The Path I Took to College

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!!

college

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.

college campus

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.

college campus

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?

 

46 Comments

  1. Michelle October 1, 2013 at 9:22 AM

    I did something similar to what you did. The first couple of semesters I took 15 credit hours, and then after that I took above that so that I could graduate early. A couple of semesters I took 24 credits!

    Reply
    1. E.M. October 2, 2013 at 9:47 PM

      Wow Michelle, that’s crazy! I had to get special permission from the dean just to take 19 credits once, so I don’t think they would have been fond of anything over 20. Just proves you’ve always been a hard worker :)

      Reply
  2. Budget and the Beach October 1, 2013 at 9:42 AM

    Times were a bit different when I went to college. I was very lucky in that I really could have gone anywhere and it would have still been paid for. I decided to major in TV because I took a class in high school and really liked it. I would choose differently now. I think the millennial generation really got screwed when it came to college. BTW we had opposite problems about the living situation. My home life sucked and I could not WAIT to get away from my family. It literally saved my life.

    Reply
    1. E.M. October 2, 2013 at 9:45 PM

      My boyfriend felt similarly – he couldn’t stand being around his mom, and when holiday breaks occurred, he just wanted to stay on campus (they kicked everyone out). I’m sorry you felt the need to get away, but am glad you had the opportunity to do so through college! I chose my major just based on liking crime shows, which could have ended really badly…

      Reply
  3. Andrew@LivingRichCheaply October 1, 2013 at 10:13 AM

    Unlike you I really wanted to go away for college =) Not because I wanted to party but, while I love my parents, I just need some independence from them. I wanted to go to Boston University which gave me a great financial aid package but it was still expensive. Going to a college locally was an option…I wanted to live away. I went to a State University which was relatively affordable. I also worked, but not as much as you…only spending money and for textbooks, etc. Sometimes I think it would have been beneficial to stay local and live at home as there may have been more job opportunities going to school in NYC. But I did meet life long friends at college.
    P.S: I mentioned one of your posts in my roundup yesterday

    Reply
    1. E.M. October 2, 2013 at 9:43 PM

      I had some friends who dormed at SBU when they lived maybe 15 minutes away just to get away from family and be independent. I couldn’t imagine paying so much for room and board when you have a room at your parents’ house so close by! At the same time, I was a little envious. Meeting lifelong friends at college is great; I do think stronger friendships are sometimes forged through going away as everyone is new to the area and most likely alone. Plus you get to hang out in the dorms and goof off. My boyfriend’s experience away sounded really nice, so I do think it can be worth it!

      Reply
        1. E.M. October 4, 2013 at 10:29 PM

          Considering the size of the campus I would find it easy to feel like you actually went away even if you lived close. It always overwhelmed me!

  4. Michelle's Finance Journal October 1, 2013 at 11:21 AM

    It took forever for me to graduate. I worked full time and went to school part time, not by choice but by necessity. I could’ve taken more class and take all the summer sessions, but with taking care of my mom also I just couldn’t handle all of it mentally, emotionally, and physically. If I had to do it again, I think I would just suck it up and bull doze through.

    Reply
    1. E.M. October 2, 2013 at 7:31 AM

      That is a lot to deal with while going to college! Honestly, sometimes I wonder if I should have done the same. My family struggled and I could tell there were times my mom wished I was working instead of going to college. Neither of my parents went, so I don’t think they fully understood what having a degree meant to me, but they still supported me the entire time.

      Reply
  5. Done by Forty October 1, 2013 at 12:18 PM

    You’d think that the federal government would aim to better educate students & parents on how to deal with student loan debt (i.e. – take as little as necessary) since they’re the ones backing most of the loans. States should do the same, as in-state public universities are often the path that results in the lowest student loan debt. Now that I think of it, so should local municipalities that have community colleges.

    Kudos for getting out of college with what, I think, is a reasonable and relatively low amount of student loan debt. It’s still a burden, I’m sure, but you were pretty smart about it & got out quick.

    Reply
    1. E.M. October 2, 2013 at 7:29 AM

      I completely agree. Being the only child, we were all clueless when it came to the loan process, FAFSA, and scholarships. Not many people were willing to guide us in the right direction, and we didn’t know which questions to ask. There should be some sort of conference held at schools with students and parents and financial aid representatives talking about the entire process. I imagine it’s a lot easier the second time around, but it was scary for us.

      Reply
  6. SavvyFinancialLatina October 1, 2013 at 1:12 PM

    I knew my parents couldn’t really afford to send me to school, so the school’s overall cost was a huge factor in picking the school I went to. I decided to go to a state school because they give me the best scholarship package. I only took 15 hours my first semester. All the other semesters I took 18-21 hours. It was pretty crazy. Looking back there’s certain things I would have changed, like classes or maybe major. But I loved my school. I graduated with no debt.

    Reply
    1. E.M. October 2, 2013 at 7:27 AM

      Awesome that you were able to graduate with no debt!! If I hadn’t gone with the college I did, I most likely would have changed my course of study and went to a state school. They are a really good value, and that is what a lot of my friends from high school ended up doing.

