Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Journey to Debt Free College

(This post was originally published in 2014. Since then, two of my sons have graduated from high school. I added a postscript at the end of this article, updating you on their lives, careers, and whether they were able to attend college debt free.) 

Our oldest is a senior and plans to attend college with no debt.  Here is what we have learned, thus far, in our journey to higher education.  As we get closer, I’ll have to report on our progress. 

1)  Be VERY clear with your student at an early age as to what, if any, help he/she can expect from you and your spouse.  Whether you plan to give them $2000 (or $200) upon graduation from high school, let them know well ahead of time.  If you expect them to foot the entire cost of a higher education, this is fine, as long as they know it well in advance.  It saves on unmet expectations or hurt feelings if you are very open from the beginning.  

 2)  Our community college will be a GREAT help in cutting costs for the first two years.  He has easily saved enough to fund this through a part-time summer job.  Additionally, he'll save money during the first two years of his college experience by living at home and continuing to work that part-time job.   Every penny counts toward the ultimate goal of transferring to a 4 year university.  

3)  Fill out FAFSA in January.  Even if you need to estimate your income, fill out your initial papers on-line as close to January 1st as you can.  This “holds” your place in line and puts your “file date” as the date you initiated the file for that year.  So, if you begin the paperwork on January 1st, and you amend your income amount on March 1st, your “file date” is still January 1st.  Since some funds are given out on a “first come, first served basis”, you have obtained and maintained your “early file” place in line.  (NOTE - You can now fill out FAFSA as early at October 1st.  It will use your taxes of the previous year for calculation.  If your financial status has changed greatly, finish filling out FAFSA and then call the financial aid office at the colleges which your student is interested in attending.) 

 4)  Research EARLY!  Go to college fairs with your student as early at their freshman or sophomore year.  Reps love to see eager faces.  Find out EXACTLY what those colleges want to see on your student's transcript.  Most 2 year colleges sponsor a bi-annual “college fair” night.  If your child is interested in a Christian college, check to find a free Christian college fair near you. 

 5)  Ask questions!!  Answers are free!  We discovered that a 4 year college, which is about 30 minutes from our home, has a GREAT working relationship with our community 2 year college.  There is a rep. dedicated to helping community college students transition to their university.  Additionally, most colleges spell out very specifically what financial incentives they will give transfer students with high GPAs. 

6)  Watch those ACT/SAT scores.  If your child is truly interested in attending a 4 year university as a freshman, it is TRUE that they will be offered a LOT more financial aid as at incoming freshman, than they will be as a transfer student.  So, talk to reps early and often.  Ask specific questions about their scholarship levels.  Sometimes the monetary difference between an ACT score of 25 and 27 can amount to several thousand dollars in honors scholarship money at that particular university.  If your student needs an ACT increase of 1-2 points, then have them take the test again.  They can take the ACT up to 12 times, although statistically scores don’t increase significantly after the third try.

7)  Visit universities.  We are just beginning this part.  This is the fun part.  They like you.  They want you.  They serve you a free lunch.  Seriously, don’t go over the summer.  Go when class is in session.  This way you can visit with students and ask about their experience.  You can see if traffic is crazy or if the class sizes seem abnormally large.  If your student is seriously interested, plan to visit more than once.  Any college should be open to hosting your student overnight and letting them audit classes the next day, which are associated with their chosen field of study.   Finally, bear in mind that this more money than buying a house folks!  Don’t be afraid to ask all of your questions, and have them answered adequately, before you make a commitment.  Be sure you understand ALL the costs before you "sign on the dotted line."  People who have never had to live on a limited income forget to add those "$50" parking passes, and "$100 one-time enrollment fees".  But, if you count nickels and dimes (like we do) then you want to know ALL the costs.  

8)  Apply for scholarships EARLY!  There are a lot of scholarship opportunities available for younger students.  Most involve writing essays.  So, be certain your student gets a GOOD background in what constitutes "good writing."  Even if your student does not win, an honorable mention in a nationwide contest looks REALLY good on their transcript. is the best place we have found to scout out REAL scholarships.  Yep, there are a lot of places on-line which will charge you money for research that you can do yourself.  You need to sign up for an account.  But, really, we have not received a lot of nuisance e-mails or phone calls from signing up with Fastweb’s free service.  To guard against this possibility, we DID set up a separate e-mail account dedicated to all college research. So, all the colleges have that one, special e-mail address.  You don't clutter up your own in-box then.  

9)  We put our son in charge of our family finances for six months when he was 15.  This was a HUGE help in him understanding money - how to save, spend, and manage it. 

What about you?  Are you on this journey?  Any additional tips you can share?  I’d love to hear from you.

Update: July 2019.  

Our oldest took as many classes as he could at our local two-year college, paying just a couple of thousand dollars out of pocket after scholarships.  He was offered a full-tuition scholarship at a 4 year Christian college to finish his undergraduate degree.  He worked full-time for 1 semester to earn money for room and board before transferring. He will graduate debt-free in May of 2020 with an undergrad in psychology. We have given him just $4000 toward his college education. 

Our 2nd son graduated from high school three years ago and chose to pursue his love of technology. He now has his dream job, working in IT for a Christian healthcare sharing company.)  

Remember, do all to the glory of God,

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Do all to the glory of God,