College & Money
April 18, 2017 7:50 AM   Subscribe

What are some lessons you learned the hard way about money, college and paying back your student loans?

I'm curious about the big decisions and the little ones.

Things that didn't seem like a big deal at the time, but came back to bite you in the butt later.

Luxuries that seemed like necessities, but looking back, came at a higher cost than you should have paid.

Things you did to save money that were worth the effort and things you did to save money that weren't.

Anything you would tell a high school junior as they get ready to apply to college.

I'm also interested in the experience of anyone who went to community college. How was it different from a four-year school? I know community college is far cheaper but are there expenses you wouldn't have known about had you not attended?
posted by missjenny to Work & Money (53 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Depending on the major/degree/job plans some federal loans have forgiveness programs if you end up working in some public service field (police, fire, medical) I had a few (far too few) loans that I was able to defer for 4 or 5 years and after that they were canceled/forgiven hindsight I should of tried harder to find more of those back in college for obvious reasons.
posted by Captain_Science at 8:00 AM on April 18, 2017

Don't ignore letters about money, be they bills, overdraft statements, whatever. They aren't going to get better if left alone and may well get worse. They may merit no action once opened, but that's not the same thing. I learned this one in my early twenties, an accountant friend of mine learned it the hard way by getting a court ruling against him after leaving an avalanche of post unopened.
posted by biffa at 8:00 AM on April 18, 2017 [17 favorites]

Get depression and anxiety treated sooner rather than later, as this will help avoid the giant-pile-of-unopened-mail problem. Denial is not a river etc. but you can still drown in it.
posted by rtha at 8:08 AM on April 18, 2017 [26 favorites]

Oh lord, I could write an essay on this.

#1 -- (try to) have open, honest conversations with your parents about what they will realistically be able to contribute to your education, like before your senior year of high school. Don't assume that they'll pay for everything. Also don't assume that you'll get scholarships, or even if you do, that they will cover everything. Come up with a written budget, as early as possible. Look at schools within your budget. You might not be able to go where you want, but really, the college experience is so similar all over, the 4ish years in college that you can afford are SO MUCH easier to deal with than the loan that lasts forever.

#2 -- An 18-year-old has no perspective on what student loans will cost them after college is over. For me, it was "sign this paper or you don't go to college" , and not much thought to the "hey, guess what, when you are done with 3.5 years of school, you will be paying a bill that is more than your rent/mortgage, and will be paying this bill until you are over 40" For emphasis: A BILL THAT IS MORE MONEY THAN HOUSING. FOR 20+ YEARS. The things I could have done, the travelling, the much more secure savings amount I could have, the kids I'd be able to afford, without my stinking student loan bill. That I am still paying, and in my mid-30s, is about equal to my very-low mortgage. It's hard for a high-schooler to imagine what their life will be like in their adulthood, but it will be easier with more money in their pocket and less loans.

#3 -- This is tangental, but I started out as a pre-med, then ended up with a degree in Linguistics and Chinese, and have worked in manufacturing (almost exclusively the office jobs in manufacturing, but some time on the floor) since then, and I love my job. If I had it to do all over again, I'd look at going into a trade (electrician, plumbing, something like that), and would 110% go to community college. I wish I had been more open-minded back when I was looking at places to go, instead of exclusively universities. I was a smart kid, and am a generally intelligent adult, and hey - they need those in non-academic jobs too. That was not my opinion in my late teens, which made me kind of an asshole.

Lastly, this is an extremely stressful time in life, and it's good to remind the student that whatever decisions they make, it will eventually turn out just fine. They might make decisions that create more challenges, but there are no irreversible mistakes in life planning. It'll all be OK.
posted by Fig at 8:17 AM on April 18, 2017 [17 favorites]

Keep your rent as low as possible. My small, mouse-infested 1-bedroom in a great neighborhood ultimately wasn't worth it just for the privilege of living alone, even though budgeting guides said that my rent was acceptable given my income. Where did all that money that I spent on movers and rent go? It disappeared into the void, when it could have been used to pay off loans and save for a replacement for my rapidly failing car.
posted by deanc at 8:17 AM on April 18, 2017 [3 favorites]

1. I had forgotten I had cosigned on a loan with my parents, and when the last surviving parent died, the debt went right to me. Logical, but I wasn't expecting it at the time.

2. I never took out loans as an undergrad personally (see above) but was mystified how many peers took spring break vacations and had fancy apartments. When I asked how, they said LOANS. Try really hard to minimize the loans used for non-essentials.
posted by ShadePlant at 8:20 AM on April 18, 2017 [5 favorites]

For every class, find out if your instructor has the text books on hold at the library. If it's not a book they need to refer to repeatedly, they can use that book within the library instead of paying another $70-$300. Use the syllabus to see what the realistic need for the book is.

