My heart dropped when I received a call from the admissions office of the University of Pennsylvania. Earlier that week, I had learned that I did not receive a full scholarship to attend the university through QuestBridge. I was disappointed and a little discouraged. So when I received a call from the admissions office, I was astonished. A male representative called to tell me that the University of Pennsylvania did, in fact, want me to attend. They approved my application and planned to offer me all the financial aid I needed to attend without having to take out student loans. That is by far best phone call I have received in my life to date.
The university kept its word. I was able to graduate without any student loans. In addition to the university’s generosity, there were other steps I took to set myself up for financial success.
I Applied To College Early
I applied to universities via QuestBridge, a platform that connects low-income high school students with America’s best universities. The process is called National College Match. The application is due in September. This is a lot earlier than the deadline for most colleges. Most colleges have a Regular Decision deadline in January. Some colleges have an Early Decision deadline in November. Other colleges accept applications on a rolling basis.
So submitting my application in September, just as the school year was starting, was a huge sacrifice and commitment. I started working on my essays that summer.
Submitting my application early gave me a foot in with the university. The admissions office got to see a select group of applications before all the other competition arrived in November and January. Had I waited until Regular Decision to apply, I may not have gotten in to such a great school with generous financial aid.
I Applied For Every Scholarship I Could
Once I learned that I was admitted into my dream school with adequate financial aid, I did not stop there. I knew I would have additional expenses to cover that my financial aid might not be able to meet. I applied to local as well as national scholarships. In total, I was awarded $6,000 in outside scholarships to go towards educational expenses. I used this to cover the occasional semesters when my financial aid did not cover all of my housing or book expenses. I also used the money to purchase a laptop for taking notes in class and general use.
I Worked Part-Time Throughout School
Once I had my tuition, room and board, books, and technology expenses covered, I did not stop there. I worked part-time throughout school in order to cover my everyday expenses like toiletries and dining out. I also used my part-time income to begin building a savings. I held jobs on-campus both through work-study programs and through direct employment. I typically worked 20 hours per week. During my last year of college, I worked up to 35 hours per week because I wanted to gain work experience and save more money for after graduation.
Working part-time throughout school has served me well in a number of ways. First, I was able to build a substantial savings from the income. My expenses were minimal: phone bill, toiletries, and the occasional dining out. I pocketed the rest. Second, I was able to build my resume. I graduated college with a full resume of part-time jobs and internships. This made me more attractive to potential employers. Third, working part-time while in school built my work ethic. Many employers are impressed during interviews when I mention that I worked while in school. It means I was able to manage my time effectively and set priorities.
I Took Classes During The Summer
I actually graduated college in three years. I attended the University of Pennsylvania from August 2010 to August 2013. Before my first official semester at Penn, I participated in a pre-freshman program that acclimated me with the school. The program involved mini-courses that counted for college credit. This put me ahead of the freshman class coming in. During my second and third summer at Penn, I stayed in town and took classes part-time while working full-time. The classes were covered by financial aid. I paid for my won housing out of pocket. Taking classes during the summers allowed me to graduate a whole year early and save on one year of college expenses.
I Didn’t Buy What I Couldn’t Afford
You may be wondering how a teenager was able to be so responsible with her money in college. Well, I do not have a clear answer. The best reason I can give you is that I grew up in borderline poverty and wanted to do everything I could to make a better living for myself. That meant attending a top-tier school, not having to take out student loans, and saving money when possible. I saved a lot of my part-time income because I did not buy what I could not afford. I have never been enticed by designer handbags or super fancy restaurants. I was happy watching my bank account grow each month rather than spend it on lavish things.
My Thoughts On Student Loans
I think that way too many students take out way too much money in loans in order to attend college. I think that we need to learn more about the different funding options available while in high school. Student loans should not be the norm. Financial aid and scholarships should be the norm. There are thousands of scholarships out there for students of all backgrounds. Most students do not even apply to scholarships for which they qualify.
We also need to take a deeper look at our choice of schools. I was lucky enough to get into an Ivy League school that offered a generous, no-loans financial aid package. Students need to put more weight on the financial aid a school offers rather than the prestige of the school. If I had to choose one or the other, I would to choose to have a full ride to a second-tier school over going to a top-tier school and having to take out an exorbitant amount of student loans. Your education is what you make of it. It is more than just the title of the school.
Do you have student loans or any debt from college? Was it worth it for you?