My life was ruined by a dollar sign
December 5, 2012 8:17 PM   Subscribe

Do you work in college admissions? Have you successfully navigated paying for college education? Are you an adult? I could use your advice on how to pay for my education, or advice to just give up.

I'm trying to get my shit together to transfer to a 4 year school next fall. This task is utterly daunting and I just want to give up and work in a goddamn call center for the rest of my life. It honestly does not seem possible to put yourself through college. Please hope me.

Background: I'm early 20s. Currently enrolled in a 2 year degree program at a local community college. Passing with flying colors. Yay. After those two years, I currently have $7000 in loans. Not too bad. But this isn't my first time trying college, and I have another 9,000 in debt. Long story short: I fucked up and can't rely on my parents for anything. Lesson learned. I'm looking to transfer to a 4 year school next fall. This would require 2-3 more years of schooling. I have absolutely no support from family. There is no one I can borrow money from. There is no one who can cosign. I'm on my own.

Currently:The two schools that I'm really favoring right now are around 34,000 a year for tuition. Woah. Where do I come up with that kind of money? After doing some research today and seeing those figures, I've become completely discouraged. I'm now totally convinced that I'm dumb and won't even get accepted anyway and it's too expensive and I'm too poor so I'm just going to have to work menial jobs for the rest of my life and then die.
I wouldn't even know where to begin to get money for it, other than fafsa and federal direct loans. And that'll give me maybe 12,000 a year. I'm 20,000 in the hole. The financial aid advisors at my current school are almost hilariously unhelpful. I've learned this from experience, and have seen other pople go through the same. Can I contact the financial aid office at the prospective colleges for advice? The financial aid deadline is march 1st, and transfer students won't know their standing [accepted or not] until mid april, so if I wait for a 'yes' from the school I'm too late.

Other complication leading to my demise:I'm currently able to afford a place to live thanks to my partner (we share finances) and my sister (who is our room mate). Come next fall, however, my partner and I will be going separate ways, and my sister is staying in hometown. I'll be truly alone, then, and I'm not even sure if I'll be able to find a place to live that I can afford. Though I don't really have a choice, because, like I said, parents are a no-go, so I don't really have anyone to move in with. I've been below the poverty line all of my life, with periods when I was experiencing food insecurity and the threat of homelessness. The thought of having to deal with a break up, complete independence, and college all on my own is terrifying.


•I'm 22 and transferring from a 2 year school to 4 year institution
•Tuition is around 30,000- or more
•I have 7,000 in student loan debt from getting associate's, and 9,000 in other debt from being 18 and financially independent [aka a child and an idiot]
•I'm going through a separation, and transferring schools will require me to move. I'll be completely alone, without any support from family.
•How do I pay for school? Can you help me budget? Will number crunching even help?
•How do I pay for life? Rent? Food?
•Is this even possible?
posted by FirstMateKate to Education (27 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Find somewhere that will give you money, or find somewhere cheaper. Most of the people who go to those schools have family members at least co-signing. Sometimes the stuff that looks cool is just not something us regular people can afford, really. And especially when you're talking about debt... well, maybe that's not a bad thing.
posted by gracedissolved at 8:23 PM on December 5, 2012 [3 favorites]

You should talk with your schools to see if they have a process for declaring you independent on the fafsa. I know there's a section about homelessness on there and some places will declare you independent if you can get a letter from your parents saying they don't support you in any way, you don't communicate, etc.

Other than that, I would suggest waiting. You should be offered a lot more aid once you're (24?) and the fafsa doesn't factor in your parents' income. I'm assuming that's why your expenses and your reward are so different. Consider focusing on finding yourself a stable home and making sure you can afford to basics before you move on to higher education.
posted by Autumn at 8:26 PM on December 5, 2012

Yeah it sucks, but you really need to think about applying to cheaper schools. Like, drastically cheaper. I purposely didn't apply to any private schools (only state schools) when faced with the same issue. I luckily got in to a school in the state I was already living in so I got the in-state tuition.

But if you are determined to go to one of the more expensive schools, most people pay for them with a combination of federal loans, private loans, scholarships, grants, work studies, and part- or full-time jobs. But this also means that you'll need a well-paying job pretty soon after graduating. You can defer federal loans for a while, but the premiums for most private loans kick six months later.

