For many, they face a tough choice: attend college and graduate encumbered with tens of thousands of dollars in student loans, forgo college altogether, or find alternative ways to finance their education?
Surely the last option is optimal because it gives you the best of both worlds: a college education and no debt. If that interests you, read further.
In this post, I’ll share the ways I attended both undergrad and graduate school completely debt-free.
Scholar’s Chip on the Shoulder
I attended Pennsylvania State University for graduate school, where the world famous Berkey Creamery gifts the world with delectable ice cream. To prevent myself from indulging too frequently (and putting on weight) with the sugary treat (Scholar’s Chip was my favorite flavor, a coconut and chocolate mix), I placed limits on how often I stopped by.
At the time, I trained with my roommate for my first (of what came to be many) endurance running events. I only allowed myself ice cream in celebration of new personal time and distance records.
I figured I’d already burned the calories and needed to replenish my energy stores. Sounds logical, right?
Much like the self-limitation on ice cream indulging, I set requirements like these for myself in other areas as well. Doing so is the most reliable way for me to exercise self-control. As a result, it has become a recurring theme in my life.
When it came to limiting myself to selecting schools, I wouldn’t consider a school where I hadn’t earned the right to attend for free. Like avoiding weight gain from ice cream, I aimed to avoid taking on student loans.
In your search, I challenge you to follow the same logic and look for ways to earn your right to attend a school for (far) less than asking price. You don’t want to graduate with a cumbersome debt load and have a chip on your shoulder for the rest of your life because you had to spend so much time –and possibly miss out on so much– due to repaying your loans.
With that, let’s look into some of the best ways I found to locate scholarships to finance my education.
How to Find Scholarships
File Your FAFSA
Fill out your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (better known as FAFSA). This form is great for identifying the many forms of financial aid, educational grants, scholarships, and other forms of assistance available to you.
Additionally, there is a search option to see if there are available funds earmarked specifically for students like you, depending on your socioeconomic status, ethnic background, age, gender, and other demographics.
These scholarships come from schools, employers, individuals, private companies, nonprofits, communities, religious groups, and professional and social organizations. If you can name it, they probably have a scholarship available. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to fill out your FAFSA. If not, you’re passing up your chance at FREE money.
For my undergrad, I cobbled together no fewer than seven scholarships to pay my way, and all of them required that I filed my FAFSA. Some were for $500, while others were for more than half of my tuition.
In all honesty, the smaller ones were easier to get because they usually required less and had fewer people apply. This means you should target these even more!
I found most of my scholarships through organizations I had joined while in college or through my financial aid office. Speaking of which, you need to find your college’s Mary Sue Rix.
Your College Financial Counselor Will Become Your Friend
When I was in undergrad, I routinely visited my college financial counselor. My school’s head of financial aid was a remarkable woman named Mary Sue Rix, and she was one of the sharpest people I have ever met.
Her office compiled a list of every scholarship registered with the school in the back of our annual college handbook. I pored through this list and marked every scholarship I remotely qualified for, and then set up a series of appointments with her to discuss them.
You might not be surprised to hear that I didn’t get most of them. Some had either been previously awarded, their endowments had fallen below a minimum balance, or I didn’t meet some other criteria. Regardless, I did find a couple of scholarships I otherwise wouldn’t have.
Work Your Network
This is a life goal, too. It’s important to have a strong social network to help you get to where you want to go. In my case, by networking with a large group of my peers, I caught news that a company who pairs a scholarship with their internship hadn’t received an intern this year.
I had already accepted an internship offer from another company; however, since I knew the funds would go unclaimed, I decided to ask what the company intended to do with the funds.
The representative said she’d be delighted to award me the scholarship since the funds would go unused otherwise. Sometimes it pays to ask.
Join College Organizations
While in school, I was very active around campus. I participated in multiple extracurricular activities to grow my network. I also felt they might have some scholarships to offer.
My fraternity offered a merit-based scholarship, as did my department’s economics group. I applied for both and received both scholarships. Had I not joined these organizations, I wouldn’t have had access to receive the funds.
My fraternity’s scholarship kept me in the organization longer than I would have otherwise stayed. After doing some quick math, I realized the amount of the scholarship far outweighed the annual dues. And by remaining a member, the scholarship followed me to Penn State for two additional years.
As you can imagine, this was a huge help.
There are many other organizations on college campuses. Join ones that interest, but also be sure to ask if they offer any sort of financial assistance for their members. Never be afraid to ask because the worst they can say is no.
While this might not be the most original idea, it certainly can help. I graded papers for my economics professor for two years in undergrad and performed research in graduate school as part of my research assistanceship.
Neither job was glamorous , but this type of work study helped me to pay my way.
Check Your State for Special Programs
Depending on where you live, your city, county, or state may offer financial aid in the form of grants or scholarships.
For example, in the state of Louisiana, if you earn a minimum GPA, take certain courses, and apply to an in-state school, the state’s Tuition Opportunity Program for Scholars (TOPS) program offers to pay an annual grant directly to your school.
Many states understand the value of educating their citizens and offer aid to attend an in-state school. Be sure to look up whether your school offers any such program.
The Money Is There
Although I highlighted the main methods I used to secure funding for my college education, there are many more that exist. If you put in the time, energy, and commitment, you can find ways to finance your education for little to no cost.
Because I asked questions and was persistent and entrepreneurial when it came to finding college funding (that wasn’t student loans), I never had to figure how to pay off student loans.
Maybe you can share the same experience.
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This post was written by Riley Adams, a licensed CPA in the state of Louisiana working as a Senior Financial Analyst for a Fortune 500 company in New Orleans. He blogs at https://youngandtheinvested.com where he writes to help young professionals find financial independence and live their best lives.