I grew up in a middle class family in Colorado. We never wanted for anything, but we never had a lot of money, either. Both of my parents have their college degrees, as do all four grandparents, so it was a foregone conclusion that I, too, would go to college when I graduated from high school. I took the AP classes, graduated in the top 5% of my class, scored well on the SAT and ACT, and thought that I was ready for college.
I have always known what I wanted to do when I grew up. Unfortunately, only a handful of colleges offered my major, so I selected the one that was closest to home. Tuition was far from cheap, but it was not the most expensive option, either. I talked to financial aid, I got a few small scholarships, but the counselor encouraged me to take out private student loans as well as government loans. She gave me the literature, and I selected a large national bank with seemingly good rates, and took out my first loan, thinking I could get more scholarships the next year.
My sophomore year rolled around, and I applied for over 200 scholarships. I did not get a single one, even though I had a 4.0 GPA. I kept hearing excuses like “your parents make too much money” or “we prefer to give this scholarship to (fill in ethnicity here) students” or “this scholarship is not for people in your major.” My parents were not giving me any money for college, I was surviving on what I could make on my own. I was working 40 hours a week on top of going to school, trying to get tuition and expenses paid, and I was getting burned out. But I wanted my degree, so I took out more loans.
My junior year came, and went, without receiving any more scholarships. I stopped applying for any that said “based on financial need” or “preference given to (fill in ethnicity here) students.” I still had a 3.8 GPA, and great recommendations from my professors, but that did not seem to make any difference. I took out more loans.
My senior year, I had enough credits to graduate after first semester, so I was able to pay tuition with only government loans. By the time I graduated, I had accumulated over $50,000 in private and government loans. Because jobs in my major generally do not pay well initially, I took the best paying job I could find, and work in my major part time. For my area, I make decent money, but not enough to make my student loan payments. When I called to consolidate them after my six month grace period, suddenly my 7% interest rate became 11.5%, and shortened my pay back time from twenty years to twelve, even though my credit was good. The payments were more than I was earning a month, but the response from the bank was “you consolidated the loans, you have to make the payments.” Even if I did not want to live inside and eat, I had no way of making that much money. I pay what I can, and every month I fight with the bank, telling them I still do not make that much money, and they tell me I still have to make the payments. If they lowered my interest rate, or gave me more time to pay the loans off, I would be able to make the whole payment, but they have been extremely unwilling to work with me. However, I have learned some valuable lessons.
First, community college is not just for those who cannot make it at a four year college. Had I gotten my associates degree from a community college first, and then gone on to a four year college, I would have had fewer loans, and, therefore, lower loan payments. My high school guidance counselor really pushed four year colleges, and did not even make community college an option for me. I wish I had known better.
Second, the government does not really want middle class white America to go to college. I know I am not the only one whose parents could not afford to send them to college, but who had the drive to go. Since I did not have the foresight to be born (fill in ethnicity here), I should have been doing drugs or getting pregnant in high school rather than taking AP classes, because both of those open up many more scholarships than scoring well on the AP exam.
Third, the financial aid advisor at the college is not the person to see about getting scholarships. I am not convinced that she was there to help me. She really pushed private loans through this bank, and she must be getting a kickback somewhere. When I was young and naïve, she pushed for private loans, and I believed that they were my only option. Now I know better. I should have been talking to people who had graduated from my major, and found out how they paid for college. I also should have double majored in something that would have opened up more scholarships.
Fourth, do not believe the myth that you can get enough scholarships to cover your education. My high school guidance counselor told me stories about kids who had gotten more than enough money to pay for their education and graduated debt free. These are the same stories that the publishing companies tell to get you to buy their big magic scholarship book. The odds of you getting a big national scholarship are slim, you are better off getting a part time job and earning that money rather than investing your time and resources into the scholarship application. Your best bet for scholarships is going to be through your community or the college, and most of those are going to be small amounts. Be prepared to make up the difference.
Fifth, get experience. I wish I had found a job relating to my major while I was still in school, rather than taking first job that came along. Experience counts for a lot, in some ways experience counts for more than my education. I am currently getting the experience I need to be successful in my field, but if I had done this while in college, I would be ahead of where I am now.
Finally, network. I cannot stress this enough. Meet everyone in your field you can, whether they are already successful or up and coming. You never know who will be willing to finance your education or give you a job after you graduate. More importantly, do not burn your bridges. Be professional and polite with everyone, because you never know when you are going to need your old contacts.
Along the way, I have made some mistakes. I cringe every month when the bill for my student loans comes, knowing I do not have the money to pay it. Occasionally I wish I had done things differently, but then I remember how much I value my education, and how the experiences I have had have made me the person that I am. I encourage everyone who wants a college education to get one, but beware, because not everyone wants to help you succeed, some are simply thinking of their own wallets.