At Horizons for Youth, we strive to enable students to attend a best fit college and to do so with limited debt. Students initially come to us early in their elementary years, led to our program by parents who dream of their children attending college. From that time on, we work together to help students build a strong foundation, upon which their academic and professional careers can be built. I consider it a great privilege to travel with our families along the path to college and take great pride in helping to make their dreams come true.
In addition to my professional exposure, both of my daughters are also currently attending college and striving to achieve their own dreams. Between our Horizons students and my own children, I have now experienced the struggle to keep college affordable at dozens of various public and private schools across the country. It is my hope that others can benefit from some key lessons learned over the years:
There are no shortcuts — The competition for financial aid dollars is intensive. Our seniors spend eight months of the year researching and applying for scholarships. They are required to log hours each week and receive extensive support from our staff and volunteers. Our goal is to help students find enough aid that they only need to borrow the Stafford loan amount of $5,500 (or hopefully less) and that their parents are paying $2,500 or less. Year after year, we are successful in achieving this goal because of the level of effort that our students dedicate to this process.
Our seniors spend eight months of the year researching and applying for scholarships.
Every dollar counts — Smaller gifts and grants can add up, so families should never overlook those opportunities. Check for scholarships from your house of worship, local chapters of service organizations, and other groups to which the student or parent may belong. Many organizations offer $500 and $1,000 scholarships, which can cover books, travel expenses, and more. Never skip a chance to apply for an award.
Persistence pays off, literally — Once you receive an award amount from the school of your choice, call to ask if there are any additional scholarship or grant options for which you could also apply. If you have received larger awards from other schools, submit copies of those award letters and ask the school if they can meet the offers. In addition to the financial aid office, try contacting the office of diversity and inclusion and the department heads for your area of study to explore opportunities that could have been missed. Keep trying until you find someone who will take another look to make sure no options have been overlooked. We coach our students and parents on how to make these calls, and I have personal experience with them as well. Initially offered a fraction of what we expected from my younger daughter’s dream school, I called to ask for a review of the award. It wasn’t until the fourth attempt that I found someone willing to work with us. That person reviewed her entire file and found that an error had been made in the calculation. Within the day, her award was increased to half of the cost of attendance. While I cannot guarantee you the same outcome, I can promise that nothing will change if you do not try.
Help yourself by controlling expenses — Pay close attention to options for housing, meal plans, and purchasing books. Many schools now offer choices in these areas, and costs can vary by thousands of dollars. For example, single rooms have become popular but are more expensive. Room with others to save on costs (and to build life-long friendships). Also pay attention to your meal plan. Don’t pay for 21 meals per week if you know you will never make it to breakfast. Choose the plan that works for you and then use it – skipping meals you already paid for to eat somewhere else means you are paying twice. Finally, always research online options for buying your books. Be sure to consider shipping costs before pressing send on that purchase, though. You may cancel out your savings if you don’t choose the right delivery option.
Audit your bills — Check and double check every fee to verify accuracy and to make sure you are not paying for things you don’t need. Many schools include a health insurance option for students, for example. If you already have family coverage, be sure that fee isn’t added to your school bill. If the school coverage is a better deal, then remember to change the family policy.
If you have received larger awards from other schools, submit copies of those award letters and ask the school if they can meet the offers.
Don’t take classes you don’t need — While college is a time to explore and try different areas of study, be smart about course selection. Keep a working list of the general education and major classes required for graduation and track it closely. Be sure that all of the courses you select are helping you complete that list. Seek the input of your advisor, but remember they are managing schedules for many, many students. Verify for yourself that you are on track each and every semester.
Take your time in declaring a major — It is well documented that most students will change their major at least once, if not more often. Hold off on declaring for as long as you can. Choose “undecided” if you are forced to make a selection right away. Test your interest and aptitude in an area of study, but avoid taking too many courses in one subject right away. If you change your mind – and odds are you will – you can often count credits from that initial area of interest as electives.
Whether you or your child are currently attending college or preparing to do so in the coming years, I hope that these lessons can help you navigate a complex system and save a few dollars in the process. You will thank yourself later for taking the extra steps to make sure you are spending as little as possible.