But yes, do call the financial aid office at your potential schools an ask what other independent students do.
posted by greta simone at 8:31 PM on December 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

Can I contact the financial aid office at the prospective colleges for advice? The financial aid deadline is march 1st, and transfer students won't know their standing [accepted or not] until mid april, so if I wait for a 'yes' from the school I'm too late.

Yes. Basically, your financial aid process and your application process will continue on parallel tracks, and you should make sure to get a good idea about how much aid will be available. If the offices of financial aid at those schools are unhelpful and/or you do not receive enough financial aid from your prospective schools, then you should look elsewhere. You don't do stuff like wait until you hear about an acceptance and THEN apply for financial aid. You do both at the same time.
posted by deanc at 8:33 PM on December 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: While you may very well need to attend a school with a lower tuition(i.e. a public institution), I need to strongly take exception to Greta Simone's argument that you shouldn't apply to any private schools.

Many (most?) better private instituions distribute financial aid on a purely need-based basis. While the process is often anything but transparent, and their assessment of your need may not match up at all with your actual need (and thus, the aid package, may be inadequate), you should absolutely always always always make the effort to apply to the school you actually most want to attend - and apply for financial aid from them. The couple of bucks for the application fee (and even that can often be waived if you can prove hardship - talk to admissions) is more than worth not having the specter of 'but what if' hanging over your head for the rest of your days.
posted by TTIKTDA at 8:46 PM on December 5, 2012 [7 favorites]

Best answer: This might be a stretch, but note that a lot of schools have tuition benefits for full-time staff. Any chance of getting a job at a school you'd like to attend? If it's anything like mine, it could be almost anything: answering phones in the admissions office, working in records storage, taking care of lab rats. (Of course, you'd probably only be able to go to school part-time, so disregard if that's a problem.) That's how my wife is finishing her undergrad (which she started at a CC and has lots of loans from) and I'm getting a master's. We'd never be able to do either one without the tuition benefit.
posted by supercres at 8:53 PM on December 5, 2012 [4 favorites]

Don't sell yourself short. Private schools often have better scholarship funding. Example: my friend is 30, undergrad, with a full scholarship including room and board to an Ivy -- that's worth about 40,000 a year. So definitely apply where you want to go and apply for every scholarship you remotely qualify for.
posted by DoubleLune at 9:08 PM on December 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Like you, I returned to college as a working adult without someone else to finance my education, though I purposefully waited until I was old enough to be considered independent. I took the "only consider inexpensive state schools" route, and I regret not investigating other options.

The long and short of it is that, even with $9,000/year tuition and a part-time job, I still graduated with about $40,000 of debt--my income didn't quite cover my living expenses/books/etc., and I made up the difference with loans. Now, almost three years after graduating, I haven't found a job which pays enough to service my debt, and I've barely touched the principal. Graduating in the middle of the financial crisis (2009) was shit luck, but my pickle is at least partially due to my own shortsightedness: I picked a degree which doesn't offer easy employment prospects after graduation, and I got it from a no-tier state school with zero prestige or name recognition. I'm doing okay, largely thanks to the new IBR repayment plan, but I'm living in straitened circumstances even relative to my pre-college-working-at-a-grocery-store-making-$17,000/year lifestyle, and it's unlikely that this will change in the near future (i.e. before I turn 40).

Things I would do differently:

1. Think very hard about employment prospects after graduation. If you haven't done a cost-benefit analysis beyond "getting a college degree is statistically correlated with higher income and lower unemployment" you really need to look at the unemployment rates and salaries in your field and make a dispassionate decision about whether you can support the debt you're assuming.
1b. I know this is outside the scope of your question, but if you want to get a degree for purely economic reasons, consider an educational path which leads to some kind of professional certification. I wrote an answer about programs like this in the allied health sciences if that's something you've considered.
2. As TTIKTDA says, see what kind of aid the private schools will offer. Apply to the programs that interest you and ask them to waive the application fees. Many private schools have endowments from which they provide assistance above your federal grants and loans--t's possible that the financial difference won't be as great as you're expecting it to be.
3. Failing that, find a job at a school you would like to attend. Free classes are an almost-universal benefit.
posted by pullayup at 9:12 PM on December 5, 2012 [4 favorites]

Best answer: The short answer is that if people can't afford the cost of a private college, then they don't go. The vast majority of colleges do not meet full need. The ones that do meet full need have very competitive admissions, and will require parental information from dependent students. Colleges are now required to have net price calculators on their website. However, they are going to require parent information from dependent students.

