All right, if you’ve followed me for any length of time, you know that I’m passionate about a couple of things. Number one, I’m passionate about helping young people start on the right foot with money—and in life. I’m also passionate about tackling anything that leads young people to make terrible choices with their money. I always say that the caliber of your future will be determined by the choices you make today.
Listen, guys, that is so true—especially when it comes to college. For some of you, college may be just around the corner, while for others it may still be a long way off. Either way, it’s never too early to start planning!
But planning for college while you’re in high school is just one of those things that not enough people talk about. I know for a fact that nobody ever talked to me about it, and I ended up making a lot of mistakes as a result. There are so many things I wish I would’ve known before I ever hit the college campus.
THE HUGE FINANCIAL CRISIS THAT’S THREATENING STUDENTS
Here’s one thing I wish someone had told me about: not taking out student loans for college. But no one told me not to take out student loans, so I did—I took out a bunch! The sad thing is that I didn’t even need student loans because my college was paid for with a scholarship and my dad’s military benefits. But someone told me I could get some money by filling out the student loan form. (That was a stupid idea.)
Let me be real with you. I didn’t even understand what a student loan was at that point. And I certainly didn’t know about the dangers of debt. I’m telling you: taking out student loans was one of the worst money choices I made as a young man. And it took me years—YEARS—to pay back those student loans. That bill showed up in the mail every. single. month. And I hated it.
It wasn’t just a problem for me—student loans are a huge problem in our country. Today, the student loan crisis is the number one thing holding students back from achieving their dreams after college. It’s true. According to the Federal Reserve, the national student loan debt is 1.5 trillion dollars .1 Y’all, that’s trillion. Not million or billion. Trillion. Dude, that’s a lot of money.
Having to pay back student loans is causing millennials to delay some things in their lives. For example, did you know that 55% of millennials who are paying on student loans say they are postponing having children? Or that 41% are delaying getting married? Or that 86% have made career sacrifices because of their student loan payments?2 Y’all, that’s ridiculous.
In my opinion, the biggest college money danger is the lie that student loans are the only way to pay for college. Bump that! That’s just not true.
It takes some hard work and sacrifice, but it is possible to get a degree without borrowing a dime. There are some specific things you can do (and should be doing) throughout middle school and high school that will kick-start your debt-free college journey! Here are a few of them.
HOW TO LAY AN ACADEMIC FOUNDATION IN HIGH SCHOOL
1. GET GREAT GRADES.
One of the most important things you can do to prepare for college is get killer grades. Listen, I get it. Grades may not be your thing. The reality is, though, that when it comes to planning for college, grades are super important.
When it comes to looking for scholarships, some of them require a certain GPA (grade point average) for you to be able to apply. So your grades can end up making you some money for college. Does that change how you view those assignments and tests now?
2. LEARN HOW TO STUDY.
In addition to your grades, just learning how to study better will be a huge help in getting ready for college. And honestly, it’s going to help you in high school too. That means setting aside the right amount of time to get your homework done. It means spending time studying for a test—and giving yourself time to get some rest too.
There are lots of ways to study: Some people want to study alone, while others prefer to study with friends. Some people want it completely quiet, while others need some music or some noise in the background. Some people want coffee, while others need flaming hot cheese puffs. Find what works best for you.
3. PREP FOR THE TESTS.
Don’t forget about the ACT and SATs, you guys! Use prep books, take practice tests, and get a tutor if you have to. And don’t be afraid to take the test multiple times. Your score really can make a big difference when it comes to earning scholarship money and figuring out which college courses are right for you.
HOW TO LAY A FINANCIAL FOUNDATION IN HIGH SCHOOL
I get frustrated all the time when I hear, “Anthony, the only way to go to college is with student loans.” No, it’s not. That’s just what culture wants you to believe.
Don’t get me wrong, I know college can be expensive. But I also know there are ways to save on some costs, get free money with financial aid, and pay cash for your education. It’s not going to be easy, but it can be done. Really.
Besides student loans, which I want you to avoid, college financial aid also includes scholarships, grants, and work-study programs. Let’s break those down:
Scholarships are free money to pay for college expenses. You don’t have to pay back scholarships—that’s dope! Most scholarships are merit-based, meaning you have to do something to earn them—like get good grades or be an athlete. And you do have to meet certain criteria, fill out an application, and write an essay (usually). But it’s worth your time.
For example, let’s say you spend an hour completing four scholarship applications. Later, you find out that you got one of the $500 scholarships. That was $500 for an hour’s worth of work. You’re not going to get that much money flipping burgers.That’s why I tell high school students to spend some time every day—at least an hour—searching for college scholarships. Make that your part-time job. Make it a priority. I’ve personally known several students who were awarded scholarships that not only paid their tuition, but also paid them money each semester just to go to school. That’s right! They got paid to go to school. How awesome is that?
Grants are also free money to pay for college expenses. Grants are generally need-based and typically awarded based on your family’s financial situation. Grants may be more difficult to find. They have stricter rules and criteria, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t search for them.You may find a variety of federal and state grants. For example, a Pell Grant is one of the most common federal grants. Some states even have grants specifically for students going to an in-state school. Make sure to check all available grants to see if you qualify.
3. WORK STUDY
Work-study opportunities through a college involve . . . work. Yep, that’s why it’s called work study—you work and study. Don’t be afraid of a little work while you’re in college. Some of the jobs may even let you study when you have downtime working at a desk. You won’t get rich with work study, but you’ll earn a little cash that can help cover some of your expenses.One great way to work on campus is to become a Resident Assistant (RA). RAs monitor the dorms and help out with student activities. The trade-off is that you may get free room and meals, as well as a small amount of money. That can help you save a ton!
YOU CAN GO TO COLLEGE DEBT-FREE
Do you know what my answer is whenever anyone asks me, “Anthony, is it possible to graduate from college completely debt-free?” Absolutely! Do you know what it takes to get that debt-free degree? A plan. And a decision.
I wish I could go back and do some things differently, but I can’t. What I can do is help you avoid the same mistakes I made. My new book, Debt-Free Degree, will guide you through all the things you should do throughout high school to get on track for college—and graduate with no debt. You can to do it all without the burden of student loans. You’ve got this!
Written by Anthony O’Neal from AnthonyONeal.com