Help them figure out early on if they feel capable of both working and going to school. If the best job you can get is paying minimum wage but takes enough time that you fail a class and need to pay to retake it, it might be more affordable NOT to work. It depends on the sudent and how profitable the job is.
posted by tofu_crouton at 8:22 AM on April 18, 2017 [6 favorites]

Also: jobs are stressful, not always intellectually stimulating, and require you working more hours on them then you would generally like. Given that reality, you might as well get paid well for it. Seriously, a lot of my workplace experiences have involved me thinking, "I could be equally bored (or perhaps even less so!) in some other career where I was being paid twice as much." THAT would have allowed me to deal with loan and lifestyle issues more quickly.
posted by deanc at 8:24 AM on April 18, 2017 [6 favorites]

If you don't already know about AmeriCorps, and you're interested in civic service at all, check it out and keep it in mind - although it's a very different climate in DC now, there's been both bipartisan support and bipartisan criticism of AmeriCorps and the education awards. (for reference, I was in undergrad & grad school during the Bush II years and Obama was elected after I finished grad school)

If I could do some things all over again, I would have taken some of the required classes at a community college - but maybe that's just me speaking as someone who hasn't spent much time in community college classes. I took a Spanish 101 class at a community college after I already had a master's because my workplace reimbursed me for classes that taught me job-relevant skills. My community college instructor was great but in general I've liked my *classmates* better in university environments...side point: it's rarer these days, but some employers will help pay for certain kinds of classes, so think about that when you're looking for part-time or full-time work.

I've personally never been the type to go wild shopping for clothes or housewares, but I would occasionally spend too much on eating out, and definitely used some student loan money on that. I knew fellow students who were incredibly disciplined about this kind of thing and they always seemed to find ways to have fun - but I don't have horrible regret about occasional splurging. I never spent too much on housing, either. Rather than moneywise, it probably would have been a good thing to practice discipline re: not eating out that much if I had started that discipline sooner.
posted by leemleem at 8:25 AM on April 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

I could write a book on this one too.

- Apply for every scholarship you are eligible for.
- Do not take out a penny more in student loans than you need. If you won't be working part time or living off earned savings, have a strict budget for what you need each month and don't take out loans for any more than that. It's college, this is the one time when being a pauper and living on ramen is arguably glamorous.
- Do not get a credit card. Work during the summer, if you can, and save like crazy. Use savings for emergencies, not credit.
- Know when it is worth it to take a risk. Although I made financial mistakes with how I funded my schooling, I wish I had spent some of that money on studying abroad. There are things that are worth it - experiences - and things that are very much not.
- take advantage of career related volunteer opportunities and internships as much as possible and as early on as possible. This is where you build your network and find employment right out of college. The earlier you start this, the better.
posted by nightrecordings at 8:30 AM on April 18, 2017 [6 favorites]

Read the /r/personalfinance FAQ

Treat credit cards as safer debit cards (e.g. better protection against fraud) rather than a way to run up debt.

Build up an emergency fund that can pay 3-6 month's bare bones living expenses.

Unless you are so close to broke that you could bounce a payment, set up your utilities and other bills to pay at least the minimum automatically so that you never lose money to late fees.

Have a budget and stick to it. Review how well you're doing every few months. It's easy to spend a ton of money on little thing here and there if you're not paying attention.

Treat medical issues early - it's cheaper and/or less painful to get your teeth cleaned than a cavity drilled than a root canal than to get a tooth pulled.

Never lend money to a friend that you wouldn't be willing to just give to them.

As a general rule, avoid doing business with friends and family and if you are going to, get things in writing.

If you go to college and find that you're not bothering to go to the classes or not doing well in them, consider leaving school and working while you figure out how to do better, rather than wasting time and money not learning and damaging your academic career.

Things you did to save money that were worth the effort and things you did to save money that weren't.

Learning to cook healthy meals and making cost efficient meals rather than eating out a lot or getting a lot of prepared foods will pay off financially and healthwise.

Having a large library of books in your home is lovely but can get expensive, takes up costly space, and is a pain to move. Unless you're actually reading them on a regular basis, consider using public libraries for most of your reading.

Anything you would tell a high school junior as they get ready to apply to college.

Have a plan (and a fallback plan) for how you're going to make a living after you graduate and make sure your classes cover what you'll need. Studying history or literature for the pure joy of it is great, but the world has changed a lot since the days when just having a B.A. in those was enough to get you a decent job.

are there expenses you wouldn't have known about had you not attended?

One huge things that people get out of college is a social network that can help tremendously in their careers. I launched two separate careers through people I knew in college, neither of whom were in the fields I went into, but introduced me to someone they knew who were and had an opening. Being a transfer student reduces the amount of time that you have to create that network. Community college may still be a good idea for you, but keep that in mind. One option that can work well is to go to a traditional college for fall and spring but do general courses outside your field at a community college at home during the summer.
posted by Candleman at 8:32 AM on April 18, 2017 [11 favorites]

Don't borrow because you can. My BA was free and thanks to an immature mindset in grad school I still have loans to pay back and the interest on such a large sum makes it brutal.