      Reply
  7. Micro October 1, 2013 at 7:20 PM

    The one caution I would have would be loading up on credits before knowing you are ready to handle the requirements. Taking 18+ credits a semester to graduate sooner does no good if you wind up failing classes. Once you can handle it though, I say go to town.

    Reply
    1. E.M. October 2, 2013 at 7:25 AM

      My major wasn’t exactly what I would call intensive; it was a lot of writing, and for me, that’s fine. You’re right that not everyone can handle that, so knowing your limits is good. I always tried to sprinkle in “easy” electives while taking 2 or 3 of my actual core classes, this way it wasn’t too crazy and I got a break from the topic once in a while. It helped to luck out with nice professors who weren’t sold on giving us lots of tests and papers.

      Reply
  8. SarahN October 2, 2013 at 12:14 AM

    I did change my career aspirations in year 11, so that was a sudden jolt! I was going to go to the air force, but I didn’t want to learn what they wanted (or start running, funny now I run out of choice). I knew doing a private pilot’s licence was out of the question. So I went to university, with a first year scholarship (equal to double my tuition, but then all our tuition can be deferred til we earn over a threshold, with no interest, only annual inflation increases). Anyhow, I used the scholarship and savings to pay upfront what I could each semester, meaning I came out with less debt that ‘usual’. Admittedly, our debts are much much lower generally, than the US.

    I didn’t load up credits, I actually went the other way! Engineering was hard, I failed something repeatedly and it made my progression difficult, so I went to 3 instead of 4 courses per semester. In the end, I got through, but it took longer than planned (5 years not 6), but cost wise, it was negligible (save for the failing!!)

    Reply
    1. E.M. October 2, 2013 at 7:24 AM

      I definitely don’t think rushing through something like Engineering is a good idea :). I wouldn’t have been able to do it at all. Math and science are not my forte. I should have looked into scholarships more, but it felt so competitive and I didn’t qualify for most of them. The way your loans work sound interesting – that your tuition can be deferred until you’re earning a certain amount. That sounds like a decent concept.

      Reply
  9. Laurie @thefrugalfarmer October 2, 2013 at 7:54 AM

    Sounds like you made a great choice to me, E.M. You researched and took a more affordable path, which is more than most people do. Excellent work!

    Reply
    1. E.M. October 2, 2013 at 9:40 PM

      I can’t imagine that some people just have one college in mind throughout high school and never consider alternatives. It can be tough to emotionally detach yourself from a decision like this, and think about the financial impact it will have, but I think it’s important to do so.

      Reply
  10. Hayley @ A Disease Called Debt October 2, 2013 at 10:41 AM

    It sounds like you made all the right decisions E.M. and worked really hard to try to ease some of that financial burden right the way through. I still can’t get my head around how much college can cost. Your parents sound fantastic by the way! :)

    Reply
    1. E.M. October 2, 2013 at 9:38 PM

      My parents are rather wonderful, especially for letting me stay with them (not that they wanted me to leave). I made the best with what I had to work with at the time. Working full-time may have netted me more in the end, but I am not so sure my grades would have been as good.

      Reply
  11. Kim@Eyesonthedollar October 2, 2013 at 12:04 PM

    I went to a state school on scholarship, so didn’t have to pay for undergrad. Then I ended up with $60K in student loans for optometry school. I don’t regret going to school, but I do regret lifestyle inflation and not paying off the loans sooner. I think you are very smart in your choices.

    Reply
    1. E.M. October 2, 2013 at 9:37 PM

      Thanks Kim, and thanks for stopping by! State schools have such a good value, I looked at about three. I was really disappointed that they didn’t have my major. If not for coming across so many great blogs, I would have been making the minimum payments on my student loans forever, which is a scary thought now.

      Reply
  12. Lisa E. @ Lisa Vs. The Loans October 2, 2013 at 1:23 PM

    E.M., I LOVE THIS!

    I wish I had the sense to go to community college for a year or two before going to my private university. I also graduated a little early (3.5 years instead of 4), but I wish my counselor told me I could graduate even earlier if I started with heavier loads as a freshman. It’s hard to believe that college administrators care about their students when all they really care about is keeping you in college for as long as possible to get the most money out of you.

    Reply
    1. E.M. October 2, 2013 at 9:35 PM

      Ugh I know! My advisor was one of my professors, too, and he was one of my favorites. I’m not sure if they really get a lot of training in how to guide students along their path of study. If I hadn’t taken the initiative, I think I would have been stuck. Community college has such a stigma associated with it. Honestly, being in AP and honors classes, I did feel like I was a little above it, like it was “13th” grade, but I got over it. I think more people should look at it as a viable option for the short-term.

      Reply
  13. Pretired Nick October 2, 2013 at 4:34 PM

    I think that was a really good path. I went to community college and transferred and it was a great choice. I had essentially no debt when I left school so that was a big advantage to me. (Worked my way through.) But times are different now. I’m not sure that’s as possible these days as it once was.

