By Lydia Laramore, Guest Blogger
Three years of high school have come and gone and even though your parents told you that the next stage of your life would sneak up on you before you could blink, the arrival of your senior year is still a little shocking. The realization that the next step is college and you have no idea how to pay for it tends to be a little shocking as well. The days when you could feasibly finance a college education with a part-time job or your parent’s help alone are long gone. Generation Z students face an uphill battle in which the cost of a college education increases every year and is likely to do so throughout their academic career. Student loan debt is the shadow that follows graduates for decades after someone hands them their diplomas and venture out into the professional world. It’s a burden that neither you nor your parents want to carry for these next four years that should be some of the best of your life.
Saving for college is a monumental task, and as such, it is one best started early. I remember that I was swamped during my senior year between AP classes, extracurriculars, college applications and saying goodbye to the friends that I’d made over the last four years. As bittersweet as saying goodbye was, figuring out how to balance my college aspirations with their cost was even more difficult. Although I am incredibly blessed and wouldn’t change my college decision, I did not attend what was at the time, my dream school because of the cost. The prospect of giving up on your dream school is a dilemma nobody should face.
Expect the Unexpected
Affording your dream school is possible if you have an honest conversation with your parents and yourself about the reality of paying for college. The first step towards saving for your college degree is seeking clarity about the cost. The price tag of a college education is not just the tuition or room and board. When you come up with a number that represents the estimated cost of your degree, you should factor things like travel to and from college, academic books/supplies, and groceries into the calculation. You have to go to class, but you also have to go home on breaks and eat when the cafeteria is closed. The miscellaneous expenses of college can be a shock if you don’t prepare for them.
After you have a more concrete idea of how much your degree will cost, you can begin to put together a saving strategy. Saving and sacrificing go hand in hand. If you save with an end goal in mind, you’ll have something to get you out of bed when you forego your morning coffee habit to save the extra four bucks. Maybe more importantly, you’ll be able to work out specific, smaller goals that aren’t nearly as overwhelming as a fifty-thousand-dollar price tag. A monthly goal of fifteen hundred dollars over twelve months is much more manageable than a looming eighteen-thousand-dollar goal that slips your mind for months until the deadline is staring you right in the face. Once you have clarity on your projected college costs and specific, manageable goals, it’s time to start saving.
Saving will look different for you and all of your peers depending on your goals, time constraints, and interests. However, everyone should invest time in researching and applying for scholarships. Right now, abandon the idea that you aren’t qualified for any scholarships because you don’t have a perfect GPA or a list of leadership positions as long as your arm. A little time with Google or a college counselor will erase that fear from your mind. If there are scholarships for composing the best haiku (and there are), there is a scholarship that caters to your skills and interests. A strategic approach to researching and applying for scholarships will make the entire process much more effective. You can use a spreadsheet to organize deadlines and application requirements or online services like Scholly and FastWeb to discover new opportunities. Many students scoff at the smaller scholarships, but when a single book can run you for upwards of three hundred dollars, every little bit counts. Many of your local businesses, churches and other organizations offer scholarship money that is only available to people who live in your district. Take advantage of every opportunity. There are more people than money available so stay patient, encouraged and organized as you hunt down scholarships.
Find a budget that works for you
There are so many other ways of saving for college other than applying for scholarships. During the summer before my freshman year of college, I was a camp counselor at my local homeless shelter. I worked forty hours a week for six weeks during that summer and managed to save more than two thousand dollars that helped me pay for things like groceries, flights back home and school supplies during the year. If your academic schedule or other circumstances don’t make working during the year a possibility, consider a full-time summer job when you don’t have any other responsibilities except preparing for college. With the existence of online platforms like Etsy and eBay, you can funnel your artistic hobbies and gently used items into a college fund. Maybe the least popular of the college saving techniques is skipping small luxuries and curbing your spending habits. Admittedly, morning coffee and Saturday shopping trips are difficult habits to break. Deleting the Starbucks app, having an accountability partner or keeping a picture of your dream school on the inside of your wallet can help curb the impulse to spend on things you don’t need. Another effortless way to keep your hands off your college fund is to put it in a savings account with penalties for withdrawal. Separating my checking account and savings account helped me avoid spending money that I’d earmarked for college. Out of sight, out of mind works when it comes to money. If you can’t see or touch it, you won’t feel the urge to spend it.
Finally, some of things that can help you save for college don’t feel like saving at all. If your dream school accepts AP credits or transfer courses, taking your AP exams or registering at a local community college can save you a lot of money. In many states, the cost of some or all of the AP exams are covered or heavily subsidized by the state. If not, ninety-four dollars is considerably less than two thousand dollars for a single class. If your college of choice accepts your transfer credits, you may also have enough credits to graduate early which will also save you money in the long term.
If you are more intimidated by the prospect of paying for college than actually going to college, you are not alone. Even so, if college is your dream as it was mine, the cost should not deter you. While it won’t disappear into thin air, you can chip away at that cost and enjoy the end of this stage of your life as you prepare for the next. And luckily, financial aid doesn’t stop when you receive your diploma. When you’re balancing college courses, doing your laundry for the first time, eating midnight pizzas and everything else that comes with being a hybrid adult, help will still be available. You’ll still be applying for scholarships and working on or off campus. You may choose to do a research program with a stipend or a paid internship during your summers, and all of these things will contribute to your living expenses. Until then, you manage the prospect of college costs like you do anything else: with carefully cultivated goals, an organized approach, and excitement for the future that you’re working towards, one day at a time.
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