Be politically aware of what is happening in the loan world. Payment programs and whether they are viable. Or currently with housing, they factor in your student loan balance in your debt to income ratio. So if you attend grad school with loans, you're likely to not be able to be a homeowner for a while. I didn't really want home ownership but decided it might make more sense for my family. Then I learned the way they count loans now in almost all programs makes it impossible unless you have 20% down and that's a lot for most people.
posted by crunchy potato at 8:32 AM on April 18, 2017

Don't take out any more loan money than you need to pay for tuition. A financial aid office will send you a letter with how much aid you have been approved for and sometimes this is well over what you actually need for tuition. Take out how much you need (if you have to take loans at all and looking at the cost of college now a summer job here and there won't cut it) and keep track. I would also really recommend getting a job (or two) in college that can help get you some basics on post-college life: working in an office or working somewhere where you can become a manager or supervisor. I was able to become a supervisor in one job and this made me stand out a bit more, as well as working as a home health aid (which taught me endless amounts of patience, importance of attitude, and beyond).
posted by thefang at 8:33 AM on April 18, 2017

Do not fuck with credit cards until you are out of college, employed, and can start small paying off little monthly things like gas or groceries with it.

I avoided credit cards all through college and was one of the only one of my friends not swimming in CC debt upon graduation. But there but for the grace of god and all that. Even some of my most responsible friends succumbed to "eh just charge it" for years during school and are still paying that off.
posted by windbox at 8:39 AM on April 18, 2017 [3 favorites]

I volunteered a whole bunch for free entertainment. A++ would save money that way again. (Still do.)
posted by aniola at 8:42 AM on April 18, 2017 [9 favorites]

Bear with me, I'm getting to a point: Suze Orman used to do this thing where she'd ask people what their earliest memory about money was. And then she'd use that to help people come up with budgeting practices and money behaviors that worked for them and with their ingrained attitudes about how to interact with money. For me, it was very much that someone else would deal with it--and that's just not functional in the world when you're on your own. But realizing that was my basic attitude about finances (as well as the aforementioned treatment for anxiety/depression) really helped me adjust to having and keeping a budget.

The other money lesson that really resonated with me was: when my Dad got his first major paygrade upgrade, my parents set it up so the difference between the old salary and the new went directly into savings, so they never had it as currently disposable income. That really served them well. And me, too. Also, the not having a credit card. I had one--but technically it was Dad's and I was allowed to use it for textbooks, $X/month for eating out and plane tickets home. He got the bill and it came out of my discretionary money if I bought something else with it. I never fell into the Minimum Monthly Payment for All the Crap I Want trap in college because of that.

The money lesson I learned the hard way, but which may not be avoidable, is what Candleman says about part of what you pay for in college is the social network that really helps your career. So don't go to [Very Regional College in Exotic City A] for the experience, if you plan to live the rest of your life in [Different Region B] where (even though we are all more peripatetic than in the past) your social network has no ties at all. Look for a university that is very much national in its student body or one that is local to where you plan to live your life/build your career. Unless you really don't care about where you live.
posted by crush at 8:45 AM on April 18, 2017 [6 favorites]

Credit unions are less likely to nickle and dime your account than banks.

If there's a bank on campus (we had a student ID that was compatible with a bank that was on campus), it isn't necessarily the best option.
posted by aniola at 8:45 AM on April 18, 2017 [3 favorites]

Go to a college in an area where you think you can be employed and have a place to live, OR save up about $5k so that you can move for a job right out of college. You need to maximize your job potential in the town where you live, or you need to be ready to get out.

College towns employ people at the college, at businesses serving people at the college, and maaaybe a secondary industry like logging or minerals or something if you're lucky. If your degree is not in something that the industry of that specific town uses, you will get trapped there until you can get up enough money to move to where the job is. So prepare to leave as soon as you graduate, or use your college attendance as a way to start a new life in new town for the long term.
posted by blnkfrnk at 8:46 AM on April 18, 2017

a couple more points:

-nthing the idea to apply for every possible scholarship. Just google searches will come up with some unexpected national ones, not just scholarships that are specific to your school. I think I applied for a Wrigley's gum scholarship, among others.

- many schools have "matching awards" for AmeriCorps education awards -- 1 year full time AmeriCorps education award is currently $5000. Some schools will match it, especially for degrees focused on non-profit mgmt or that's $10k right there.

- i was lucky enough to find a workplace where I was considered full time at 30 hours a week, so I had healthcare thru work when I was only a part-time student. I loved having work friends too, and they could help me expand my network. Even if you don't do an official work-study program thru your school, lots of students work at the school and often this means that tuition or other fees get waived.

