Cash-Strapped College Part 1: Before You Leave

Cash

Next to purchasing a home, paying for college is one of the largest investments in a lifetime. Obviously, saving money is on the top of the priority list. Having wealthy parents is the first money-saving strategy. If that’s out of the question, there are still a few things you can do before, during and after your college years to save money. This is the first of a three-part weekly series, and going in logical order, will outline some strategies for both parents and students to cut costs and reduce loans before you even get on campus.

BEFORE COLLEGE

The earlier you start preparing for college the better. For parents, starting a college fund earlier rather than later is always advisable, even if you feel you can’t contribute very much to it each month. One option is a 529 savings plan, which is especially beneficial if your student is aiming for a state school. These plans  “are operated by the state government, [and] allow you to lock in future tuition costs at participating schools at today’s prices, providing a guarantee against tuition inflation” says Rachel Grumman, in her Mom’s Guide to College Savings.

 

Things like having an after school job to put money away can help too, but one of the most valuable things a student can do is learn how to budget. Learning about money goes hand in hand with earning money, and high school students who are responsible for their own expenses are often more financially responsible when they reach college.

 

Lisa Belkin, at New York Times blog Motherlode, says that “being the parent of an 18-year-old means second guessing a lot of choices made over 18 years, and one that I might have done differently is the decision not to have him get a job until the end of high school.” Her regret isn’t unique, as any parent slammed with a credit card bill or a pleading phone call can attest. Over the course of a four-year undergraduate study, the ability to budget their income and avoid expenses can save a student more than many scholarships award.

Scholarships are the next important step. There are lots of resources out there to help you find scholarships, and it can be a little confusing. As a rule, never pay for any scholarship services. Instead, turn to free scholarship search engines like fastweb.com, scholarships.com, finaid.org, collegscholarships.org and collegenet.com. There are many others, but as long as the service is free, there’s no harm in trying.

The best and worst thing about scholarship search engines is how easy it is to find scholarships you are eligible for. This makes it easy to generate a large list and begin applying to all of them, but on the other hand, hundreds if not thousands of other students are doing the same thing, lowering your chances of winning the award. Looking for local scholarships is a way to compete against a much smaller pool of candidates.  Take a look at religious institutions in your hometown, Kiwanis, Elks and Rotary clubs, or talking to your high school guidance counselor. Chances are your counselor will be able to put you in touch with a large number of resources you wouldn’t find otherwise.

Lastly, remember that your college wants you to be able to afford to go there. Don’t hesitate to call up your schools admissions office and ask how to get in touch with a counselor. They’re another great brain to pick and a valuable ally down the road, but can also connect you with scholarships awarded by your new school that are only open to incoming students.

Now that you’ve tracked down scholarships, it’s time to start applying for them. I can’t help you fill in forms or write your essays, but what I can do is give you several guidelines the make the process easier and more successful.

1.     Always apply on time. Get a calendar, work out a system and get your apps in on time. Late apps don’t win scholarships.

2.     Work on your apps every day. Consider applying like a part time job, because it might save you from working a real job while you’re at school. Working just a little bit every day will not only save you from that dreaded crunch time rush, but will also allow you to apply to more scholarships. Remember, scholarships are a numbers game: the more you apply for, the more you will receive.

3.     Most scholarship applications require one or more essays. The prompts will vary, but according to scholarshiphelp.org, “regardless of the theme of the scholarship contest […] the essay is really about you.” The best thing you can do is be honest, speak with your own voice, and point out anything, no matter how small, that makes you unique. Maybe you haven’t done community service, but you have helped care for your grandmother a few days a week. Judges are looking for essays with personality.

Hopefully, you’ve saved up some money, flexed your financial management muscles and snagged a few scholarships. In the next post, we’ll talk on-campus cost-cutting.

Do you have tips that spared you costs, or questions you want answered? Post in the comments or on my Facebook page.

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