If you’re a high school upperclassman or recently-graduated, congratulations! You’ve hit one of the first large, professional milestones in your life, and you have something to celebrate. If you’re independently researching college financial options and strategies, I’m proud of you—you’re already more proactive than most of your peers. While it’s easy to get caught up in the swells of end-of-high-school graduation and taking the first steps into adulthood, realizing the impact of your education on your financial wellbeing will bring you crashing back to shore. That might sound scary, but don’t worry—you’re not alone in this journey, and the friends, adults, and professionals in your life will be able to provide guidance, empathy, and essential advice. However, it’s my turn to give my two-cents. So here it is.
As a teenager or young adult, conceptualizing money can be very, very challenging. I know I was immune to the stress of college financing in the early years of my education; seeing “Cost of Tuition: $55,000” never registered as “an expense bigger than most adult’s annual salaries.” Compounded over four years, the cost of an education never truly felt like “a quarter of a million dollars.” But, unfortunately, this is exactly what it costs to get an education in the United States. If you attend a standard four-year college or university, your education will likely cost six figures—and as someone whose high school job paychecks are never more than $200 each pay period, that figure might not truly register.
The fact of the matter is: that number is real, and it is never going to go away. Sure, you’ll chip away at it with merit and aid-based scholarships, grants, and loans. You might not even have to start paying until well after you graduate. I didn’t realize how much I owed until I got my first job; I had to call my federal loan provider and apply for income-based repayment. Most of us, though well into adulthood, are still paying off our undergraduate education. I’m not trying to scare you; I’m trying to instill a sense of responsibility and financial wherewithal.
That said, there are ways to bring your college costs down while in school. If your college does not require on-campus housing after the first couple of years, consider moving off-campus. This is a great way to save money, as Room & Board/Meal Plan expenses are often very, very high. Sign up for Work-Study jobs if you’re eligible or find an on- or off-campus job to offset your book and food expenses. Opt for digital texts rather than $300 textbooks and ask your professors if they have any paid research positions available. If you can, see if you can complete degree requirements in 3 or 3.5 years instead of four. Research private scholarships both before and while in school to bring loan costs down early.
All of that said, remember: It is your job to be a student. This is what you’re paying for, and you should take full advantage of this unique position. Pick up a job, but don’t sign up for so much paid work that your studies suffer. If your school recommends on-campus housing to facilitate community, don’t be afraid to live in a dorm all four years. Your college experience is unique to you, and you should live the way you feel most comfortable. When it doubt, ask your financial aid office and friends for financing advice. Many financing options are based on individual institutions, and your college might have a game-changing strategy for you to pursue.