-I am a product of Candleman's suggestion: "If you go to college and find that you're not bothering to go to the classes or not doing well in them, consider leaving school and working while you figure out how to do better, rather than wasting time and money not learning and damaging your academic career." When I came back after 3 years of just working and living on my own, I was so much more focused and energized about school as a returning student. One of the best decisions I've ever made.

-different people are going to have different priorities, and i think someone mentioned above that studying abroad was worth it to them - the little travel that I did via student loans money is money that i consider well-spent, I don't regret it, in fact I wish I done a little more traveling.

-this is such a great time to meet people and there are so many FREE clubs, and at many universities and colleges there is free gym membership - do as many things as you can reasonably commit to. My older brother did a lot of outdoorsy trips and both of the universities I went to had good quality camping gear that was available for check out or a small rental fee. This opportunity doesn't present itself very often in adult life so give some of these things at least a try
posted by leemleem at 8:48 AM on April 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

1. Find out the reputation of the program you're going into. "Good" schools can still have poor programs, and "Okay/Poor" colleges can have programs of excellent reputation in their industries. The reputation of the school doesn't matter nearly as much as the reputation of the program you're graduating from (sometimes, YMMV of course)

2. Find out your school's post-graduation assistance programs. Some schools are much better about helping graduates find employment after they graduate. This can be worth more than just about anything at school.

3. Get yourself a concrete skill/trade/whatever while you're at school. Basically learn how to do something that's never going away. Take some trade classes. Learn how to do database work. Learn basic IT skills. Learn some medical coding. You're going to have times in your life when you don't have the Job that you Do, and to make ends meet, you'll probably have to do lame/wacky stuff. Make sure you have some lame/wacky skills.

4. Only take out money for tuition. Don't take out loans for special programs or lectures or workshops. Don't take out loans for study abroad programs. Don't take out loans for living expenses. Don't take out loans for books.

5. Work at a grocery store for money (because you'll get a mega discount on food, and learn how to cook, saving your ass even more money). If you learn how to cook, you'll get laid more too (sometimes, again, YMMV, but it does increase your odds).

6. Work as a janitor (or office manager, or whatever) for the college you want to attend. You might get some sweet-ass tuition reimbursement for that, and you'll also have that awesome concrete-never-going-away job skill to fall back on when your dream job gets outsourced or something.

7. Maybe don't go to college, maybe.
posted by furnace.heart at 8:50 AM on April 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

Learn to network in college. I wish I'd done this. While I have no regrets about ending up abroad in my first post-college job, I wish I'd networked better so my transition back stateside could have been less fraught with anxiety.

Get a credit card with a low maximum so you learn how to not spend all your money. Growing up, my parents always used their credit cards for convenience because they didn't like carrying all their cash around. This mindset transferred to me, but still, my first card had a maximum of $700. Large enough for me to put a month's worth of groceries and little things on it, but not too much that I couldn't swallow my pride and ask my brother or parents for an extra $100 or $200 to help me pay it off.

Don't let your parents tell you, "Loans are great for building character!" My dad did not appreciate me flinging that back in his face after I told him that I took a job abroad for the tax benefits in addition to the salary.

Also, if you do find yourself drowning in loans, go abroad and teach English in a country with a relatively low cost of living. With a bachelor's, you should be able to find an employer who will be willing to even fly you out to the country. You'll be able to live really well and save money. The best part is that the first $80,000 or so you make is untaxed by the US. Use that extra money to throw at your loans. I paid off close to $15,000 in 2 years this way.

Get a part time job that'll let you do homework at the same time. I did IT support with the university, which could be hectic at times, but I'd say 90% of the time I spent on homework. Plus, it's allowed me to start building a freelance fix computer thing that's getting more lucrative than I thought.

Also, just talk to a wide range of people in general. Some colleges aren't very good at helping you figure out what sort of career you'd like, but if you just talk to loads of people from all walks of life, chances are, you'll find someone doing something cool that you'd like to do too. Don't be limited to just your school and its alumni network.
posted by astapasta24 at 8:52 AM on April 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

You can keep the cost of college down by starting at a community college/2 year school and transferring to a 4 year college at the end of 2 years. Massachusetts has a specific program for this that gives you some other benefits, like guaranteed admission into a state school, credit transfer, etc., provided you meet their criteria.
posted by carrioncomfort at 8:53 AM on April 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

Don't expect a loan to pay for itself once you graduate. TOTAL BS. Your degree is no guarantee of ANY job, much less one that pays for 5 or 6 figures in debt.

Take all the "free money" you can get-- grants and scholarships over loans. Apply for even $1000 scholarships. Free tuition at a "worse" school over debt at a "better" school. (In quotes because in the real world, save for a few very specific rarefied professions, it matters almost nothing where you went to school.)

If you aren't used to credit cards, and paying them off each month, now is a terrible time to start. Just don't get one if you aren't absolutely certain you can handle it. Unless you are the type to keep track of bills and pay them off in full even if the statement says you don't have to, you can't handle it. I was not that type, and the debt hounded me for literal decades and I ruined my credit for a while there.