    Reply
    1. E.M. October 2, 2013 at 9:33 PM

      Nice job! I am not so sure if it’s more difficult now. A lot of classmates in community college worked a full time job while attending, and I had a lot of respect for them. There were less people working at the college I went to, likely because most of us stayed with our parents.

      Reply
  14. Tara @ Streetsaheadliving.com October 2, 2013 at 9:29 PM

    I would have graduated with around $12,000 in loan debt if I had not studied abroad my senior year but I really don’t regret that choice. To save on costs, I was an RA which at my university fully covered your room and board, plus provided a small stipend which really helped out. Coming from a single parent household did provide me with more financial aid which helped me avoid needing so much loans.

    Reply
    1. E.M. October 2, 2013 at 9:30 PM

      I would have loved the opportunity to study abroad. I think something like that is worth every penny. If I did go away, I was interested in becoming an RA. Seems like a nice trade off!

      Reply
  15. DC @ Young Adult Money October 2, 2013 at 10:10 PM

    I think you were referencing me when you said this – “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.”

    I think I basically said the same thing on one of my posts. With that being said, I hope someone does find your post useful and definitely worth sharing with others.

    Reply
    1. E.M. October 3, 2013 at 9:19 PM

      I remember that post – but I have seen others write it, too. I do agree to an extent – again, most of us are already on the other side and can’t really go back and change anything. But if someone happens to find this inspiring to tell others that are in need of advice, I’ll be happy! I wish we had greater reach to high school students.

      Reply
  16. Matt Becker October 3, 2013 at 8:06 AM

    Wow, your approach was FAR more thoughtful than mine was. I had no idea what I wanted to study and really was pretty vague on the whole concept of college being a stepping stone to a career. I was lucky enough not to have to get into debt simply because my parents could pay, but otherwise I do not think my choices would have been as smart as yours. I think your example is a really good one for others to follow.

    Reply
    1. E.M. October 3, 2013 at 9:17 PM

      Thanks Matt! I kind of feel like I went in to the whole college experience a little wobbly, though. It is a lot to take in and think about at 17/18 years old. I don’t think many have a great grasp on how their education will impact their careers and lives down the road. It can be so difficult to choose what to study, too!

      Reply
  17. anna October 3, 2013 at 5:26 PM

    That was really savvy of you to go to community college and graduate early in order to save a lot of money (as well as rent books)! I was pretty naive and didn’t think about the cost of everything as I was taking out loans… luckily I had scholarships and RA’ed so it wasn’t so bad, but I think I would’ve done the same as you and probably stayed at home for a year to fulfill GE requirements. Great post, EM, thanks for sharing!

    Reply
    1. E.M. October 3, 2013 at 9:15 PM

      Thanks Anna! There were a lot of scholarship opportunities presented to us in high school, but I was never eligible for them. I feel like if you’re not in the top 10 of your graduating class you kind of cease to matter, too. My high school was very competitive so that was a bit difficult! One of my cousins actually took a math class back here at community college instead of taking it at the college she attended. Always a decent option!

      Reply
  18. cj October 3, 2013 at 9:27 PM

    EM! Good for you! Love your path for it’s forethought and effort. I would have stopped after my undergrad degree. The loans really ballooned with my masters and I was not much smarter for it. Just paid all student loans this year, nearly 20 years after graduating. Cripes!

    Reply
    1. E.M. October 4, 2013 at 10:27 PM

      The decision not to go to grad school was difficult. I always thought I would go, as all my friends did. I felt that I should go because it was just the smarter thing to do; not going meant being a failure of some sort. Now I am kind of glad I didn’t, as I would hate to be saddled with more debt and not much more to show for it. In my field, a masters degree isn’t going to make or break you at all.

      Reply
  19. charles@gettingarichlife October 4, 2013 at 3:26 AM

    I graduated from college 15 years ago and came out $28,000 in debt. Since than my school nearly tripled in tuition, my debt would be close to a $100 K if I went today. 15K isn’t so bad, at least it isn’t crippling debt.

    Reply
    1. E.M. October 4, 2013 at 10:25 PM

      It is disgusting how much tuition has risen. I was already getting antsy anticipating another “tuition is rising” letter which I received every semester. I do realize my debt load isn’t horrible, especially compared to others, but I wanted to take the least expensive option for college while still getting my degree.

      Reply
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  22. Practical Cents October 10, 2013 at 9:21 AM

    Hi E.M, I just discovered your blog through another site. I also went to community college my first two years and it was a great choice for me. I try to encourage high school students to give it a try and avoid going to expensive schools.

    Reply
    1. E.M. October 10, 2013 at 9:29 PM

      Thanks for stopping by! I really do think community college has great value in that courses are cheaper, and sometimes they have interesting majors you might have never given thought to otherwise. Ours has a culinary course, nursing courses, hospitality, etc. which is more than my college offered!

      Reply
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