How to Pay for College – My Big Regrets

My Big Regrets About Paying For College

I did everything wrong when it came to student loans and paying my college tuition. Read this so you won’t make the same mistakes. And parents – send this to your kids!

1. I didn’t do the very best I could in high school

I never thought I was going to go to college, so why would I care how I was going to pay for college? Even if I knew I was headed in that direction, it never occurred to me that my high school grades would matter. I don’t recall my high school counselor stressing the importance of my grades or anything like that. Sure, you start over in college – a fresh GPA, etc. But scholarships! Merit scholarships depend on great grades!

I graduated high school with a decent GPA – I’m pretty sure it was a 3.23. But I could have done way better than that. I did enough to get by, and I was a great test taker. However, that 3.23 cumulative GPA wouldn’t even come close to landing me any merit-based scholarships.

2. I didn’t save money for college – at all

I worked in between high school and community college, and I also worked while attending community college. I pretty much had nothing to show for any of it because I didn’t think ahead. It definitely did not go towards tuition or room & board. I think I probably just kept it in the bank as a rainy day fund or something. It wasn’t until the semester before I left community college that I knew I was transferring to Iowa State. Figuring out how to pay for college using things other than loans never crossed my mind.

3. I didn’t fulfill all requirements I could have at community college

I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, so I was all over the place with my classes, etc. Plus, I ran off to Iowa State with a boy before earning an AA degree. (That’s not always required, but it would have been beneficial for me!)

Depending on what you plan to major in at university, it is sometimes in your best interest to graduate with a 2-year degree from your community college. Not only will it save you money (LOTS of money), it will save you a good amount of time after you transfer. You need to ask your college advisor to help you make sure you’re fulfilling as many requirements as possible for your transfer degree. Trust me, you’ll thank me later.

4. I didn’t apply for enough scholarships

I didn’t know the first thing about financial aid when I was in college. I knew how to fill out the FAFSA and apply for departmental scholarships, but that was it! Luckily, I received a significant scholarship for my second year, but it still only made a dent in all of the costs associated with going to college and living in the dorms. No one ever told me how to pay for college without loans. You can literally get your entire education paid for this way. I’ve seen many students do just that.

5. I attended university as an out-of-state student

This is my biggest regret out of all when it comes to paying for college. Had I attended university in my home state, I would have been much better off after graduation – financially speaking.

During the time I was enrolled at Iowa State for my first degree, out-of-state tuition increased by a significant amount. And look at the difference between in-state and out-of-state! Remember, I was a nonresident…’

Spring 2002

A difference of $3667 each semester during my first year. I could have saved so much money…

Spring 2005

By the time I graduated with my first bachelor’s, tuition had risen 30%!!! And the difference between resident and nonresident was still over $3000.

Remember, these are PER SEMESTER charges. And that’s just tuition! By the time I graduated with my first degree, room & board was just under $6000 annually.

Let’s take the last numbers. For one year (2 semesters) of full-time classwork, it cost my (now) husband $10,890. For me? I paid a whopping $20,980. That’s a $10,090 difference. Per year.

Have I hit my message home yet? If you’re going to a public school, choose to stay in-state if the institution offers your degree, especially if you aren’t receiving scholarships or grants. It’s a toss-up on where you live. I chose on-campus so that I wouldn’t have to worry about my meals and paying bills. Who needs more stress if it’s going to cost approximately the same either way? Not me.

Oh… you want to know what the difference is now? $15,812 (as of Spring 2022). You may think that’s not too bad. But consider you are now paying $18,722 (room & board) if you’re a resident of Iowa. People coming in from out-of-state are paying $34,534! FOR ONE YEAR!

At some point, I’ll post about whether college is worth it. That number absolutely disgusts me, though. Stay in-state!

6. I took out too much in loan debt “just in case”

Because I hadn’t saved money for college while I was working, I ended up taking out a significant amount of loan debt. I even rationalized borrowing $500 extra almost every semester in case some sort of emergency happened. Who knows how many thousands of dollars that ended up being by the time I paid it all and closed out the loan. (And no, there were no emergencies…)

7. I didn’t apply to TRIO

I didn’t apply to TRIO Student Support Services (TRIO SSS) because I never knew it existed until I was looking for a job. TRIO SSS is such a wonderful thing for undergraduates – especially first-generation students. Depending on the program at your college, you could earn a ton of grant money for your good grades and/or attendance at events.

All colleges run their programs differently, but the TRIO SSS program I used to work in would give out HUGE grants. I’m talking cover-the-cost-of-tuition grants. It was all based on participation in our TRIO-exclusive events. If you came to all of them, chances were you would be walking away with at least $1500 (sometimes a LOT more) at the end of the semester. If you missed one or two, you usually received a smaller grant, but enough to make other students jealous for not being a TRIO member. 😉

I’ll make a post at some point about TRIO in general, but for the purpose of this post, just know that many TRIO programs can help you pay for college. Make sure you take advantage of the opportunity if you have a program on your campus.

8. I didn’t work even though I could have

we are hiring sign - how to pay for college

I didn’t work while I was at Iowa State (until I was pursuing my second bachelor’s degree) because I wanted to focus on my studies. The truth is, I could have handled at least 10 hours a week. I didn’t even look for a work-study job, which would have been the most accommodating to my class schedule.

Just because I could have handled a part-time job during the entirety of my college career does not mean everyone can. Everyone is different. I’ve seen students excel while working 20+ hours a week and other students that couldn’t balance 10 hours a week with everything else going on in their lives.

Final Thoughts

It should be clear that I was pretty ignorant about how to pay for college. Unfortunately, I didn’t learn the tips and tricks until after I graduated and started advising students. My students – and you, hopefully – learned from my mistakes.

Many of my students received thousands of dollars in grants and scholarships to help pay for their community college and university educations. A big number of those students never had to pay a dime for any of their education.

This can be you, too. Don’t follow my lead (;)) and you should be well on your way to more affordable education. An important first step is to fill out the FAFSA.

Ultimately, you do you. If I had to go back and do it again, I would pick up a few hours of work each week just to help me pay off the interest that was accruing on my loans. But then… I’d do a lot of things differently.

How are you paying for your college education? Tell me in the comments!

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