Spring Break is for rich people. Eating out every day is for rich people. Not having to work is for rich people.

Take work-study if offered, the full amount, and get a cushy position like in the department office of your major so you get bonus face time with your professors.

If you live in an apartment, live with as many roommates as possible for the experience, and so rent isn't a struggle.
posted by kapers at 8:55 AM on April 18, 2017 [3 favorites]

If you're not living on campus with an attendant board package, cooking for yourself is not only much cheaper, but potentially far better for you, than living on takeout and vending machines.

Working more than 8-10 hours/week during the semester is not really compatible with taking the maximum advantage of your college experience, or, for many, with doing well in your classes.

You'll probably be hanging out with people of different socioeconomic strata than you who may not realize the limits of your budget. It's very easy to get swept up in doing some social activity, only to be confronted with the awkward realization that you can't pay for it. Learn early on to decline those expensive dinners/spring break share houses without shame...and to value the people who are sensitive to the issue and want to hang out with you even without the trappings of luxury.

Also, all this advice is good, but if it fosters a mindset where you'll fall into shame if you make some financial error, it will make things worse. Shame will push you into denial and avoidance and make you easy prey for scammers. Lapses in judgment will happen. Depending on your life situation, there may well be emergencies or other situations where you just can't avoid exceeding your budget. (Indeed, I think the advice not to have a credit card at all is much more sensible for middle- and upper-class students who can rely on their parents to cover true emergencies than for those who can't. Sometimes you have to take a taxi from the middle of the nowhere. It happens.)
posted by praemunire at 8:57 AM on April 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

For nights out: Take out a set amount of cash before you start drinking. Once the cash is gone, you're done.

If you use your card, once you're drinking, you'll drink more than you intend, tip lavishly, start treating people when you can't afford to, order large pizzas you'll pass out before you get to eat. And you'll constantly lose your card and have to hunt for it the next day when you're hungover.
posted by kapers at 9:05 AM on April 18, 2017 [7 favorites]

Be polite/careful about mentioning money with friends, but don't be scared to bring it up at least once; it's important to get a sense of where their money is coming from and how they see themselves using it. If you sense that a group of potential friends isn't spending their money the way you want to spend yours, this is NOT going to be your forever-bff friend group. This doesn't mean you can't get together with them every now and then, but if there's a group of fun popular girls at the end of your hall who are living off their parents wealth, it's basically guaranteed that any attempt to buy your way into their good graces by going into debt is going to end badly. I'm not saying you have to segregate yourself by economic background, but to choose your friends by their purpose, and try to associate with people who (however much money they have) spend it on things that you would agree are valuable.
posted by aimedwander at 9:26 AM on April 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

Pets can cost 10x as much as you expect and cause a lot of problems in finding housing, with roommates, etc. In hindsight, I could have gone a few years without cats and saved thousands.
posted by galvanized unicorn at 9:28 AM on April 18, 2017 [4 favorites]

Oh! Something I forgot. Get a rough idea of how much your loans are going to require in repayment each month post-graduation. Mind you, this can only be a ROUGH idea, but I think getting your brain around the magnitude of it can be very helpful.

How you do this: take this year's expected loans, multiply by four. Look up what the current interest rate(s) are on those loans (hoping you don't have to take out private ones). Go to this Bankrate calculator (or google "amortization schedule") and plug the figures in. Your initial term on Direct loans is usually 10 years/120 months. For various reasons, this method will understate what you must pay, but it will give you a floor.
posted by praemunire at 9:41 AM on April 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

I'll pile on to not take out more loans than you truly need, but on the flip side, take out enough loans your last semester so that you will have a cushion for after you graduate. Consider if you are moving or will need a deposit and first month's rent for an apartment. I made sure I had a cushion of $3,000 when I graduated that was just in the bank to fund my move and deposit and first month's rent after I graduated. I paid off this amount early once I had a job and my moving expenses were behind me.

Once you graduate, you aren't going to be able to just get a loan so easily, especially if you don't have a job lined up right away.
posted by shortyJBot at 10:18 AM on April 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

Free tuition at a "worse" school over debt at a "better" school.

This X 1000. My daughter could have gone to some Tier 1 schools with partial scholarships, still leaving us with $20K a year to come up with. Instead, she earned herself a full tuition and housing scholarship at a Tier II State U. She is a junior and I certainly don't see any deficiencies in her education by going to State U instead of the flagship U of State school.

The rule of thumb I gave my kids was not to borrow more than they can reasonably expect to make in their first year out of school. This leaves room for a CS or Pharmacy student to borrow more than a history major. Both listened, my daughter will have no debt due to the scholarship, and my son only has about $11K in debt, which is a manageable $150 payment.
posted by COD at 10:51 AM on April 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

Don't put a semester's worth of tuition on a credit card if you can't make payments on it, let alone think about the interest.

