Don’t Go Broke Paying for College

By Kim Lifton
President, Wow Writing Workshop

Paying for CollegeThe cost of college is on just about everyone’s mind – including President Obama’s. During last week’s State of the Union address, the President highlighted a new, ambitious plan to make college more affordable with free community college tuition for some, as well as a tax code overhaul to help those who qualify receive tax credits for college.

Whether any such plan will become a reality is uncertain, but there are some things you can do in the meantime to make sure you get the best college aid package and graduate with the least amount of debt possible.

Wow’s Marketing Associate, Julie Tschirhart, has great tips for paying for college without going broke. In 2011, Julie graduated from Middlebury College, a prestigious east coast liberal arts college, with student loan debt totaling less than 10% of the cost of attendance.

How did she do it? Julie got stellar grades, researched schools, learned how to navigate the complex maze of financial aid, and weighed several offers before saying yes to Middlebury College.

Julie was admitted to several other small liberal arts colleges, including Kalamazoo College, Knox, Denison and Wesleyan, but none matched her total aid package from Middlebury – nearly $160,000 toward a $200,000 retail price!

“At a school costing $50,000 a year before books, travel, and other costs, my family could not afford to pay even close to full tuition.” Julie said.

“In my junior year, I started visiting colleges and learned about need-based and need-blind financial aid,” Julie said. “I didn’t realize some schools had large endowments with lots of money to give. I have friends who have a ton of debt because they didn’t know what their options were.”

Here are some of Julie’s best tips:

  1. Make the most of high school: Julie graduated with over a 4.0 and scored a 33 on her ACT. She also participated in National Honor Society, sang in the choir, and had a part-time job.
  2. Do your homework: Find out which colleges have the most money to give away. Then make a list of schools based on what you think you can afford.
  3. Fill out the forms correctly: FAFSA determines your eligibility for federal aid. Your CSS Profile collects detailed information to determine qualification for non-federal aid. Understand the difference between need-based financial aid, which relies on the demonstrated need of your family, and need-blind admissions, which means the admitting institution does not consider the applicant’s financial situation when making admissions decisions.
  4. Set realistic expectations: Julie’s package from Middlebury was generous, but the costs associated with it were still expensive for her family. “I worked a part-time job during college,” Julie said. “And I took long train and bus rides for the 800-mile journey home during breaks. I tried not to eat out too much; instead I stuck to the school’s unlimited meal plan. I also bought used textbooks online. These choices weren’t always glamorous, but it was a small price to pay for being able to receive such an incredible education.”
  5. Ask for help: Julie got a lot of extra guidance from the Horizons Upward Bound program she participated in throughout high school. “We went on college campus tours and learned about financial aid,” she said. “Make sure you take advantage of your high school counselor’s expertise, or find supportive college counseling elsewhere throughout the process.”

Wow Writing Workshop members, check out our financial aid webinar, Paying for College Without Going Broke, featuring Jennifer Ramsey Wallace, a leading expert on financial aid programs with the Michigan Department of Treasury, and Dean Tsouvalas, creator of the free scholarship information app ScholarshipAdvisor. If you’re not already a member sign up free today for access to this and other great resources.