In an ideal world, everybody could afford to go to college. Unfortunately, the only way a lot of people think they can pay for college is by taking on massive debt. You may recall that we’ve already disproven the need for a debt-burdened education. Free Money Finance recently featured one reader who noted another way that anyone can afford college is by going for free.
A free college education. Sounds great, right? Not if you compare it to the college education I received…
You see, I got paid to go to college. I mean, a lot of money. Like, five figures over four years.
No, I didn’t join the military. And no, I wasn’t a research subject in any drug trials.
I got paid to sit in class, listen to my professor, and receive the education which landed me a well-paying job. No work study, no loans, just free money that was mine to keep.
How did I do it? In theory, it wasn’t hard.
- Hit the books in high school. This first step will disqualify about 90% of today’s high school population, and I won’t sugarcoat the reason why: they just don’t try hard enough. Since your performance in the four years prior to college is the basis of your admission, getting a good and cheap/free college education starts on day one of high school. Many teenagers blow a chance at a free ride their first year of high school while others perform strong throughout and “take off” their senior year. Getting paid to go to college absolutely requires four years of strong academic performance.
- Dominate the SAT/ACT. As someone who worked as an undergraduate college admissions representative, I can tell you that those standardized tests play a big role (perhaps too big of a role) in determining your admission and scholarship eligibility. I’ve seen cases where students lost thousands of dollars of scholarship money because of 10 measly SAT points. Parents, consider investing money in test preparation courses, even if your child already has solid scores. A few hundred dollars can mean 100 extra points, and that can mean the difference between a partial scholarship and a full ride.
- Search out scholarship programs early. You’re looking for a few different types of scholarships, and you will want them all. First, check out school-specific full-tuition scholarships at your colleges of interest. They’ll at least cover the cost of classes and perhaps also fees, books, room, and board. Next, look for school-specific side scholarships. Much like side dishes for a big meal, these little guys won’t fill you up, but they’ll go great with a larger piece of meat. Note that you’re only interested in scholarships that can be accepted in addition to those full-tuition offers. Finally, check out non-school-specific scholarships like those offered by private companies, individuals, or certain government agencies. Find and apply for every scholarship for which you qualify.
- Apply for state and federal financial aid grants. Many people associate the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) with obtaining student loans. While it’s true that the FAFSA helps determine eligibility for loans and work-study programs, it is also the application for free, need-based money like the Pell Grant. The best part of these grants is that they can be combined with full-tuition scholarships to pay all of your college costs… and then some!
- Pick a good school, but one that will pay you. So you’ve been offered free rides to several colleges with programs of interest to you, but one of them will also give you extra money. Where does this extra money come from? Well, if the sum of the amounts of your scholarships and financial aid exceeds your bill, you may be eligible to directly receive the excess. Just be careful–some scholarships or aid can only be applied to tuition, fees, and other related costs; they won’t be refunded to you if there’s anything left over.
- Collect your refund. If you’re eligible for a refund, you should receive it shortly after the school year begins. Contact your school’s financial aid office if you have any questions.
Sounds pretty straightforward in theory. But did I really follow all six of my own steps? See for yourself…
- I hit the books in high school. It took a lot of hard work and personal sacrifice, but I ended up as the valedictorian of my high school class.
- I dominated the SAT/ACT. I’ve tutored the SAT for years, and I’ll be the first to tell you that it’s the stupidest test in the world. Any school which bases its admissions on it should be ashamed of itself. That said, a 1560 (back when it was out of 1600) seemed to make my prospective colleges happy.
- I didn’t search out scholarship programs early. Oops, I flunked big time here. I filled out some school-specific scholarship applications, but I didn’t make much of an effort to find alternative scholarships. I might have found even more free money if I had invested some time in searching for it.
- I applied for state and federal financial aid grants, and I thank you taxpayers from the bottom of my heart for all that free money you gave me.
- I picked a good school, one that would pay me. Okay, decision time. Do I go with the full ride to the top-notch school with no money left over, or do I let the state university pay me gobs of cash to grace it with my presence? You guessed it. I picked a public university with an excellent program in my area, and I pocketed every penny of leftover scholarship and financial aid money.
- I collected my refund. Like clockwork, while other students would open their tuition bills each year, I’d open my refund check.
As it turned out, that extra scholarship and financial aid became critical in keeping a roof over our heads and food on the table during my college years, so please don’t think I squandered it.
Yes kids, you can get paid to go to school. I especially hope that those of you who do end up earning while you’re learning will make the most of your better-than-free education, commit yourselves to academic excellence, and do something you really enjoy with your lives.