I was transferring schools and needed my transcripts, which were withheld due to owing the school money, so I panicked and threw it all on a credit card. I got my transcripts, sure, and was able to transfer on time, but my account went into collections/nonpayment multiple times and it ruined my credit for almost 10 years. Only in the past year or two (and I'm almost 30 now) have I been able to actively repair my credit score.
posted by rachaelfaith at 11:20 AM on April 18, 2017

I went to community college, then transferred to a 4-year school immediately after getting my Associate's degree. Community college is a lot closer to a high school environment than a university environment, in my experience. It was a little lonely, since everyone I knew moved away to schools in other states, but I made some friends eventually. I saved a TON of money going to CC, and was basically guaranteed a place at my state university of choice. I was able to pay for the majority of my CC education with my part time job, since my parents didn't make me pay rent. I was an honors student in high school and got a lot of side eye when I decided to go to CC, but I see my peers that went to private schools still paying off loans 15 years later (with no end in sight) and I chuckle to myself.
posted by little king trashmouth at 11:47 AM on April 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

A far-away private school may give you better price with financial aid than a four-year public university despite the sticker prices (particularly if both are out of state). But do keep the social network / location of school in mind.

Need-blind admissions is a helpful term to know.
posted by typecloud at 12:07 PM on April 18, 2017

I took some CC classes after graduating, and I didn't learn much. There were so many students who didn't care that the courses were dumbed down and incredibly easy. That's just my experience and does not reflect on CC teachers. The academic job market is so dismal that really great teachers end up teaching there, but they might have to deal with students who just aren't ready for college (while those students exist at all schools, my personal experience is that there are more at a CC). Also, what school you go to in terms of reputation matters in some fields and not others. If your long-term goal is to be a philosophy professor, you need to do grad work in the Ivy League to have any chance of getting a job, so undergrad at a CC is not going to cut it.

As a former college teacher, I'll also say get what you pay for. Take advantage of your teachers' office hours. If you're struggling with a paper or a concept, ask for help. Individualized attention can really make a difference.

And yeah - use the library instead of buying books as much as possible.
posted by FencingGal at 12:16 PM on April 18, 2017

These are all awesome answers! Thank you so much.
posted by missjenny at 12:43 PM on April 18, 2017

[...] things you did to save money that weren't.

It turns out that if you eat popcorn as a meal frequently enough as a student, you lose almost all taste for popcorn after about a year and end up finding the idea of eating it revolting for about five years afterwards. True story.

Things you did to save money that were worth the effort

Graduating as quickly as possible. If you assume that you are going to make $x after graduation, tuition is $y, and your effective tax rate is $z, then the opportunity cost of taking an additional year of college is $x*(1-$z) + $y, which is generally quite high. It may very well be a significant portions of your loan costs for the rest of your college career. I know a lot of people that view a graduation schedule as an aspiration, not a necessity, but don't examine any of the financial considerations of doing so. The longer you are a student, the less money you make, and you need more money to pay off your loans. So, don't be a student any longer than you need to. Even if you aren't making significant money when you aren't a student, that generally is more than you'll make (after tuition) as a student.
posted by saeculorum at 1:09 PM on April 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm also interested in the experience of anyone who went to community college.

I'm not really the right person to answer this, as I never went to community college. However, in my experience as an undergraduate, every person that I met who went to community college ended up having to retake several of their courses and I don't think I actually met anyone who saved time by going to community college.

My experience was in science and engineering; I believe this will vary widely from subject to subject.
posted by saeculorum at 1:12 PM on April 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

One more thing. Don't get married until after you graduate. That will introduce a world of complications - financial and otherwise.
posted by FencingGal at 1:36 PM on April 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

I went for the cheapest university (full scholarship) without the foggiest idea of what I actually wanted to do with the degree I was committing to studying (Electrical Engineering).

As someone who was ambivalent about what they wanted to do with their life (and still am) going into such a narrow focus was a horrible idea; and it certainly did a number on my self worth, relationships with my parents and my mental health. I did get 2 years of free education out of it before dropping out (ultimately getting a degree from a public school), but I honestly think that going to a university where I wasn't so constrained/in such focused track from the start would have been much more advantageous. I also started college young (didn't turn 18 until my second semester) and I think I needed an extra year for my brain to mature.

So yea, take the scholarships, but make sure they aren't golden handcuffs.
posted by larthegreat at 1:41 PM on April 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

See how far you can get without student loans!
If you can get a work study job, you might consider working at the Financial Aid office.
Best benefit--they gave us our scholarship/aid checks first so that we could help with the distribution.
Also, I got to know financial aid counselors and became more familiar with the system as it existed at my school.
posted by calgirl at 2:49 PM on April 18, 2017

I (engineering major, 2010 grad) took calculus 1 & 2, intro to chemistry and English composition courses at community college during my senior year of high school. Dual enrollment. The four year college I subsequently attended accepted them for credit because there was an existing transfer agreement with my CC -they were in the same region. I did fine with the subsequent courses and was able to take two terms off my Junior year to do an extra internship across the country and then spend 3 weeks each in Turkey and Spain with some of the money I made. Wouldn't have traded those experiences for anything, and that internship got me into grad school and subsequent jobs.

