This story was written by Elizabeth, a member of R2C’s Paying for College 101 (PFC 101) Facebook group, where it was first published. It has been edited for clarity and flow.
I want to share a success story about my 3.3 GPA, test optional student (she did not submit scores) that I hope encourages others parents.
We were teen parents, married very young, and incurred significant undergraduate student loan debt (some of which still isn’t paid off). Due to these circumstances, there was no college savings or 529 for our children, and we would never consider parent PLUS loans (co-signing loans is also out of the question).
We also prefer our children graduate (from college ) debt free above all else. We’ve always communicated this to our kids and encouraged them to do their best academically, work part-time, save 90% of their earnings, and still get involved in sports, clubs, etc.
I joined this group nearly three years ago, the beginning of my older daughter’s sophomore year of high school. I followed posts and took notes on affordable schools and other tips. My daughter has struggled with a learning disability her entire life (and due to the exorbitant cost of testing, we couldn’t get her diagnosed until summer before senior year) and she really had to fight for her 3.3 GPA.
Build a College List with Merit
With all this in mind, we targeted affordable schools that had automatic merit criteria she would meet. We cultivated a list, were open to nearly all geographic regions, and looked for the test optional hidden gems.
My daughter had a cumulative 3.3 GPA that showed steady improvement each year, culminating in a 4.0 GPA her sixth semester, when she began the application process. She was a four-year XC and Track & Field athlete, employed at the same job for two years, participated in various clubs and school committees, and did a bit of volunteering. No AP or Honors courses.
Take College Courses, Write Compelling Essays
At the time of application, my daughter had one complete dual enrollment college course (earned an A-). Her admission and scholarship essays (which I believe were strong) focused on her growth, overcoming obstacles, and perseverance.
During her senior year, she took five dual enrollment college courses and made the Dean’s List (both semesters) and graduated high school with 18 college credit hours. When she was writing scholarship essays in the winter and spring, this was something she was careful to mention.
Apply for Scholarships
In the end, my daughter received merit scholarships at each of the ten universities she applied to with the exception of one (where she came off the waitlist). She also applied for more scholarships at her top choices and earned additional scholarships at each one (five schools).
Then she applied for about a dozen local, non-renewable scholarships all requiring essays (we live in a very populous area, and her graduating class was almost 800 kids), and she was awarded five (each one varied $500-$1,500).
Appeal Merit Aid
My daughter appealed for additional merit at two schools, and both doubled (or more) her initial merit scholarship. These are four-year, renewable merit scholarships that require a 2.5 or 2.75 GPA to maintain.
Her very top choice was initially the most expensive of the list she narrowed down. I’m so proud to say she earned enough merit money from the school to cover nearly the entire tuition. And between the money she saved since sophomore year ($5,000), her local scholarships, graduation money, and her full-time employment this summer, she will attend freshman year without a single loan!
My daughter’s plan for upcoming years is to apply for a resident advisor (RA) position (her school covers full room and board for RAs), continue to work full-time in the summers (except her junior summer in which she hopes to study abroad), and apply for scholarships. (Our income precludes us from any type of financial aid like grants; she only qualifies for the standard student loan, unsubsidized.)
Advice for Families
Figure out what you/your family/your student can afford right now. Find your magic number. Then start your research! The posts are here! People like Sabrina Malone, Greg Smith, and Barak Moore have absolutely invaluable advice. I want to personally thank them for their many contributions to this group because it made an enormous difference in how we pursued college admissions. I’m so grateful for all of your posts and comments!
Our top priority was affordability, so that’s what led us. Target schools that make financial sense for your student. Apply for EVERY single supplemental/additional scholarship. Apply for every single local scholarship. When you know where you want to go, if you need more money, ASK. Tell them how you feel about the school and why you want to attend. The worst anyone can say is no. Like my daughter learned very early on, persistence and perseverance is key.
This 3.3 GPA, test optional student is going to college almost tuition free (within about $150) all four years thanks to her renewable merit scholarships (assuming she meets the 2.5-2.75 GPA requirements). Her entire freshman cost of attendance is covered without loans. It CAN be done. Like so many here say, love the school that loves you back!
Edited to add: My daughter didn’t give me explicit permission to post her final choice in this group, so I want to respect her privacy.
Do Your Research
Everyone’s list is going to look different. My best advice is once you decide on a geographic region, start Googling all the colleges and universities in that area. Go to their websites and look at their tuition, fees, and merit charts (if they have them). We found directional, public universities were most generous (for example, Northern xx University, Western xx University, Eastern xx University, etc.).
Many directional schools don’t have OOS tuition, or they have in-state tuition for neighboring states or other perks. University of New Mexico (an excellent school) has low in-state tuition and they give it to OOS students with a 3.3 GPA.
Use the Group
Once you have some schools in mind, use the search bar at the top of the group and search the school names. Or just search affordable colleges. Read the posts and comments. It takes A LOT, I repeat A LOT, of reading and research. The time you spend reading and researching can save you tens of thousands of dollars. It’s worth the time and effort!
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