One Student's Strategy: Take Advantage of Tuition-Free Community College
Grace Itira Young, Tennessee Technological University
If there's one quality that Grace Itira Young admits to having in spades, it's perseverance. Apprehensive about taking her first math course in college, the McMinnville, Tennessee, native ordered the textbook and taught herself the material before stepping into the classroom. And when it became clear that she couldn't rely on her parents for financial support, she doggedly searched for money to pay for college without having to take out loans.
The foundation of her strategy was the Tennessee Promise program, which covers the cost of tuition and fees -- after other financial aid -- for up to two years at community colleges and other associate-degree-granting schools in the state for eligible residents. One requirement: a commitment to do community service. Young was already volunteering at a church, painting and running a food bank, and she also helped build a house for Habitat for Humanity.
"Tennessee Promise gave me hope and introduced me to what was possible." she says.
As a freshman at Motlow State Community College--McMinnville, Young forced herself to get involved in extracurricular activities that could boost her resume and that turned out to be good sources of additional scholarship money.
Her plan worked. Young became executive vice president of the student government, which provided a grant that paid for her books. Her position on Phi Theta Kappa's statewide academic team netted a $5,000 scholarship, enabling her to transfer to Tennessee Technological University, where she's now a senior in an interdisciplinary program focused on human resources and leadership.
This semester she also received a $1,998 Pell Grant, $2,250 from a merit-based Tennessee HOPE Scholarship and two other awards, and she expects to cover her annual $11,000 tuition with cash left over.
Another major contributor: her full-time job. Young works as a legal secretary while taking a full load of accelerated courses in the evenings. She earns $12.50 an hour, lives at home and spends as little as possible so she can save and help her parents. Little wonder that she's a stickler for time management.
"Every week, I have a schedule of what time I devote to work, class, homework, housework, and down time -- which is limited," she says.
Another tactic she recommends is appealing to a school's financial aid office if the first package doesn't meet your needs. When considering four-year colleges, she successfully negotiated a revised offer from Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee, but ultimately chose Tennessee Tech based on cost.
"I still would have had to take out a loan to go to Lee," she says. "And there wasn't that much difference between the schools."
She plans to graduate in May or December 2021 with no debt and money in the bank. No surprise there.
One Student's Strategy: Join the Army
Graham Webb, Washington University in St. Louis
Joining the military hadn't occurred to Graham Webb until he happened upon the Army ROTC booth at the activity fair freshman year at Washington University in St. Louis. "I thought it was very cool," says Webb, a second lieutenant in the Army's CyberCorps, which defends military networks and conducts electronic warfare.
The Darien, Connecticut, native graduated in 2020 with a major in systems engineering.
The scholarship, which fully funds a cadet's college education in exchange for a four-year commitment in the Army -- some serve in the reserves for a longer period -- appealed to Webb. Mainly, it would lift a burden from his parents, who had taken out loans and remortgaged their house to cover the school's sticker price of about $50,000 plus more than $10,000 in room and board.
And there would be a "cool job" waiting when he graduated, he says.
Getting accepted proved more difficult than Webb had anticipated. He struggled in his original course of study, biomedical engineering, earning a 2.2 grade-point average freshman year. The Army requires a minimum GPA of 2.5, but in Webb's case, recruiters were looking for a 3.3 or 3.4 thanks to stiff competition for the scholarship.
Passing the physical fitness test was also a challenge. Over the course of the next year, he switched his major to systems engineering and embarked on a self-improvement program, buckling down on academics and working out regularly to get fit. His grades improved steadily, reaching a 3.79 for a 21-credit course load senior year. By junior year, he was able to hike 24 miles in the mountains of New Mexico with a 45-pound backpack.
The effort bore results when he reapplied to ROTC sophomore year. In addition to covering tuition, room and board, and books, Webb received a stipend of $420 a month, plus $250 per credit hour in "critical language incentive pay" for taking Mandarin, amounting to about $1,250 a semester. He also received a $5,000 grant from a Chicago law firm for those studying engineering and Mandarin.
Now stationed in the Washington, D.C., as a cyber operations officer for the 780th Military Inteligence Brigade, Webb feels fortunate for the way things turned out. Having to juggle his ROTC duties -- including 5 a.m. workouts, military science classes and weekly labs, a summer internship at the Army Cyber Institute at the U.S. Military Academy, and informal mentoring of younger cadets -- taught him organizational and leadership skills and time management.
His only regret is that he didn't apply earlier. "It's much easier to get the scholarship while you're still in high school," he says. "Otherwise you're fighting for leftover funds."
