As many of you know from my student loan debt updates, my balance is resting at about $15k. While this might seem low compared to others that post their own updates, it is still a burden we all face.
Some bloggers think that it’s a little silly to talk about how to avoid getting into so much student loan debt, as most of us have already completed college and find ourselves saddled with huge numbers to pay back. However, on the off chance someone that needs the advice comes across my blog, I would like to share the path I took to college, which wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be.
Do your research
I was very lucky that one of my cousins was currently attending grad school when I was in my senior year of high school. She gave me great advice: that I should come out of my college education with the least amount of debt possible. My parents were concerned about the cost, of course, as they had debt of their own, but they wanted me to be happy and to receive a good education. No one in my high school – teachers or guidance counselors – mentioned the cost of college. Well, I was about to be shocked as I am sure many are their first time around.
I had a list of colleges I was interested in. You should begin by searching for colleges that have great programs for the course of study you are interested in. At the time, Criminal Justice wasn’t very popular, so there were only a handful of colleges that offered it and actually had a decent program for it. I applied to all of them (application costs ranged from $25-$100 I think) and got accepted at all of them. Choices!!
I went to a college fair to speak with representatives, and most of them assured me a majority of their students were eligible for aid. That still meant loans though. At this point, I figured it would be a good idea to visit the campuses of my top choices to see which environments I would be most comfortable in.
I am not going to lie here – the thought of going away to college was slightly scary to me. I grew up as an only child, and I was used to having my own room to myself (yes, I’m spoiled). I like to study quietly, and I wasn’t a party person. There were some colleges that offered separate dorms for honors students, but I wasn’t sure if I would be eligible for the program. I didn’t want to end up with a horror of a roommate, either. As I saw the size of the dorms, my fears were confirmed. How did any of you survive?!
In any case, my top choice ended up being the one with the best program – the most interesting course offerings. The others just didn’t compare, and for the amount of money it was going to be, I wanted to make sure I would receive a great education.
Community college – an unexpected choice
However, I wasn’t sold on it just yet – it was a huge financial commitment and I wanted to make sure it was the right choice. I decided to bide my time, and go to community college for a year instead. This was the smartest decision for me, because I simply don’t think it’s worth it to jump into a 4-year degree program without knowing what you want to do. Most schools offer the same selection of intro classes, just with a higher price tag. Why not go the cheaper route and take the same classes at a community college? I had AP credits that carried over from high school, and I was exempt from some classes such as English and History because of this.
I had been working the same job throughout HS and was excited for the potential for more hours now that my schedule was a bit lighter. I was able to afford both semesters at community college from mutual funds that my parents had set up for me when I was little. My mom only deposited $50 a month into the account, but it worked well enough for this purpose. I also found out I could rent textbooks online (I used Chegg) as most college bookstores are rip-offs.
As the end of the second semester grew closer, I surveyed local schools to see if they had added a CJ department. As it happens, the college up the road from my parents’ house had opened such a program, and it actually seemed promising. As much as I wanted the glory of going to a better known university, I ultimately decided this was the best path for me to take. While it was a private college, it was still much cheaper than the alternatives. There were no dorms, so I’d be living with my parents, but that didn’t bother me.
The path I took in college
I applied, was accepted, and received a small scholarship for all my semesters there. My parents were able to help me out for my first year, but right around Christmas 2009, my dad lost his job. It was devastating to my family, and I knew they wouldn’t be able to help out with tuition anymore. I was facing college costs on my own.
I decided the best thing to do was to take the maximum number of credits (18) each semester to graduate early (we needed 128). While I would miss my friends, and did want to graduate with them, I didn’t want to pay for another semester since the tuition was also rising each year. I accomplished this by taking summer classes (which weren’t covered by financial aid) along with 6 classes a semester. I was pretty upset, actually, because no one ever tells you to do this. They want to get as much money out of you as possible. I was kicking myself for going easy and only taking 4 classes my first two semesters there. I had met with my advisor and they never discussed the possibility of taking on more coursework.
At the time I decided to accelerate my graduation, I was still working part time. The place where I held my first job sadly closed down, but I had been able to find another job within a week. It came with a pay raise, but it ended up being horrible. To add to the mix, I had to have surgery again (first time was right before college started), and they weren’t very understanding. I left, and went to a grocery store that wanted to schedule me when I had class. That didn’t work out for obvious reasons.
I was frustrated with the lack of flexibility employers offered, and decided to focus on my studies. I realize this goes against the popular advice of working while in college, but I knew my limits. I had saved a good deal of my wages in the bank, and tried to spend as little as possible the remaining time I was in college. It helped greatly that I continued to live with my parents and they were very understanding. That’s for a separate post, though!
How it ended
I managed to pull off graduating in January 2012. My original student loan balance was a little bit above $18k, and this was only for 3 years of college vs 4 or 5. Ugh! My other choices were $30k-$50k a semester. To contrast, my boyfriend attended a state school, and came out with more debt than I did (around $10k more). He also worked part time for his last two years.
Overall, if I had to go back and do it again, I would likely choose the same path. After all, if I hadn’t attended this college, I wouldn’t have met the mutual friends that introduced me to R. I just wish my time hadn’t been so “rushed.” College flew by, faster than high school, so enjoy it while it lasts!
How did you decide where to go and what to major in? Would you do anything differently?