These days, the only way you are considered an independent student for FAFSA is if one (or more) of the following apply:
1) The student is 24 year of age or older by December 31 of the award year.
2) The student is an orphan or ward of the court or was a ward of the court until the student reached the age of 18.
3) The student is a veteran of the Armed Forces of the United States.
4) The student is a graduate or professional student.
5) The student is married.
6) The student has legal dependents other than a spouse. (Dependent means receiving more than half the individual's support from the student.)

It looks like you might have to wait until you are 24 to receive (need based) financial aid without your parents information unless you get married, have a child, or join the armed forces.

Are your parents refusing to pay or refusing to fill out forms? Filling out financial aid forms doesn't obligate them to pay. If they are low income and fill out forms you still may be eligible for need based financial aid regardless of their willingness to pay.

One option is to wait until you are 24. In the meantime you can work and pay off some of your student loans. Working at a college and getting a tuition benefit (as supercres pointed out) is a great plan if you can hack it. Or maybe you can work and go to school part time. Some colleges offer merit aid based on academic credentials. Merit aid may not require you to fill out a FAFSA. However, when you apply to any school you will have to submit all your transcripts from every school you attended. Also, merit aid isn't particularly generous for transfer students. Were you a member of Phi Theta Kappa? If so, some colleges offer merit scholarships for their members.
posted by oceano at 9:13 PM on December 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also FirstMateKate, PM me.
posted by oceano at 9:18 PM on December 5, 2012

You may be able to get grants from the state you live in, in addition to federal aid.
posted by twblalock at 9:22 PM on December 5, 2012

I want to second pullayup's suggestions. Wealthier schools (meaning schools with bigger endowments) can and do offer more financial aid; conversely, there are schools (mostly for-profit but not only) that basically prey on students and leave them stranded with huge loans and no job prospects.

And make sure you are doing the math. A degree is good, but there's a limit to what it's worth -- make sure you aren't taking on more in loans and lost income than a BA is actually worth.
posted by Forktine at 9:26 PM on December 5, 2012

Hi! Look for need-blind admissions universities like my undergraduate school that cover 100% of financial need, with a $2,500 cap per year on student loans. My middle class family helped out – but the amounts due were significantly less than your current loan balance – until I turned 24 (I took a leave of absence for unrelated reasons), but at 24 and 25, my entire tuition was covered. I also got a paid work-study research job that, as an added benefit, gave me a huge advantage after graduating and graduated with about $4,000 in student loans.

What I am saying is that there are schools out there that can accommodate your financial need; you just have to make sure that you are an academically or otherwise well-performing student they want.
posted by halogen at 9:29 PM on December 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

Just a note, I'm not making the argument that you shouldn't apply to any private schools as TTIKTDA suggests. I'm just sharing my personal experience in which I was cautious about my financial choices.

I still don't regret it because I have only 40k of federal loans that I've been able to defer when un- or under-employed while I have friends with 120k+ in private loans who have had to default or are struggling to get by because their monthly payments are twice that of their rent in some cases.
posted by greta simone at 9:35 PM on December 5, 2012

I'm now totally convinced that I'm dumb and won't even get accepted anyway and it's too expensive and I'm too poor so I'm just going to have to work menial jobs for the rest of my life and then die.

That's kind of a leap - you know that, right?

You've gotten this far. You've learned some things, and yet there's more to learn. Welcome to life! You're gonna be fine.

I find myself wondering... what would be the harm in taking a year off to work full-time, maybe even a couple of jobs, and see if you can make a dent in your debt? You're young. College isn't going anywhere. A year gap (or more) between associates and bachelor's isn't going to hurt in the long run. College isn't a predictor of life success anyway, so take a deep breath and reconsider. What's your associates degree/certificate in? Can you find work that relates to that and pays better than call center work?