One Student's Strategy: Sell Apparel for Campus Events
Jessie Baren, University of Michigan--Ann Arbor
When the Alpha Phi sorority at the University of Michigan--Ann Arbor needed personalized T-shirts for a St. Patrick's Day party in 2018, they zapped a text message with their order to Jessie Baren, the campus rep for Fresh Prints, a national custom-apparel company started by college students in 2009.
Baren, who graduated in the spring of 2018, started working for the business second semester freshman year, and over time built his customer base from five campus clubs to 100, helping design and order apparel for events ranging from dance marathons to tailgate parties at sporting events.
Baren, who took about a 7% cut of each order, earned almost $100,000. As a result, and with his parents' help, he made his way through Michigan -- his total cost per year as an out-of-stater from Los Angeles ran north of $65,000 -- without needing financial aid. And he had enough left over to seed a Roth IRA.
A communications major who hopes to work in the music industry, Baren says fostering contacts at campus clubs was the key to maximizing his Fresh Prints returns. "It's all about building customer relationships," he says.
He got into a routine of predicting which groups would want custom apparel for certain events, and then reached out to his contacts a month in advance with offers to help design and order the clothing. In addition to a cut of every sale, Fresh Prints gave him a 3% bonus each semester for hitting predetermined sales goals.
It was Baren's cousin, who attended the University of Pennsylvania with one of the company's founders, who first made him aware of Fresh Prints. While he spent his summers doing odd jobs to bring in more cash, Baren says he was earning enough from the Fresh Prints gig to also accept some nonpaying internships -- doing marketing for record labels, for example -- to help him toward his career goals.
One Student's Strategy: Assemble Multiple Sources of Financial Aid
Chardonnay Hightower-Collins, Mills College
When Chardonnay Hightower-Collins was in eighth grade, she joined College Track, a program based in her hometown of Oakland, California, that helps students from underserved communities along the path to college completion.
The program assists those with limited resources by providing tutoring, counseling, standardized-test preparation and other services, as well as financial rewards for academic performance that they can apply toward college costs.
She knew she would have to finance her education herself. With the help of College Track's counselors, she put together a multifaceted plan to pay the roughly $30,000-per-year tuition plus other costs to attend Mills College in Oakland.
Mills gave Hightower-Collins a renewable merit-based scholarship of $17,500 per semester, and she qualified for work-study, taking a position as an administrative assistant in the office of residential life for three of her four years at Mills. She also nabbed a $4,000-per-year scholarship from the East Bay College Fund and applied for several off-the-radar private awards.
"I only went for the scholarships I thought I could get. But I applied to as many as possible, both in high school and in college," Hightower-Collins says. During her sophomore year at Mills, for example, her grandfather received a letter from his labor union alerting him to a scholarship application, which he passed along to Hightower-Collins. She received $1,500 from the union.
Still, each year Hightower-Collins had a $5,000 to $10,000 gap between her scholarship aid and the remainder of her costs. She took out $21,000 in loans, mostly subsidized Stafford loans, meaning the federal government covered the interest prior to graduation. About $1,000 of that total was an unsubsidized loan she realized she would need junior year shortly after turning it down; she walked into the financial aid office and negotiated to get it back.
"I had multiple talks with my financial aid counselor" to explain the situation, says Hightower-Collins, who graduated with a sociology degree in May 2017 and went on to work as an operations manager at College Track before taking a job as a college coach at a different organization in Oakland. She now has a monthly loan payment of about $250.
As a junior, Hightower-Collins found another way to cut costs while embarking on an adventure that expanded her horizons: She took advantage of a semester-abroad program in Havana. The Cuban experience not only gave her a taste of the challenges of living in a developing country but also allowed her to save $15,000 in tuition that semester.
"I had a good time," she says of the experience. "And it was cost-effective."
One Student's Strategy: Start at Community College
Denice Aguilera, California State University--Bakersfield
Denice Aguilera, a self-described introvert, was nervous when applying to college, especially since many of her friends were heading off to California State University--Bakersfield and she wasn't. Aguilera, who lives in Bakersfield, was looking for a path to her degree that would be as affordable as possible -- even if it meant striking out on her own.
"I just tell myself, 'this is to help my family, and I'm going to do anything to take care of them,' " says Aguilera, who spent her first two years at Bakersfield College, a local community college.
This fall, with the help of a program known as the Kern Promise, she, too, is a junior at the university, and she hasn't paid a cent for her education so far. Through the Kern Promise, high school students in Kern County who attend community colleges in California are guaranteed admission to a California State University system school as long as they meet all program requirements.
Since Aguilera knew that she wanted to end up at CSUB, she took advantage of a direct partnership between Bakersfield College and the university called "Finish in 4," laying out a clear course pathway. She would be guaranteed admission at CSUB as a junior as long as she had a GPA of at least 2.0 -- she had a 3.5 -- and had completed her associate degree following that pathway.
