Not an easy task.
December 27, 2007 1:39 PM   Subscribe

How do I help my brilliant - but broke - friend go to school?

After her first day of kindergarten, her parents saw how excited she was about school, and knew they had to nip her future dreams in the bud. So they sat her down and said, "When you get older, you might hear about this thing called 'college.' You're not going." Her future has born that out.

She wants to go to school for psychology, and I'm looking for things like scholarships, programs, and paid internships that can help her get there. As is, she works as a cocktail waitress - which was a big step up from call centers before that - but she's lucky if she get enough sleep, let alone pay rent. Whenever anyone mentions school, she just gets depressed, because she sees it as totally unachievable. But she's also proud, which means that I can't chip in to a fund or anything from my meager savings.

She has a GED, having dropped out at the age of 16: she's taken a few community college courses back when she lived with her father, but she's on her own now. Her mother is mad - schizophrenic, and a horribly abusive person to boot - but has never been diagnosed. Her little brother is severely disabled, both mentally and physically - hunchback, bad heart, autistic - and my friend might one day have to care for him full-time (he's a minor, and living with his mad mother). She lives in Seattle, and has always lived in Washington.

I know that I can't solve her problems, but I still wanted to ask: a lot of opportunity comes from just knowing what's out there. Given those details, does she quality for any assistance - scholarships for children of crazy people, or family members of the disabled? Anyone out there who has overcome similar obstacles, to achieve similar goals?
posted by laughinglikemad to Education (23 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
This is the kind of thing that financial-aid officers can be really helpful with.
posted by box at 1:42 PM on December 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

Does the school have a work study program? This got me through both under-grad and grad.
posted by Sara Anne at 1:43 PM on December 27, 2007

Get in touch with some financial aid and admissions officers. Particularly at need-blind universities. Go around the normal channels of applications, try to get in touch with some people outside of the hectic admission season and see what kind of guidance they give. It could be very helpful.
posted by jckll at 1:48 PM on December 27, 2007

FAFSA is generally step #1.
posted by jeffamaphone at 1:51 PM on December 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

How old is she now? She should have herself declared an emancipated minor if she is under 23 so she qualifies for financial aid under her own income. Yes, there are many scholarships out there and loans and financial aid, but she is going to want to achieve it half as much as you apparently want to achieve it for her. If she goes to community college for a couple of years the Pell Grant should pay just about everything including books if she is emancipated. A social service agency should be able to help with the steps to that official documentation.
posted by 45moore45 at 2:01 PM on December 27, 2007

At least in California, community colleges are an excellent was to get your basic college course for a very affordable fee. The CC's all have established transfer programs with the state and some of the local private schools, so you can transfer into good four-year college to finish up. CC's also tend to be more flexible in terms of offering evening classes and letting adjust your academic load based on other commitments.
posted by metahawk at 2:09 PM on December 27, 2007

If she's over 23, the amount of loans available to her through FAFSA will be pretty impressive, so filling out an application would be the first step.

If under 23, 45moore45's direction is the way to go.
posted by drezdn at 2:10 PM on December 27, 2007

I dropped out at 16, got a GED at 28 and went to college at 38. It can be done. The first step is to talk to an admissions officer. They are usually encouraging to adult learners, and can make you see possibilities that you are unaware of. Then get the financial aid. It gets easier when you get the ball rolling.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 2:11 PM on December 27, 2007 [2 favorites]

Going to college in those conditions means that she's probably going to have to take out crazy loans. No biggy. The banks want to give her the loans which are federally guaranteed which means no risk for the loaners and colleges want to enroll, that's why they aren't car dealerships. So she needs to think about what she wants to do, identify realistic institutions that would work with her, and then apply. The big problem is that when you hear about how much money it is, the loans sound scary, but paying off shitty college loans for a chunk of your youth and doing something you want to do sure beats not having any loans and working a shitty job. I got a pretty plush deal for my scholarship, but still worked almost every semester through school, and I know a ton of people who had it worse off: they worked, went to school, and took out loans. But the experience was good for almost all of them. The issue isn't about where the secret to the full scholarship for the children of crazy jerks; the issue is understanding that if you want to go to college, you have to have some discipline and make some sacrifices, but that it is totally possible.
If you want to help her, and she wants to go to college and will listen to you, that's the key stepping stone.
posted by history is a weapon at 2:14 PM on December 27, 2007

Tons of money is out there. Talk to a financial aid officer at udub or bcc. Talk to psych professors at both places. There are lots of grants and aid out there for people who need it.
posted by cashman at 2:29 PM on December 27, 2007

FAFSA and student loans in general can seem very intimidating to someone who supports themself, but the reality is that limited, reasonable undergrad debt is good debt that will pay for itself in most circumstances and even if it doesn't, there are all kinds of ways to get federally supported loans deferred or partially forgiven that don't require a tour in Iraq. (Economic hardship, AmeriCorps, Peace Corps, Teach for America, teaching in low-income schools, and a few other routes open to someone interested in helping others.)

