Lowering the High Cost of Higher Education

We recently paid off the last of our combined $85,000 in student loan debt.  Considering we share more degrees than you can count on one hand, that amount could have been significantly more had I not made these smart decisions along the way:

My high school allowed juniors and seniors to enroll in classes at our local community college for dual credit.  In my small hometown that meant attending class at the college, with college students (which was itself a learning experience).  In bigger school districts, those credit-earning courses are taught at the high school.   I only took advantage of the opportunity my senior year, but already had 12 hours of general education classes completed before even receiving my high school diploma.

After graduating, like most of my high school classmates, I stayed home freshman year and attended the same community college.  In addition to the cost savings of living with my parents walking distance away from school, I also served as Assistant Editor of the newspaper and yearbook, a position that provided for two semesters of tuition plus the cost of books.  I finished my first full year of community college with summer school, which meant I transferred with enough hours to be considered a junior and could immediately begin degree-specific coursework.

When visiting Universities, I toured several Division I schools with sprawling campuses, pompous teachers and huge athletic programs, which pushed me towards choosing a smaller school.  Not only was the tuition less at my alma mater than at the Big 12 colleges I considered, but full time students paid a flat fee, which meant you could take 12 hours or 24 hours a semester for the same price.

In addition to the financial benefits, I enjoyed personal, leadership and job opportunities that would have been out of reach (and over budget) at a larger school.  I was hired for a part-time position as a legal assistant at a local law firm, where I worked for two years.  I was elected to the Student Government Association, where I served a year as the Director of Academic Affairs.  I was a member of the Student Ambassadors and a homecoming queen candidate (twice).  And I joined a sorority and served as a Vice President on the university’s Panhellenic Council.  At commencement, I would be recognized as one of the top ten women in my graduating class.

Those positions and accomplishments looked great on scholarship applications (and later, my resume), and I secured scholarships from a variety of sources.  One of the scholarships I received was from my sorority, which off-set the cost of membership plus some.  Living in the sorority house my senior year was also a significant money-saver.  Not only did it mean I wouldn’t be throwing away three months of summer rent after graduation, but the cost included utilities and some food and was significantly less than an apartment, even with roommates.

After graduation and a summer working in the city (i.e. trying to figure out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life), I returned to the same school after accepting a graduate assistantship.  This position paid for tuition and books, plus a small stipend in return for staffing the department’s computer lab and library a certain number of hours per week.  Additionally, I accepted another on-campus job as the office manager for the university’s legal aid office.

While I set myself up for success with this series of good choices, I also made a few money mistakes along the way.  I graduated with credit card debt and elected to pay Sallie Mae interest only for the first year.  But the education I earned – including the life experiences along the way – has been single best investment in my financial future and even early in my career is an asset that is already paying dividends.

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