The California College Promise Grant covered all of her community college tuition, now about $1,325 annually. Since she is a Finish in 4 student, the Kern Promise also awarded a few hundred dollars per year for the two years she attended Bakersfield College. The program provides for priority registration at both schools, helping students get into all classes needed to graduate on time.
Aguilera qualified for a Cal Grant B, and received about $1,600 a year, as well as a Student Success Completion grant of $649 a semester from the state of California for finishing her requirements at BC. She also received a Pell Grant of about $6,000 per year for those with significant need. Since her tuition was covered by the California Promise grant, she was able to use this money for additional expenses.
Last spring, Aguilera graduated from Bakersfield College with an associate degree in business administration; she now is majoring in business administration with a concentration in accounting.
A Pell Grant and Cal Grant B will help Aguilera pay her CSUB tuition as well, which for in-state students runs just under $11,000 annually. She is also benefiting from the MDRC SUCCESS Program, or Scaling Up College Completion Efforts for Student Success, which provides $150 every semester if she meets monthly with her academic coach.
Aguilera lives at home, saving on living expenses, and works as a peer mentor for other students taking advantage of the Kern Promise. The introvert now acts as a leader, offering advice and answering questions as students adjust to college. While at Bakersfield College, she also tutored students and volunteered at the computer commons. She expects to graduate debt-free.
Aguilera encourages high school students not to overlook community colleges. "It's a smaller community," she notes, and "staff, faculty and students can know you." She plans to graduate with honors, become a certified public accountant and "come back to work for Bakersfield College. I fell in love with BC. It's my home."
One Student's Strategy: Take On Various Jobs and Start a Business
Rachel Proctor, Savannah College of Art and Design
As a kid, Rachel Proctor was always taking painting, photography or dance classes, but she never considered any of those fields to be a viable career path.
"Growing up, there was kind of a stereotype of artists not being successful," she says. Nevertheless, she earned cash before leaving for college by snapping photos of her high school peers, marketing her services through Instagram.
Once at school, it didn't take long for her to realize that the path she chose -- majoring in communications at a small liberal arts college in Illinois -- wasn't the right one for her. "I was so unhappy, and I realized that if I work in an office for my whole life I'm going to be really sad," she says.
Halfway through her freshman year, Proctor transferred to the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia to study commercial photography. The school's $51,000-plus annual price tag was daunting, especially since family finances were tight.
But Proctor pays less than half that by being a live-in programming assistant in a dorm, which covers housing and meals, and by having snagged a few scholarships from SCAD for academic achievement and her portfolio. The rest is covered by student loans, which she plans to pay off in part with savings from her growing portrait business.
Proctor spent her first two college summers back at home in Fort Collins, Colorado, building her photography clientele and banking the income. In the summer of 2018, she had more than 75 clients. At SCAD, she works at the school gym and as a nanny to earn spending money, and she also shoots pictures for cash in her free time.
"It's so nice because there's no time commitment," she says. Her fees range between $100 and $500, depending on what a client wants.
Proctor knows the move to SCAD was the right one. She spent a summer as an intern at Free People, a clothing and lifestyle brand based in Philadelphia, one step closer to her goal of working in-house for a fashion brand.
One Student's Strategy: Become a Franchisee
Nathan Fink, Belmont University
When students at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, attend the college's basketball games, they flock to a food cart called Maui Wowi Hawaiian Coffees & Smoothies, staffed by fellow student Nathan Fink. For Fink, the opportunity to dole out Kona coffee and black raspberry smoothies to thirsty classmates is more than a fun way to make some pocket change -- it's helping him pay his way through college.
"There's the potential to make $1,000 in a weekend," Fink says of the food cart, which he was introduced to by his dad, who bought into the Maui Wowi franchise in 2013 and operates some carts near their home in Mayville, Wisconsin. "I was watching him do it, and I was helping out at events and making smoothies. I made use of that experience to get started on my own."
Fink and his father tracked down a retired franchisee in Nashville who was no longer using the cart and worked out a deal to take it over. In addition to college events, Fink brings the cart to local high school softball and volleyball tournaments.
A major in economics and music business, Fink got a $7,000-per-year scholarship from his high school and $11,000 in aid from Belmont. So his take-home earnings from Maui Wowi are essential for helping cover $30,000 annually for tuition plus living expenses.
He took out $5,500 in federal loans for freshman year -- but that was so he could use some of his savings to invest in the franchise. Once his Maui Wowi cart took off, he didn't expect he would need any more loans.
There are other advantages to operating a food cart, Fink adds. "Maui Wowi is great for college students, because pretty much all the work happens on the weekends," he says. "So I have all week available for school."