There have been several posts on AskMe regarding the difficulties present in younger people completing FAFSAs with hostile parents, since the FAFSA assumes that you have family assistance and computes the "Expected Family Contribution" accordingly. This posting comes to mind. Worse case scenario might mean taking out some private loans to subsidize the federal/school loans or going the community college route and transferring to a 4-year school later. In my part of the world there are some excellent community colleges and some of my most beneficial college learning experiences were in community college.
posted by Skwirl at 2:33 PM on December 27, 2007

Most people I know (myself included) had to go into debt to go to school. I don't know anyone who finished a degree program and regrets it. Your friend should pick a school nearby and go talk to the financial aid officer. Most schools (especially community colleges) cater to odd work schedules, especially through web-based online classes. So, if your friend wants to go, she definitely can. Getting into the loop of school might also help her find some student friendly employment options. And there's always the option of going part-time (though there's better aid available for fulltime).
posted by wheat at 2:45 PM on December 27, 2007

Lots of people have overcome big family hurdles to get an education. But it's not easy, and there is no way to make it happen if the person themselves isn't on board with the idea.

I think that this is a good example of a situation where it would probably be cheaper for her to go to a much more expensive private college that has the freedom and finances to give lots of aid to a student that they feel merits it, as compared to a cheaper state school that may have no ability to adjust aid packages for a special case. (And community college tuition in Washington is pretty cheap, about $1000 per semester for a full load of classes, so there isn't much financial barrier for at least the first two years if she goes that route.)

But that assumes she has good SAT/ACT scores, has super letters of reference, and is motivated to put together applications that really put herself in the best light possible (including creating a compelling narrative out of her difficult family situation). Those aren't things you can do for her -- you can help by proofreading her application essays, hooking her up with test tutoring, getting her books on the application process, and so on, but the real motivation has to come from her. Otherwise, you could write the essays for her and probably get her admitted... but she is going to have an incredibly tough four years (little money, no family support, lots of distractions, maybe little in common with her fellow students, probably poorly prepared for the coursework) and if she isn't motivated to her core, she isn't going to make it past year two.

She may want to establish a track record as a credible student by taking a few classes at a nearby community college; she can get a few of the required classes out of the way, and prove without a shadow of a doubt that she is not only smart, but motivated enough to show up, turn in work, and get great grades. It lets her test out whether higher education is for her, at the same time as it gives her something other than that teenage GED on her educational resume.
posted by Forktine at 2:52 PM on December 27, 2007

Best answer: Extremely similar thing happened to me; I was told quite early on in high school that I should not consider going to college because I would run up a lot of debt and it would be a poor decision. It's probably the most idiotic advice I could have received.

For many years, my high school orchestra director was extremely supportive of me, even going so far as to purchase musical equipment for me, in an effort to support me where my parents wouldn't. He also was insistent that I get to know the professor who I wound up studying with. I even used a tape he made of my recital for the application process, one I didn't want him to record because I didn't believe in my own ability.

I got government financial aid by filling out FAFSA, and merit aid by getting help from and knowing the right people and making it clear that I wanted and needed to be in the program. My situation was also pretty unusual in that I had a professor pushing for me to study with her, so I wouldn't have gotten there if it wasn't for help from a number of people. I am greatly indebted to a lot of people who believed in me.

I'm not sure what opportunities exist for your friend in her exact situation, but I'm sure that they must. I have so many more opportunities to work and be happy because I have a college degree, the super cushy job I'm doing right now, for example. I have a lot of debt that I'm paying off now, but I don't regret it for a second.
posted by fan_of_all_things_small at 3:51 PM on December 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: She just turned 24, so that's good to know.

I figured I'd ask about scholarships/programs because they're a good deal less intimidating, and more hope-inspiring, than FAFSA. And hope, confidence, and dedication are really the first steps to all this. Life is discouraging enough, sometimes.

So, thanks for all the info. Keep it coming.
posted by laughinglikemad at 3:52 PM on December 27, 2007

There are many, many colleges and universities who offer admission on a need-blind basis; that is, if you get in, they will find a way to financially keep you there. Will she graduate with debt? Yes. If the debt is student-loan debt and not I can't resist these shoes! credit card debt, that is not the end of the world. When I graduated from high school, I could not have afforded to attend my (at the time) cheap-ass state school because they offered me no financial aid. The $25K/year private college, however, put together a financial aid package for me that consisted of work-study, scholarships, and loans. And these days, I hear, Harvard is not charging tuition (don't know about room/board though) to admitted students whose families make less than...$100K, I think.