Be cognizant of what parts of your financial aid package are need vs merit based. I started off with a "full ride" for tuition and did Co-ops and internships to pay for my living expenses (no help from my parents). My scholarship/Grant package was about 85/15 merit vs need aid. My need based financial aid disappeared as I made money because it counted against me in the FAFSA, and my tuition increased each year while my scholarship stayed the same. That part sucked.
posted by permiechickie at 4:31 PM on April 18, 2017

The single biggest mistake I made was actually not borrowing enough. I really needed a car when I was I school (I was doing a lot of stuff that helped my career off-campus, like giving lectures at other schools!) and I was extremely limited in what jobs I could take and where I could live. I probably spent 2000 hours on the bus while I was in school, which would have better been spent studying. I also always bought the cheapest computer (which frequently broke), never took any trips (even to conferences I was invited to go to), that kind of thing. If I had spent another $10k, it would have paid for itself many times over.

Also, keep in mind that you'll have to go to grad school for many career tracks. It may pay off to do a quicker/easier/cheaper undergrad program with good grades, and then really challenge yourself by doing an MS at a good school. That's what I would advise people to do anyway.
posted by miyabo at 4:40 PM on April 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

I think I underused school healthcare. I didn't understand what was private to me, and what my parents would find out about; I didn't really see the signs that I needed treatment; and I didn't realize how much easier it is to walk a few blocks to the nurse's office (effectively) vs. researching doctors, scheduling an appointment, etc. as an adult. I suspect it would also have been subsidized, to a perfectly adequate point.
Something I lucked out on: one day in 11th grade gym class, we went to the computer lab instead of the gym, and were forced to plunk out our first resumes, based off some template. That document has lasted me through several versions of Microsoft Word: college apps, first job out of college apps, second job out of college apps; always have a resume ready.

Things I think I did right: Use ALL the resources! They are emphatically FOR YOU. TA hours? Show up, talk about things, make friends in the department. Career center / departmental resume review? Sign up for a slot! Career fair? Yes, this is basically what you are paying for! Similarly, if you are studying sciences e.g. remember to show up to the weird plays, the dance classes, the semiotics lectures where your work suddenly seems very concrete in comparison, the Swedish fiddling seminars; most are open to all, and that means you.

To your final question, the above is what I suspect is more richly available at a four-year university vs. a community college -- essentially, the understanding by all that it's a lot of people around the same age who are taking years out of their life to be in college.

Moreover, a four-year university probably has a wider socioeconomic span. While you should not pick up the spending habits of people at the top, it's good to have an inkling about the behaviors and norms. (Voraciously taking advantage of services is one of them, as I saw.)
posted by batter_my_heart at 4:52 PM on April 18, 2017 [3 favorites]

I went to community high school, full time, in my junior and senior years. The state paid for all of the community college tuition. When I was admitted to several colleges as a freshman, I called them all to understand which of them would accept the most of my credits. Some accepted none, some a few select credits only, and one accepted all of the community college credits, saving me two years. 50% off fancy university degree - A++++ would attend community college again.
posted by Atrahasis at 6:38 PM on April 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

Understand (or at least understand how to start developing) the exit plan -- what profession / career do you want to go into? And, how much schooling do those professions require (bachelors, masters, phd, residency?)? And, upon finishing said schooling, how much do those professions pay for entry level positions AND "career peak" positions?

I looked over lists like, top paying majors or professions after college, and also, where those professions are located. A quick google and a TON of light will be shed. Glassdoor is amazing for this too. It's important to think about the types of jobs you might want to do, their work life style, and where those jobs are based (company, geo). The career office is your best friend, and will honestly help you realize that employers really do view a reductionist version of your college experience of major, gpa, internships/jobs and leadership positions in extracurriculars.

Aaaand, I think this is an important one -- figure out which professions you may not have even considered b/c you weren't exposed to them in high school. I never took an econ class, but loved econ in college and now think being in business is the jam. Try to figure out how you can get exposure to them early on in college. It's such a great time to learn.
posted by ellerhodes at 7:50 PM on April 18, 2017

Even if you're the sort of person who hates your hometown and everyone you went to high school with and can't wait to escape "those people," don't write off your local state universities. I was a massive snob in high school, and I blew my flagship state university off because half my high school went there, I fancied myself better and smarter than a lot of those people, and I wanted a small intense intellectual liberal arts college atmosphere. Did not think through the fact that a) small campuses magnify all of the stresses and dramas of community life, as well as the better aspects of tight community and b) the biggest state schools are so inconceivably large that your chances of unintentionally running into people from your past are low. Years after graduating, I befriended a group of people from the flagship school I passed up, many of whom studied the same subject as me. Quite frankly, they blew me out of the water academically. I don't regret the education I got at my tiny school, I just wish I hadn't been so reflexively stuck-up.
posted by ActionPopulated at 7:53 PM on April 18, 2017 [7 favorites]

Quite frankly, they blew me out of the water academically. I don't regret the education I got at my tiny school, I just wish I hadn't been so reflexively stuck-up.