In the interim, yes, please talk to the fin aid offices at your two final universities. Oceano has the right of it regarding independent status, though, so don't expect miracles. Whatever you do, don't borrow it all. Just don't.
posted by hms71 at 6:13 AM on December 6, 2012

Apply to a couple of pricey private colleges as well as State U and Directional State U. Every school has full time staff whose only job is to help admitted students find the money to attend. Once admitted, make use of those people. They want you to attend, and it's their job to help you put together the best financial aid package possible to entice you to attend their school. I just went through this last year with my son. Obviously it wasn't the somewhat non-traditional situation that you are in, but several expensive private colleges offered him $20K annual scholarships with the acceptance letter. There is a lot of money out there to help pay for college.
posted by COD at 7:53 AM on December 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Does your state have any community college admissions agreements with 4-year schools? For instance, in Virginia if you get a 3.4 (or 3.6) at a Virginia community college you can be automatically admitted to UVA (or W&M)...and both schools pay full scholarships to in-state students with incomes under $40,000. Anyway, my point is you don't have to "settle" for paying a high-interest loan for $68,000+. I haven't had any luck with outside scholarships myself, but it's important to look at each school's financial aid website. If they don't mention need- or merit-based programs, expect to pay completely in loans.

And my advice: Don't take out a $34,000 loan!!! Find other schools!!
posted by lhude sing cuccu at 8:17 AM on December 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

posted by waving at 8:19 AM on December 6, 2012

Best answer: I left school for a year to get in-state tuition in California.

In that time I got a great job (in a call-center) and they paid for 100% of my tutition.

You have some ducks to get in a row before you can continue on with your education. No big deal, just for the love of Christ don't graduate in DEBT! You will be SO much further ahead of your cohort.

So, here's your plan.

1. Get a job that offers Tuition Aid as a benefit. Most large Amercian Companies do this. The one you work for might!

2. Concentrate on being financially independent enough to get a small place on your own, or into a solid, stabile roommate situation. (I prefer alone, I can control it, but do what works for you.)

3. Pay off your existing debts.

4. Apply to a local, state university. This will be WAY more cost effective than a private school.

5. Explore scholarships and grants. (Loans, not so much.)

For example, Cal State (My alma mater) is $4335 per semester. Arizona State (another of my alma maters) is $4862 per semester. That's a LOT cheaper (and feasible) than a private school.

Private school isn't always better than a state school. State Schools will also accept your AA credits more readily that a private school.

Another option is to work full time and attend a state school part-time. The tuition will be cheaper and you'll pay as you go.

It took me 7 years to get my undergrad degree. (In English Literature, what the eff was I thinking???) It didn't hurt me at all! I still got into grad school for an MBA (also paid for by my employer) I still worked.

This is a different world. It's not worth getting into debt for a college education. It just isn't.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:35 AM on December 6, 2012

How I paid for school:
- Filled out my FAFSA like DAY 1.
- Applied for every scholarship/grant I could find and that I was remotely qualified for.
- Went to state school, in-state state school ($4,000 vs $34,000??? yeah, easy decision)
- Worked and saved
- Lived stupid cheaply

I came out with an excellent 4 year degree from a top 10 public university and less than $10,00 in federal loans (no private loans).
posted by magnetsphere at 9:44 AM on December 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Some people who don't have any money work their own way through college by having day jobs and going to night school. Paid their own tuition. No debt no loans - it just takes a long time.
posted by Tullyogallaghan at 11:01 AM on December 6, 2012

You may be fucked regardless of turning 24. I started community college when I was 23, got my associate's at 25, went to fill out the FAFSA as an independent adult and was told LOL SUCKA because once you accepted a single dollar of financial aid as a dependent student, you were going to stay dependent until you got your bachelor's or your parents died (or you jumped through the hoops to get declared independent). Go ahead, ask me how goddamned bitter I am to have had $30k in loans instead of the $10k it would have been.

So yeah, I don't believe the loan officers are really going to tell you the full story. Keep plugging away and don't get discouraged. College is a wonderful thing, but absolutely not necessary for a good life, and not something you for which should mortgage your future at any cost.
posted by disconnect at 11:53 AM on December 6, 2012

Please take the time to meet with the Admissions and Financial Aid folks at the schools you actually wish to attend. Particularly if you have strong credentials, they will want to find a way to get you there, and this is especially true if they have capacity in the program you're interested in. Most have significant institutional scholarships funded by their endowments. Ignore the $34,000 sticker price, it's irrelevant except that it represents the most you could possibly pay to attend. Your price will be somewhere in the range of $0 - $34,000. Find out where.
posted by LowellLarson at 2:33 PM on December 6, 2012

Steady there.

