5 Ways to pay for college, from experience

It’s old news by now — college is expensive. Really expensive. Some are lucky enough to have a loving grandparent with deep pockets or parents who have been saving for decades. For others, trying to manage costs that sometimes soar above $50,000 per year is no easy task.

College costs

These are tips from a current college senior who managed to pay for school and come out the other side… without living off of Top Ramen.

Contributed by Rianna Hidalgo

Do the paperwork

It’s not a test. It’s not a kind of seasoning. It’s the FAFSA, and it’s the first step on the road to financial aid. When I first applied to school and heard my wonderful mother throw the name around (which stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid), I didn’t realize that I should have bowed at the very mention of it — it’s the holy grail of paying for school. No matter what your financial situation, fill out the FAFSA and be wary of the deadlines. It determines your eligibility for all kinds of assistance, including grants, work-study programs and federal loans, which have lower interest rates than private ones.

Buckle down

You know that eccentric creative writing teacher who tells you, “It isn’t about the grade”? Maybe he’s right — when it comes to cherishing the learning process and growing as a person. That being said, academic scholarships are one of the best ways to bolster your tuition costs, and usually the higher the grades, the more money you are eligible for (insert debate about the value of grades and SAT scores here). At most schools, students are automatically considered for academic scholarships when they apply.

Get in, get active and reach out

Most of my scholarship-harvesting opportunities arose after I was accepted and began school, but I had to keep my eyes and ears open. In the theatre department, there were scholarships awarded to upperclassmen based on contribution to the program during their first years. It’s important to remember that people can’t help you if they don’t know you need help. No one likes asking for money, but the main reason I ended up with an additional scholarship is because I was vocal about my need. I met with the chair. I met with my advisor. Someone along the way was willing to advocate for me and find funds so I could remain in the program.

Think outside the box

We’ve all heard of those bizarre scholarships designed for Klingon-speaking Trekkies or people willing to sacrifice their dignity and wear a duct tape dress to prom. Maybe you don’t quite meet that level of quirkiness, but you can still find outside scholarships that fit your unique characteristics.

There are scholarships based on ethnicity, family history, career-path, hobbies, talent — you name it. Research online or go to your financial aid office to help with your search. My most fantabulous scholarship venture was College NET, a website where people start forums and discuss… anything. Is it ethical to sell your arm? Is Facebook evil? Is fracking going to ruin the world? Participants vote for each other based on writing quality, thoughtfulness, effort and anything they think makes a competitor deserving. I thought it was too good to be true until I won the grand prize and paid off all of my student loans in one chunk.

Get to work

Sure, flipping burgers or organizing paperwork that’s been in a box since 1972 might not provide the rush of experiential glory that you are looking for, but having any kind of consistent income while in school can do wonders. Even though I couldn’t put in many hours, part-time positions — both on and off-campus — allowed me to pay for school supplies and textbooks. This meant that I didn’t have to watch my already slim bank account dwindle into nothingness. Don’t know where to look? Most schools have an online job-search tool or career office to help. Ideally, look for a paid internship (yes, I said ideally), or a position that relates to what you are studying so you can gain experience and make connections at the same time. My history includes short-order cook at the on-campus restaurant, office assistant and a paid internship at a city newspaper.

In closing, I’d love to say that paying for college was a walk in the park, but it was more like a trek up a treacherous mountain slope. I wasn’t always sure if things were going to work out or if I was going to be embroiled in the debt so many people my age face upon graduation. Making sure I could stay in school meant persistence, late-nights and hard work, but the reward — the education that I wanted — was priceless.

About the author:

Rianna Hidalgo

Rianna Hidalgo, a senior at the University of Miami, is currently double majoring in journalism and theatre arts. After college, she hopes to travel and write about issues related to social, economic and environmental justice. As a lifelong singer and dancer, she has performed at regional musical theatre venues near her hometown, Seattle.’

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