Graduating from College with Minimal Debt

By Kim Lifton
Wow Writing Workshop

Wow marketing associate Julie Tschirhart (center) with friends at her college graduation.
Wow marketing associate Julie Tschirhart (center) with friends at her college graduation.

As we gear up for our June 5 webinar, Paying for College Without Going Broke, we wanted to share an inspirational story about our marketing associate, Julie Tschirhart, who graduated from a prestigious east coast liberal arts college in 2011 with relatively low debt.

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. “I graduated with student loan debt totaling less than 10% of the cost of attendance.”

“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 24-hour 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.”

Find out more by registering for Wow’s June 5 webinar, Get Ready! Get Set! Get In! Paying for College Without Going Broke. Our guests 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 will help untangle the complexities of financial aid, share scholarship opportunities, and suggest ways for parents and students to discuss these issues honestly at home.