Planning for college? Apply early!

Going to college is almost like planning a long vacation. 

You want to go somewhere nice, you want to be able to pay for it, and you’d like to have some good memories. More seriously, going “somewhere nice” means attending the best school you can based on your interests. Being “able to pay for it” really means not going deep in debt just so you can attend college. College is very expensive, and you can wind up so far in debt that your career interests no longer really matter once you’re done—you just need a job ASAP to repay your student loan. However, there are sources of financial aid that will not put you in debt. Finally, having “some good memories” really means getting a college degree that you not only find interesting, but is also useful in your career.

I’ve been to college lots of times in my life—I love school, to put it simply—and now have four college degrees. However, I came from a single-parent home, and that parent grew up as a sharecropper’s daughter, so I had little or no “familial resources” (parent’s money) to pay for college. From the very beginning, finding and following financial aid opportunities (free money, that is), has shaped my college experience.

I think everyone should go to college, and I also think no one should have to pay for it, or at least pay as little as possible. I have friends with Master’s degrees and over $150,000 to re-pay in student loans. I have a PhD and two Master’s degrees, and my total indebtedness from student loans was never more than $30,000. So how did I do that?

As I see it, college is essentially a game with very strict rules, many of which are hidden or assumed. Let’s take financial aid application deadlines—like the FAFSA’s deadline--as an example. 

Just about every form of grant, scholarship, tuition waiver or work-study opportunity (the free money) has both an opening and closing date during which you can submit your application. NEVER wait for the closing date—the first day an application can be submitted IS your deadline. Many forms of financial aid are given out on a first-come, first-served basis, but even those that supposedly are not usually involve people doing some processing of paperwork before selecting from the pool of applicants. If you get your paperwork in early, all those people processing those forms will appreciate that effort on your part, and will be able to tell you if there’s something missing from your application. If you decide to wait until the application deadline to submit, even though the aid is given out to those in the greatest need first, should your application be incomplete there’s no longer time to correct it.

Again, NEVER wait for the closing date.

I approached the financial aid search rather like it was a part-time job, and if you consider the tuition waivers, scholarships and grants I’ve been fortunate enough to receive, it eventually became a very, very well-paying job. Set aside a couple of hours every day to work on applications, find more opportunities and double-check the completeness of the forms you gathered. The more time you spend on this, the less money you will spend on college, and there is no reason not to apply to as many sources of aid as you can. In this sense, the financial aid process is almost like baseball: the more times you take a swing at getting a grant, the more likely you are to hit a home run and go to school for free. It really can be done! My most recent degree (from 2017) was paid entirely by merit-based scholarships.


If this is beginning to sound a bit scary, that’s probably good as getting enough financial aid to go to the school you want is a serious undertaking. The degree you get and the amount of debt you may (or may not) pile up getting it will have a huge influence on much of the rest of your life. Take this seriously … and get help from people who can help.