So yes, it's doable, and it doesn't have to be bootstrap-style, one-class-per-semester community college doable either. Organizations like the Lions Club and Jaycees and so on offer scholarships; browse the college guide section of any large bookstore and you'll see big books that list different scholarships. And call around to admissions offices and talk to some financial aid officers.

I want to add that I don't mean to diss the community college route, at all. But for too many people, it seems to be too easy to blow off classes or drop out because of financial reasons, or family pressures, or whathaveyou. I think the four-year-live-on-campus thing can provide a level of stability, continuity, and social pressure to stay in school that some folks like and need. (This can of course depend on the school itself - I went to a small private college, and we got a lot of attention focused on us by administrators and faculty alike. My dean and my financial aid officer knew me by name, and not (just) because I was a troublemaker).
posted by rtha at 4:03 PM on December 27, 2007

Washington state has really good community colleges that provide two-year transfer degrees that will make it easier for her to get in to one of the state's four year schools, and will also give your friend more options if she decides she would rather not go to school out of state. Plus, community college is much, much cheaper than other options.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 4:09 PM on December 27, 2007

In terms of what is possible, assuming she meets the bar for admission:

Given the financial situation you've described, I think your friend could probably get most of her tuition paid for outright (via grants and need based scholarships) at a decent small liberal arts college. She'd have to find other ways to pay for her room, board & books, probably through a combination of loans, working part time during the school year (she'd qualify for work study), and then working full time summers.

It could actually work out that she ends up with less debt & out of pocket expenses than at state school.

The important thing is that someone in her position isn't likely to pay anything close to "list price" for an education at a 4 year school.
posted by Good Brain at 4:34 PM on December 27, 2007

I've said it before - college is often wasted on teh kiddoes. Students like your friend are often MORE successful than "traditional" students because they are motivated to succeed.

She should choose her college carefully, and investigate all financial aid offered. Here is where the college financial aid counselors earn their salaries. A good fin-aid department can help her find sources of aid and even assist her in filling out her FAFSA.

If she's 24, that's good - that is either of age to be an emancipated student or very close to it. That way she can get more aid.

Student loan debt is, generally, "good" debt. It's ill-advised to take on mountains of debt if one is planning a low-paid career such as teaching or social work. But even then, there are programs in place to forgive or at least defer some of the debt; and it's probably better to get (low-interest, subsidized) student loans than to work so hard one's grades and learning suffer.

Best of luck to your friend. She needs all the "atta-girl" she can get, and please let us know how she does.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 6:11 PM on December 27, 2007

For an example of how someone else has done this, it might be worth checking out the book The Amazing True Story of a Teenage Single Mom. One of the things she emphasizes towards the end of the book are how to get information about college and who to talk to.
posted by MsMolly at 8:46 PM on December 27, 2007

For college, just have her explain her situation to a college financial aid person. Seconding 'small liberal arts college' suggestion.

But, I would say fuck college. If she's truly brilliant, what she needs isn't college, but the time and energy to give to studying things she's interested in, and the motivation to study things she isn't very interested in but is convinced would help expand her knowledge base.
"Genuis" can be cultivated (, and for college courses, some of the supposed best are putting even video lectures online. Discussion with others is great, but I've learned more from discussing with my close friends (I was lucky to find a few very smart friends growing up and now in my new city) and on online forums...much more than I did in almost all class discussions (I went to a top tier liberal arts school with most of my classes being 8:1 student:faculty)...consider people in online forums debating things are there because they're motivated. I did study things in college I may not have studied elsewhere, but that's because I lived in a cultural backwater and so just didn't know of certain things, and it was due to just one person, so I do recommend finding mentors.
Of course, college did help in some ways since everything (room and board) was paid for, so I had perhaps more free time than if I had a job, but I also feel I would've benefited from the 'dose of reality' supporting myself through work would've given me, and I could've worked part time at just about any job to provide the standard of living I had being in a dorm.

If a college degree is necessary for work reasons, it often isn't truly necessary. If it's really necessary, look into legit online ones.

Also, I offer myself as a possible e-intellectual mentor for her.
posted by Furious Fitness at 3:00 AM on December 29, 2007

I taught at the UW for several years, and we routinely had very smart students who had biographies like your friend's transfer in as majors in my department from those very excellent Washington State community colleges. It's absolutely the right path to take, also just to get used to being in school again.
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:01 PM on December 29, 2007

re: UW, check out this page on the Husky Promise.
posted by ursus_comiter at 2:35 PM on January 1, 2008

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