What’s one of the smartest ways to stretch your money for college? Make smart choices. Do a budget. The best way to do this is to keep track of every dollar you spend for one month. Carry a little notebook with you or do a list in your phone. You will be surprised where some of the money goes. It is different for everyone. Some people would never spend money on a video game, but might buy designer coffee 3 times a day. At the end of the month, sit down with the list(s) and all the bills you paid that month. Where did the money go? What might you cut back on? How fast does your phone or computer need to respond? Could you settle for a mid-range package? Could you cut out one Venti a day? Less caffeine is better for you anyway. Check out a college bookstore. How many Venti coffees does it take to buy a math book? You would be amazed. College textbooks are one of the biggest expenses for college students.
Okay, so cutting back on sodas or coffee might get you a textbook, but if you really want to optimize your money think about these strategies:
First, take the college prep courses you need in high school to start college at college level. Much of the data in higher education shows that part of the poor graduation rate is a direct result of students not being prepared to take college level courses. If you place in a Basic Math course instead of Algebra or Statistics, you can add at least a year of Math pre-requisites before you actually get to college level. Not only does this cost you more money, but it delays your graduation. Math and English courses must be taken in sequence. You cannot just jam out 3 in the same semester.
Second, choose to start at a community college. According to the American Association of Community Colleges, the average tuition and fees at public community colleges are $2,191, compared to $5,491 at public four-year colleges. That means you could go to a community college for two years on what it would cost to go to a four year university. If you can stay at home and commute to the community college you will save even more money and I’ll bet the cooking at home is much better than the cafeteria at the university. When you graduate from Brown or UC Berkeley or Brigham Young or any other four year college/university, the diploma does not say community college/university. There is no asterisk that says you started at the community college. Your diploma will look just like the one for the student who paid over $5,000 a year to attend for four years.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Before you make the decision to start at community college talk to a counselor at the community college and talk to a counselor or academic advisor at the four year college. Make sure your college of choice accepts transfers from the community college you plan to attend. Find out what courses you are required to complete BEFORE they will accept you. Ask about minimum GPAs. And ask if they have a Transfer Agreement. Some four years have pseudo contracts which lay out the mutual agreement.
Besides the money you save, starting at a community college allows you an easier transition to college and often provides smaller class sizes and more interaction with your faculty.
Third, file your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) as early as possible. Even if you haven’t completed your taxes, you can answer the tax question will file and estimate your income and taxes. If it is about the same as the year before, plug in the numbers from the previous year’s taxes. But, remember if you do this, you must go back into the FAFSA when you have filed and correct the numbers to actual. By filing the FAFSA early many students qualify for a Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG). This is a grant that does not need to be repaid. Schools are required to award this to the neediest students which are usually defined a those with a zero EFC or Auto Zero EFC. Unlike the Pell, which is an entitlement (anyone who meets the requirement gets one), each college receives a fixed amount of FSEOG funds and Federal Work Study funds.
Since most colleges have many more students who qualify for FSEOG and Federal Work Study than funds to give them, they usually set up a system that awards based on the date of the FAFSA or the date you completed the financial aid process. Don’t procrastinate. An FSEOG award can be anywhere from $100-$4,000!
Fourth, apply for every scholarship you can. Scholarships do not have to be paid back. They are much better than taking out loans. Plan to spend an hour or two a week on scholarship hunting and applying. Write a brilliant personal essay and then ask a English teacher to critique it. Sometimes just changing one phrase can make the difference between getting the scholarship and not getting the scholarship. Follow the directions on the application. If they say they want all essays to be double-spaced with 2 inch margins on magenta paper, give it to them. Many scholarships have dozens or even hundreds of applicants for one or two scholarships. Many will have a good story. The scholarship committee is often looking for a reason to disqualify a few. When you win a scholarship, write a personal thank you. It goes a long way and encourages donors to continue to give. There are more ways to stretch your aid dollars, but I have gone on too long. Check in next week to see other strategies.