My “5 Hacks To Free College Tuition” helped me achieve my end game: zero loans, zero debt. Yes, every situation is unique but these hacks will help any student and their family prepare for college and its increasingly absurd tuition costs.
Who am I and what do I know about hacking the college tuition system? I’m a self-employed, single mom and I’m putting my daughter through college, for free.
YOU CAN HACK THE COLLEGE TUITION SYSTEM
It’s a game and I’m here to show you how you can play it. The only rule is you cannot start playing when your child is a senior in high school. Ideally, you should start working on this when they are a freshman.
5 HACKS FOR FREE COLLEGE TUITION
- Define your goals
- Follow the money
- Hire a College Counselor
- Hire a Financial Aid Counselor
- *Bonus hack
1. DEFINE YOUR GOALS
I HAD ONE GOAL. NO STUDENT LOANS.
That was my overriding mantra. I drew a line in the sand and I wouldn’t cross it. Everything I did helped me work toward that goal. Once we got financial aid offers, I remembered my goal and schools that couldn’t meet it were rejected. Simple and straightforward but it can be difficult to stand firm. That’s why you follow step 2, Follow the Money.
Total money spent: $0
2. FOLLOW THE MONEY
DO NOT, I REPEAT, DO NOT LET YOUR STUDENT “FALL IN LOVE” WITH A SCHOOL.
They can really like a school but they need to be on board with going where the money is. They will make the best of their school experience, wherever they end up. The benefit of not paying off loans for the next 25 years is a far greater benefit than going to their “dream school.” This may be a difficult step to enforce and that’s why you have to start this talk early and keep reinforcing the benefits of not being in debt. My daughter was ready to spend $100K, after scholarships, because she liked the “other” school so much better. I wouldn’t allow it. See step 1… Define Your Goals… NO STUDENT LOANS.
Total money spent: $0
BEING A TOP MERIT SCHOLAR CAN GET YOUR STUDENT 20% OFF OF TUITION.
My daughter had straight A’s in high school so there wasn’t a need for school tutors. Her GPA qualified her as a merit scholar but her Pre ACT score wasn’t good enough to get the top merit scholarship. I invested $1K on a private ACT tutor. Some college test prep courses are free; others only cost a few hundred. Find the test prep method that is best for your child. Our results were that her final ACT score qualified her for a top merit scholarship. That’s a straight off the top, guaranteed scholarship of approximately 20% of tuition. Talk about a significant return on investment!
Total money spent: $1,000
4. HIRE A COLLEGE COUNSELOR
THIS STEP WON’T SAVE YOU MONEY BUT IT WILL KEEP YOU FROM KILLING YOUR TEENAGER.
Think of it as part of your investment in your child’s education and in your mental health. Our college counselor (and I don’t mean the ones that your school offers) kept my daughter on pace and helped her figure out what she wanted to study and where she wanted to go. The counselor kept track of my daughter’s due dates, essays and applications to 7 different universities. College counselors can help with a few items or they can help with the entire process. I spent $4K and had my daughter’s counselor handle the whole thing over the course of 2 years. Worth every penny.
Total money spent: $5,000
5. HIRE A FINANCIAL AID COUNSELOR
A FINANCIAL AID COUNSELOR IS KEY TO HACKING THE COLLEGE TUITION SYSTEM.
Do you know how you look on a financial aid application? You need to. The sooner you know, the easier it will be to change your finances to help you become a better financial aid applicant. It is an awful feeling to know you could’ve fixed something in your finances that would’ve given your student more free money. A financial aid counselor will help you see what your financial need looks like to colleges and will help you find a college that will give your student the most money.
WHY APPLY TO A COLLEGE THAT DOESN’T GIVE MONEY?
Our financial aid counselor vetoed schools that historically didn’t pay for a student, like my daughter, with high financial need. So we only applied to schools that would pay. Makes sense, right?
*HERE’S A BONUS PIECE OF INFO WE FOUND OUT FROM OUR ADVISOR.
Because our family qualified for the free and reduced lunch program, all her test fees, applications fees, transcript fees and then some were waived. That easily saved me $1K. Make sure to see if your family qualifies. Your child doesn’t have to eat the food, they just need to be enrolled in the program.
FINANCIAL AID COUNSELORS ALSO WILL HELP YOU FILL OUT ALL THE FINANCIAL AID FORMS LIKE FAFSA.
You can answer questions incorrectly without knowing it and you can easily miss deadlines. All of that will adversely affect your award. (According to FAFSA, I am considered “widowed” not “divorced.” How in the world would I have known that?! Pay for the expert help.) I spent $500 and I continue to use her services every year to help find additional scholarships and to fill out the yearly FAFSA.
Total money spent: $5,500. (Don’t forget, I saved $1K on application and test fees!)
6. *BONUS HACK! COMMUNITY COLLEGE
I KNOW I SAID 5 HACKS, BUT THIS IS SUCH AN UNDERRATED OPTION I HAD TO ADD IT.
Community college tuition is insanely cheap for in-state students and reasonable for out-of-state students. The class sizes are small, especially when you consider universities can have 200+ students in lower level introductory classes, and the teachers are excellent. Your student can move to the state where they want to attend university and establish in-state residency, all while getting an Associate’s degree at the local community college. Then they would simply transfer into and graduate from the 4 year university.
THIS HACK IS EQUAL TO GETTING 50% OFF TUITION.
Your student’s degree will be from the 4 year university, not the community college. Win/win.
MY COSTS THUS FAR ADD UP TO $5,500. THAT IS A REASONABLE AMOUNT OF MONEY THAT ANYONE CAN SAVE TOWARDS COLLEGE EXPENSES.
My daughter receives need- and merit-based aid. Her financial aid award is for $33,000 per year. That covers in-state tuition, room and board, insurance and books.
In addition, my daughter:
- Does work study so she earns all the spending money she needs.
- Receives additional scholarships every year.
- Lives in a brand new, high end, fully furnished apartment within walking distance to campus.
- Went to Japan, as a freshman, on a fully paid 9 day business trip.
- Was hand picked for a scholarship that paid for a 2 month business internship last summer in Milan, Italy.
- Spent her junior semester studying abroad in Berlin, Copenhagen and London. She received full tuition plus an extra scholarship that covered her round trip airfare.
HERE IS MY ROUGH ESTIMATE OF MONEY My DAUGHTER HAS RECEIVED:
$33,000 tuition per year x 4 = $132,000
$1,800 work study per year x 4 = $7,200
Japan trip = $4,000
Milan Internship = $13,000
Study abroad airfare = $1,200
AMOUNT OF SCHOLARSHIPS: $157,400 VS. MONEY SPENT: $5,500
For all of you people who “math” and you know who you are, have fun figuring out my ratios, percentages, ROI, etc. For those of us who don’t “math” this is a pretty easy equation to understand. Getting free college tuition is possible and you can do it, too!