It is a polite fiction to pretend that financial aid resources cover the full financial need, but the reality is, it often doesn't, and the gap is filled with private loans, summer work, second mortgages, etc. Nevertheless, it isn't uncommon for a significant percentage of students to be getting need based aid, primarily in the form of grants, and for that aid to cover a huge chunk of annual costs. The school I'm most familiar with has >50% of students receiving need-based aid, of which the majority is grants, and of those on aid, the average aid is 50% of costs .

Look at the specific numbers on the schools you are interested in. Most schools have details on the high level statistics, like % of students receiving aid, %of aid from grants vs loans, average aid grant in $, average household income of aid recipients. If this isn't in the admissions and financial aid section, you might have to do some digging, but it is part of a package of "institutional research" information they are supposed to track and make publicly available as part of their accreditation.

If your chosen schools financial aid statistics don't look promising, you probably want to shift your attention to schools that have numbers more in your favor. But by all means, talk to the financial aid office.
posted by Good Brain at 3:26 PM on December 6, 2012

Response by poster: Clarification:
•It's not that my parents won't provide financial aid for the fafsa. They do, and I normally fill out their section myself. It's that they are poor, with terrible terrible credit. So having them take out loans is just not an option. Living with them is also not an option.

•I have done research into my future career. Not sure why I didn't provide you all with this info, but I was stressed out. I agree that spending that much on college, solely because "people with degrees on average make more money" is very unwise. But my career path is almost impossible to get into without having a degree. But, at the same time, they have one of the lowest unemployment rates. The profession is also growing at an average rate (14%). It's also very specific, so there aren't that many schools that offer the program. It's not like it's business admin or nursing. Another thing about my desired profession: School names are very important. Having a top-tier school on your CV can skyrocket you. The median average for entry-level jobs is around 40,000. It can go up to 60,000 if you find work in a major metropolitan area, which is much easier by going to one of those schools, which are all in major metropolitan areas.

•Most schools that cater to my profession do not offer cheaper tuition for in-state students. It's base tuition.

•No, I'm not military

•supercres, that is absolutely fabulous advice, seeing as how I'll have an associates in my field, and one of the schools I'm referring to seem to have pretty solid tuition reimbursement for faculty and staff and employees.

•I am not currently in threat of homelessness, and I'm food secure. But this may change due to the fact that a move is inevitable.

Thank you all for this advice. Since it's remotely possible, I'm going to at least try. I've worked my ass off for the past two years to be as appeasing as possible to future schools. I've emailed financial advisors at both schools, and have broadened my search for hopefully cheaper schools, without trying to jeopardize my hire-ability in the future.
posted by FirstMateKate at 7:35 PM on December 6, 2012

It's not that my parents won't provide financial aid for the fafsa. They do, and I normally fill out their section myself. It's that they are poor, with terrible terrible credit. So having them take out loans is just not an option. Living with them is also not an option.

If your parents are poor, it may still be in your financial interest to file. The nightmare scenario is rich parents who refuse to contribute, because they would be expected to, and you wouldn't be offered aid to make up the difference. All filing does, as far as I know (and I hope others with more experience can correct me if I'm wrong--I waited until I was independent) is establish a number, the Expected Family Contribution, which the school uses to calculate your aid package. Unfortunately, whatever calculations they use are inscrutable, and can vary widely from school to school. However, the way that your EFC is determined is fairly transparent: there are EFC calculators which you can use to run various scenarios. I don't know is whether filing as a dependent of a family with low income and few assets will in every case lead to a lower EFC than you would have once you're independent--your own income and assets have the largest influence--but it's possible, especially if you have siblings who are also in college.

The FAFSA is not a test of creditworthyness, and it does not obligate your parents to take out loans in your stead. The federal loans (and you only want to take out federal loans, for real) will still be yours.
posted by pullayup at 10:41 PM on December 6, 2012

•It's not that my parents won't provide financial aid for the fafsa. They do, and I normally fill out their section myself. It's that they are poor, with terrible terrible credit.

This works to your advantage. Because they have no money, they cannot contribute anything, so your financial "need" is close to 100% of your expenses.

The point of FAFSA, as pullayup says, is to figure out how much your parents are capable of contributing, not something to determine whether banks are willing to lend them money. If the FAFSA shows they're not capable of contributing because of their financial situation, then you get more financial aid, not less.
posted by deanc at 7:15 AM on December 7, 2012

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