federal loans were the extent of my student debt.

    2. I went to a university in the same “system” as my father. Since we were both at a Uni of California, the UC gave me money to compensate for the fact that my dad was already paying out the ass for his education. I’ve heard conflicting reports on whether this works if you and your sibling/s are attending the same institution. Worth looking into–ask their financial aid office.

    3a. I basically killed myself and my health getting my degree in 3 years instead of 4. Summer school, baby. (Which meant I could continue my work-study job through the summers and pick up more shifts since my coworkers were all home with their folks!) It’s not for everyone. I have some regrets now–like not taking a year abroad. But it meant I could get through with minimal loans.

    3b. Summer sessions generally have separate aid you apply for with your Uni, and may be covered completely due to the lack of competition for that aid. And again, if your college town is like mine, the sudden lack of eager young student workers means the jobs are plentiful. Good time to make more money while getting some extra classes out of the way–whether to graduate early or to make your semesters lighter so you can have fun (or work more hours during the year).

    Please don’t forget to have fun, though. Those are the parts of college that shaped me the most: the friendships, the deep philosophical discussions about life, the enriching environment of diverse thinkers that helped me understand myself better.

  19. Perhaps I’m not the right person to be handing out advice as I went to university (that’s what Canadians call college) back when tuition was reasonable. Having said that, I was still short because (a) my parents refused to help me pay for school (on account of the fact that I didn’t want to go to the local school/live at home) and (b) I didn’t qualify for any loans because my parents’ income was too high. What to do? I ended up picking a school with a co-op program. That meant I only had to pay 4 months of tuition/rent/living expenses at a time and the co-op placements were with industry and thus paid better than most student/summer jobs. I also had to work while in school, but it was manageable. So my suggestion would be to try and find your field of study in at a school that offers co-op programs.

  20. I guess I am an *older* reader at 28… here is how I paid for college:

    I joined the Navy. No seriously. I applied for a navy reserve officer training corps (NROTC) scholarship as a high school senior, which pays full tuition and a monthly stipend, and a stipend for books each semester. I also chose a school that paid for room and board if you were an ROTC scholarship recipient (Vanderbilt – Go ‘Dores!).

    It’s a competitive process, and not for everyone. I did have to take out federal student loans to pay for the yearly meal plans but graduated with about $7000 which I paid back my first year on the job.

    I am a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy and I live in Japan with my husband (who is not military). It’s a great choice if you are interested in service and to just… experience something different. I am set for life, but it comes with major sacrifices, both while I was in undergrad, and as an officer once I graduated. I am taken care of by the military, but there is the risk that every time I go to sea, I could lose my life.

    Don’t choose my path unless you have talked to someone who has been in the military and can provide TRUTHFUL and RELEVANT information. For the love of God, DO NOT talk to a recruiter by yourself! Take a parent or trusted adult with you, and utilize Reddit for questions (each military branch has a subreddit that is pretty dang active). If anyone is truly interested in this path, you can reach me on tumblr (classicemily).

  21. I did 2 years of community college to get my basic requirements done. So much cheaper!!!!! It was roughly half the price of the state school I got into.

    Another reason to only use Federal Loans if at all possible is that in the event of your demise, your remaining family doesn’t have to pay it. Just send in the death certificate to the Feds and they’re good. Private loans; however, will not be forgiven and they will come after your immediate family like bounty hunters for that debt.

  22. All great advice, and keep in mind, AS SOON AS YOU KNOW WHAT SCHOOL YOU ARE GOING TO CHECK IF THEY ACCEPT AP CREDITS. I took six AP courses for 4 years at my high school, and the AP tests each year for $90 a test and not one counted at the school I went to. So if you have a school in mind, make sure they will accept AND EQUIVICATE your AP or duel enrollment classes. What few duals my college accepted they accepted as ceeits to my graduation, but not classes so I basically had to take them all over again.

  23. On the topic of taking the SAT – I got college paid for by doing well on the PSAT, which you take as a high school junior in the US. I scored well enough that I became a national merit scholar and then I chose a university (TX A&M) that has special additional scholarships set aside in order to attract national merit scholars, so I then applied for those. I got enough of those scholarships (also agree with the post above to KEEP applying for scholarships every year!), part-time work, and savings to finish school without debt in 2001. I *hated* TX A&M, so I’d recommend choosing a school that doesn’t make you depressed for 3 years, but graduating without student loan debt was amazing.
    I had a few friends who also became national merit scholars and went to Florida State University, which gives you a full ride!! for being a national merit scholar. At least they did back in 2000…
    So, if you’re good at taking tests, practice the hell out of the SAT/PSAT, and then take it as a junior in high school. Taking tests like the SAT/PSAT is a learned skill – it’s not actually indicative of your innate intelligence. Back in the day my local library had SAT practice books that you could check out.

  24. Late to the party, but really have nothing meaningful to contribute. I have the shape of brain that does well on standardized tests, so I scored well and was able to get a full scholarship to an in-state, private university. The school required work study as part of the package so I got that…special…experience as well. I think graduating college with zero student debt is one of the best things that ever happened to me and I am super grateful of that privilege.

  25. My first go into collage, and granted this was over 10 years ago, but I managed to bag a full ride by one applying for a better collage and getting a sweet scholarship, and two loading up the rest with smaller scholarships and grants.

    The big key thing I fucked up on though was not reading the fine print. I got so loaded down with classes to fill the full time requirements that I burnt out and am only now going back in.

    Also though my state now has 2 years community collage free for everyone who graduated in state, period. A lot of folks use it to do their basics and maybe some of their minor studies then transferring up to bigger name schools with scholarships and grants for the next two years covered. Check and see what is offered on a local level, always.

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