This Is How You Go to College Without Taking on Massive Debt
Many young people don't even realize that bargaining over financial aid is an option.
Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz, photo illustration by Kitron Neuschatz
Mike Long didn’t have the money to go to college. Though he managed to take care of his tuition at New College of Florida (NCF) via a combination of scholarships and grants, housing at the Sarasota school was expensive, in part because dorm residents were forced to purchase a meal plan. The food at NCF is notoriously gross, according to the Princeton Review, and Long didn’t want to be forced to pay for something he wouldn’t use. When he heard about a former student who’d lived rent-free out of a boat on the bay, he headed to Craigslist. There, he found a guy willing to trade his boat for Long’s car—and that’s how Long got a ticket to living cheaply for four years.
“It was a funky way to do it, but probably the only way I was able to make it work,” Long told me of his college years, which he managed to get through mostly debt-free, with the exception of a loan he had to take out to fix a snapped anchor line.
The prospect of taking on massive debt may be more central than ever to the decisions young people make about college. Eric Greenberg, who’s been advising incoming students about, among other things, money matters through his Greenberg Educational Group for more than 25 years, told me the biggest difference he’s seen in his clients over the past quarter century is that they’re no longer only concerned with the brand-name value of an umbrella institution. Instead, students (and parents) ask specifically about the return on investment they can expect from a specific major or degree. “Now they’re looking at it as a quality-of-life decision, but also taking into account other economic factors,” Greenberg said.
While Long relied on some uniquely Floridian ingenuity (as well as the help of a couple of girlfriends who let him sleep inside when it was cold or stormy) to keep college affordable, there are other ways for less adventurous—or just landlocked—people to cut down on costs.
APPLY TO ALL KINDS OF SCHOOLS
According to Greenberg, one basic fact to keep in mind when mulling college debts is that employers tend to focus on where you graduated from, not where you started your college career. Student Loan Hero, a website that helps people refinance their debt, says the average cost-per-credit at a two-year public school is $135, whereas it’s $325 at a four-year public school. If you don’t have a ton of Advanced Placement credits under your belt and just need to knock out some general-education requirements after high school, spending some time at a local community college before matriculating at a full-fledged university tends to be one of the simplest ways to rein in the spending.
But if you already have, say, English 101 and calculus taken care of—or just want to seek out a higher-quality education right out of the gate—attending a public university where you can pay in-state tuition for a few semesters is another strong option.
"Spending some time at a local community college before matriculating at a full-fledged university tends to be one of the simplest ways to rein in the spending."
Carmen Segura and Jake Gotta both went to local community college before transferring to the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). The former didn’t get motivated about her education until senior year of high school, by which time her GPA was already shot, and the latter decided he would rather go to a two-year school where he could play baseball than a four-year one where he couldn’t. Segura, who’s currently enrolled in a chemistry PhD program in Santa Cruz, said she saved big by starting small. Same with Gotta.
“In all, community saved me about $20,000, probably more, and I still will have my bachelor’s from the UC I wanted,” Gotta told me.
The Brooklyn-based writer and editor (and a colleague of mine at VICE) Hanson O’Haver spent his first year of college at UCSB working hard to get the grades he needed to transfer to the school of his choice. He hadn’t gotten into New York University the first go-around, and figured it was stupid to spend money on a private college he didn’t feel passionate about. “I really didn’t want to be at UCSB, which was the best state school I got into,” O’Haver said. “So I kind of always had in mind that I needed to get good grades so I could transfer. And I knew I wanted to go to school in New York, and that the kids at NYU were who I actually wanted to be friends with.” It ended up working out perfectly. Not only did he get the degree he wanted and end up in the city he wanted to live in, but he very roughly estimated he probably saved around $40,000.
A third option is swinging for the fences. Oftentimes, elite private schools are effectively cheaper than public schools in that they leverage their enormous endowments to offer more robust financial aid packages to low-income students. It’s important to apply to a variety of tiers of school, then, rather than assume one class of institution will automatically be the best bargain or worst bargain—or out of your reach entirely. The only caveat, Greenberg cautioned, is that it’s typically harder for a student to get big-time financial aid when not applying as a freshman.