One Student's Strategy: Live at Home and Get a Job
Ivy Bryan, CUNY--Brooklyn College
She wanted to build on experience she'd gained in high school doing e-commerce marketing for a record company but found that employers weren't taking her seriously on LinkedIn or any of the major job sites because of her age.
Then she found WayUp, a company that matches college students and new grads with companies looking to hire young talent. Bryan landed a spot right away working remotely for HoneyColony, a California-based online source of natural plant-based foods and supplements.
She was promoted within six months from a branding assistant responsible for maintaining the company's social media presence, among other duties, to inventory manager creating and managing purchase orders. Between working 20 hours a week and saving money by living at home in Brooklyn, New York, Bryan predicts she will get through college without needing financial aid.
"Transportation, any books that I need -- the job basically covers most of that," says Bryan, who is majoring in film and women's studies.
Granted, the schedule isn't easy, she admits. She logs on to get her work done between classes and sometimes while commuting on the train. After she gets home, it's time for homework.
"I get stressed sometimes, but I find a way to manage it all," Bryan says. The challenge "is about figuring out how to work independently and get things done as fast as possible by myself. That's important for building my management skills."
WayUp features millions of postings and counts more than 3.5 million young users, with more than 300,000 employers whose openings appear on the site. About 1 in 3 applicants finds a job, according to the company.
For Bryan, the flexibility of remote work has been a big boon. "If I need to work in the middle of the night," she says, "I can."
One Student's Strategy: Find Scholarships
Jonathan Salazar, Duke University and Yale University
When Jonathan Salazar of Albuquerque, New Mexico, started looking for college scholarships, he was only in ninth grade -- and, boy, did the early planning pay off. All told, he was offered $1.8 million by schools that accepted him and ended up with $70,000 to use at $67,654-a-year Duke University.
Salazar, an excellent student who wanted to study out of state but couldn't afford to without plenty of aid, says he knew "I would have to apply for a lot of scholarships."
In addition to getting academic and need-based awards from Duke to cover tuition and housing and $1,500 from the New Mexico National Honor Society, Salazar was named a Gates Millennium Scholar.
Funded by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, the Millennium Scholars program supports 1,000 minority students a year. The rigorous application process -- Salazar had to write eight 1,000-word essays over six months -- paid off with $10,000 for his freshman year alone.
The Gates scholarship will renew every year, as his Duke award would have had he not decided to transfer to Yale University for sophomore year. The Gates awards also renew through grad school in certain disciplines.
The other grants and awards he brought to Duke included $5,000 from the Hearst Foundation, whose Senate Youth Program sent him on a weeklong trip to Washington, D.C., during high school.
Salazar also received about $5,700 in needs-based grant funding from the federal government. The Gates scholarship follows him to Yale, and the university is offsetting the balance with grants and a scholarship.
Besides starting early, Salazar went out of his way to form bonds with his teachers. "They're going to be your recommenders," he says. It was those relationships that guided him to the Gates program.
One Family's Strategy: Be a Landlord
Paige Adams, Kennesaw State University
Paige Adams had 80% of her $7,000-a-year tuition at Kennesaw State University paid for by the HOPE Scholarship she won from the state of Georgia for those with GPAs of at least 3.0, with another award covering the rest.
Her other expenses? Before the start of freshman year, she looked for a way to live near the university without incurring thousands of dollars in housing fees.
Adams' mother and stepfather have a home just seven miles from campus, but they wanted to support her quest for independence. So the family came up with an innovative solution: Adams found a townhouse near campus that had gone into foreclosure, they snapped it up for $36,000 in cash, and Adams took charge of finding a roommate to help cover utilities, property taxes and maintenance.
The $500 per month her roommate pays in rent goes most of the way, with her parents helping out some, too. And Adams says that being a homeowner has offered her other benefits.
"I learned a lot about the foreclosure process, and I had to manage renovations," says Adams, who plans to attend veterinary school after graduation. "I've learned to pay bills and do home maintenance." So far, she has removed wallpaper from the kitchen, stained the kitchen cabinets, landscaped the backyard and changed out some doorknobs.
Adams also thinks her housing is more comfortable than a dorm or off-campus apartment would have been. "Some of my friends live five in a house," she says.
Her stepfather, Bruce Ailion, happens to be a real estate broker in Atlanta, but he says parents need no special training to use property ownership as a strategy for saving money on college. And it can pay off even after a child's graduation, depending on the location and purchase price.
"If you own a property that's close to a major university, it will always be in demand from renters," Ailion says. And it could be a good investment. He estimates that the value of his family's townhome, a 1,200-square-foot two-bedroom unit, has skyrocketed to $85,000 in just four years.