I’ve been writing more and more lately about saving for college. That’s by design, and partly because I have a senior who is going to college next year and I have to pay for her tuition. Some of the unluckiest victims of the global economic meltdown are college graduates moving into a jobless employment market, even though they’re loaded down with student loan debt.
But there’s another group of kids who might be even unluckier—the high school seniors who got into the college of their dreams, but have no idea how to pay for it. I hear stories about these kids whispered all over town and it drives me crazy.
Why? Because I know the money is out there, just like it was when I went to college 35 years ago. I had to scrounge, but I got every penny I needed to get through four years at my dear old alma mater.
I’ve got some creative ideas for high school seniors right here in the United States of Cramerica, but let’s set the stage first. The good news is that the U.S. private and public sector recognize the scope and seriousness of the recession, and have accumulated $74 billion in college grants in 2008, according to U.S. News & World Report. That’s double the number of grants in 2000.
The bad news is that more kids, recognizing that a college degree could be their ticket to a better career and a better life are applying to colleges in droves, so the competition is getting intense. The number of Americans attending college has hit 18 million in 2008, up from 14 million ten years earlier. Worse, the cost of attending college has doubled in the same timeframe.
So what’s a cash-strapped high school senior to do? First, make sure their parents are investing for college in 529 plans, which can help you lock in tomorrow's college costs today, and have big tax benefits, too.
Aside from the 529 strategy, let’s look at some useful steps:
Get an employer to pay for college costs. Some companies offer tuition reimbursement programs for college-bound staffers. That could mean working for such a company right out of school, or striking a deal to work with a company immediately upon graduation. By and large, companies that pay for your college up front will give you a timetable for graduation, and will have you sign an agreement saying you will pay them back if you don’t meet your end of the bargain. Historically, nursing and medical students, as well as legal students, have a better shot at such deals. Check with your school or university to see if there are any tuition reimbursement programs that fit your career needs. I wasn't able to qualify, as my employer, which ran the concessions stands at the old Veterans Stadium in Philly, didn't offer these deals. But United Technologies, for example, has put more people through college than any other entity in the country, save the U.S. government.
Look to state schools. If you’re a high school student lucky enough to have some options on where you’ll be attending college, take a longer look at state schools. They’re more affordable and, if you get creative, can serve as a springboard to a private university in a few years. Here’s the skinny: According to the College Board, the four-year projection for tuition and fees at a private college is $116,000. But the price tag for four years at a public college, for in-state residents, is only $30,500. Get really creative and spend your first two years at a state school, and move to a private college for your last two years, and the combined price tag is only $66,900. So, you’ll still get your diploma from that favored private university in four years, but at a significantly reduced cost. Bonus: Many states, like Washington, offer state tuition waivers for good high school grades. Many even offer scholarship and work study programs. Where I live in New Jersey, Union County Community College is a good example. It's a great school that the kids are turning to in droves because of the low tuition and the possibility of saving up some dough to switch to a private university after a few years.
Arrange for a job in school. I just mentioned work study programs, and with good reason. Colleges often hire students for a variety of jobs, for everything from cafeteria help to research and clinical lab work (especially for science majors). To increase your chances of landing on-campus work, contact your college, ask for the office of your major (school of education, school of science, etc.) and ask if there are any jobs available. Again, I did this: I found a job as a proofreader that lasted throughout school. It was relatively painless and could be done on my schedule. If that doesn’t work, check your college’s work study office for a wider menu of potential jobs. If you can’t find a work study job, try to find employment off-campus. Most college towns are loaded with pizza shops, pubs, bookstores and other student-friendly venues for part-time work. A tip: Take a trip to your future college town during your senior year in high school. Ask around and see if there are future job opportunities. Check the local want ads. Try again over the summer preceding your arrival. Persistence pays off.
Apply for loads of scholarships. There is no rule that limits the number of scholarships you can apply for. I say the more the merrier. For a great rundown on scholarship opportunities check out ScholarshipHelp.org. The site also walks you through the scholarship application process, and has some great tips. I applied to about 100 scholarships. I was relentless. In the end, I had put together a real mosaic of grants and scholarships to make Harvard attainable.
Check your own community for college cash. Often, help for college costs are right there in your hometown. Your high school’s guidance counselor’s office is your first pit stop. Also, tap into your local Rotary Club, where they often provide scholarships and financial assistance. I fooled around on Google, typing in “Rotary,” "scholarship” and various cities like New York, Philadelphia and Atlanta, and found tons of good stuff. You can, too. Again, be persistent. I belong to the Elks, and they have programs to help kids defray college costs. When I helped run the Police Athletic League, we gave scholarships to deserving kids. But they had to ask for them!
Get good grades. No doubt, you’ve heard of the old maxim, “Don’t worry about things you can’t control.” One college-planning cash generator a high school student can control is their report card. Specifically, most scholarships and many grants are awarded based on a variety of issues. One of the biggest factors is a student’s high school grades. The higher the grades, the better the chance for financial assistance.
Take advanced placement courses. One good way to save on college while still in high school is to take advanced placement (AP) courses and exams. It’s a good head start on your college curriculum and many schools, especially public ones, will grant credits for AP courses related to your major. That could save you thousands in tuition costs. The College Board does a good job of explaining the process.
Being a high school senior is tough enough without worries about college costs. But if you get creative, wear out some shoe leather and ask for help wherever you can, the money can be found.
You just have to really want to go and get it.
—Brian O’Connell contributed to this article.
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