Still, he urged prospective students not to let the fear of missing out on financial aid stop them from starting at a less expensive—if also somewhat less prestigious—college. In many cases, Greenberg said, his clients end up being happy both socially and academically at the schools they start at, and don’t follow through on plans to transfer up.
And when they do insist on making a move to have the college experience they crave, starting local often leaves them in better shape financially.
DIVERSIFY YOUR GRANTS AND SCHOLARSHIPS—CAREFULLY
Although a quick Google search yields all kinds of scholarships for every idiosyncrasy under the sun, Greenberg argued it’s not necessarily a good idea to apply to as many as physically possible. As a blanket rule, be extremely wary of scholarships that ask for application fees, for instance.
“There are a lot of these companies that want upfront fees paid, and very often the cost to the student would be a lot more than they originally would have spent [without the ostensible aid],” he told me. “Read the fine print when companies either promise or guarantee scholarships.”
That isn’t to say that you should only be dependent on government grants, which are awarded on the basis of need after students fill out the FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, form. There are, in fact, plenty of merit-based scholarships awarded for special skills or talents. The trick is to seek these out on a given school’s website or by calling their financial aid office.
By his own admission, Keenan Lantz wasn’t a very good high school student. After completing an AmeriCorps program, he received* a small grant to attend community college. It was after leafing through some college guidebooks, however, that he stumbled upon Deep Springs—a tiny ranch school in California at which 30 or fewer students live in isolation and work the land as part of a free two-year educational program.
"There are, in fact, plenty of merit-based scholarships awarded for special skills or talents. The trick is to seek these out on a given school’s website or by calling their financial aid office."
“The cowboy college plan worked out, and I was there for three years,” Lantz, who now works as an executive assistant at JPMorgan, told me. “Then I took a little time off [from school] and tried to find full scholarships for transfer students by just googling around. I learned there aren’t many, but Shimer College offered one of them at the time.”
In fact, the Chicago school was offering one full-ride that year, the so-called “Dangerous Optimist” scholarship, for someone willing to read Frederick Douglass’s eulogy of Abraham Lincoln, write a paper about it, and discuss it in an interview with a faculty member.
“The plan was to take more time off and just work and save up, but Shimer gave me the scholarship, so that worked out, too,” Lantz recalled. “I generally tried to avoid debt as much as possible, and still ended up with about $20,000. I’m just grateful it is that low.”
Greenberg said many young people don’t realize that bargaining, the most effective way to squeeze money out of college, is even an option. But in his experience, schools seem to have a cushion built into their budget for those young people with the guts to negotiate.
An extra conversation with a school’s admissions or financial-aid office is as good a place as any to toss in compelling biographical details that perhaps didn’t fit on your application. Or you could literally just ask for more money. After all, colleges are concerned about the number of people who accept their admission offers because those stats affect their rankings.
“Meet with them—ideally in person—and clearly explain why you’re passionate about the school and why the financial aid package doesn’t make it possible for you attend,” Greenberg advised. “And also, if they see a peer school has given a lot of money and they haven’t, they might give more.”
"An extra conversation with a school’s admissions or financial-aid office is as good a place as any to toss in compelling biographical details that perhaps didn’t fit on your application. Or you could literally just ask for more money."
After Beckett Mufson, another colleague of mine, was accepted to Ursinus College in Pennsylvania with a decent financial aid package, he decided to visit. He’d already fallen for Hofstra University on Long Island, but was willing to at least have a look at the other school, where the biggest selling point seemed to be that J.D. Salinger did a semester there—and you could enter an essay contest for the privilege of sleeping in his former dorm. The student he ended up shadowing, however, had a pretty tame idea of a fun night out: driving to a local convenience store.
“I was like, ‘NYC or Wawa?’” Mufson recently recalled.
His mother encouraged him to send an email to Hofstra to see if he might squeeze out a bit more money. He essentially told the school he’d pick them over a competitor if they could be bothered to sweeten the deal. In so doing, he officially entered the post–financial crisis economy, an often terrifying place where wage stagnation and college debt loom above all else.
“Basically, I made $1,000 in five minutes—a rate I will never match again,” Mufson told me.
*Correction 10/16/2018: A previous version of this story inaccurately stated that Lantz attended community college before Deep Springs. We regret the error.
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