This is basically what I came here to say. Also, I'm embarrassed to say that I turned down several very generous financial aid offers from a few state universities (tuition, room/board, and a good stipend), because I was so set on wanting to go to a highly ranked university in the northeast.

I managed to get a good scholarship to my private university and walked out with about $30,000 in loans, but I look back on how blithely I disregarded those other offers and cringe. I don't even want to consider how screwed I would be if I had to pay for all of my schooling with loans. Also, at least my loans were all federal.

And it's definitely worth keeping grad school in mind. If you think grad school is in your future, think very, very hard about accumulating debt in undergrad, especially private loans.

I loved my school, and if I could do it all again, I would probably make the same decision, but I also didn't have the same perspective that I do now. At 18, it's really hard to comprehend just how much student loan debt can cripple you for many years after you graduate.

Also, some of those offers were from state universities that weren't in my state, so that's something to consider.

Oh, not that this can always be helped, but it seems like the main reason I got all those offers is because I was a National Merit Scholar based on my PSAT scores. It seems like some schools basically collect National Merit Scholars, for bragging rights or something. I ended up doing well on them, obviously, but I would have taken the PSAT more seriously if I realized all of this.
posted by litera scripta manet at 9:07 PM on April 18, 2017

1. They may offer you more loan than you actually need. This is not free money. Take what you realistically need and no more.
2. Bankruptcy will not discharge student loans if you end up in a situation where you are considering bankruptcy.
posted by thebrokedown at 5:56 AM on April 19, 2017

One other thing -- use LinkedIn! In 20 minutes you can find 100 people who graduated from your program and what they're doing now. This is an incredibly powerful tool and I actually think high school students should be required to do it.
posted by miyabo at 8:57 AM on April 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

Stay the fuck away from private student loans. They don't have a lot of the protections that federal loans do and can bite you in a major way. Can't underscore this enough.
posted by squasher at 8:00 PM on April 19, 2017

I was brought up to believe that debt was super duper bad. But I also didn't have parents who could fully fund my university education. I had some scholarships that paid my tuition, but didn't cover living expenses. So I did a lot of dumb things in terms of depriving myself ridiculously so I could avoid taking out loans.

If I could talk to my 18-year-old self, I'd tell them to take the loans instead of doing stuff like only eating boiled lentils for six weeks straight. And to go to the damn doctor when you are so sick you can't stand up for more than 4 seconds at a time. Even though it costs like $30 you don't have. And not to try to work 20 hours a week in fast food while taking a double load of courses. Just. Don't. Do. That. Shit. Loans aren't the end of the world if you are sensible about them.

Even though an 18 year old might think that $20k or so is an unheard of sum of money (because they've never earned more than, in my case, $4 an hour), it is surprising how quickly it can be paid off on a proper salary of the sort that many people can get after their degree.* I could have wiped out any student debt in a year or less of the money I save on my salary now. And even if it had taken years to pay off, it would have been better than the damage I did to my health, my relationships, and my psychology by trying to live on $100 a week for three years.

* I know it's not a given that graduates will end up with a good career, and I know many students have to take on far more than $20k of debt. This advice is meant for the catastrophising kind of student who thinks even a small amount of debt is a disaster and that they'll never have anything other than a minimum wage job. That *probably* isn't true.
posted by lollusc at 10:42 PM on April 20, 2017 [2 favorites]

Find out what the minimum payment is not to default on your loans. While I fortunately didn't make that mistake, I have a friend who did. It turns out that on federal loans you can often make extremely small (think $5/month) payment and not go into default. Yes, you will pay more in interest, but the consequences of default for your credit rating and so on are pretty awful (for example, she never gets any tax refunds, is ineligible for grants, is ineligible for some other government programs, can't rent most apartments, and for a while couldn't even get a bank account).
posted by eleanna at 10:03 AM on April 21, 2017

If you're a competitive student, but not rich, it's still very worth applying to at least a few of the "best" schools: Harvard, Stanford, MIT, etc.

I almost didn't bother applying because I thought there was no way I could pay for them even if I was accepted. Well, turns out it was actually far cheaper to go to that kind of school than any of my safety schools. This is not uncommon because these universities are so wealthy they can (and do) take care of a huge amount of the fees for poor or even middle-class students.
posted by forza at 5:30 AM on April 23, 2017

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