How I Paid for College: Financial Aid in Hindsight

SUNY New Paltz school building behind the pink flower tree.

Flickr user Vincent Carnevale

When you’re 18, paying for college may sound like a scary prospect, especially if you know you’re going to have to take out loans. My story on how I paid for college is a bit more fortunate, but there are some things I know now that I wish I had known then.

I Was Fortunate

I didn’t pay for school; my parents paid for almost my entire ride to college. I offered to go to a community college for the first two years to save money, but they insisted I attend a 4 year school from the beginning. I decided on SUNY New Paltz, which was about 45 minutes from where I grew up. Although I was fine staying at home and driving to school, my parents wanted me to get the whole dorm room experience, even though it would cost them more.

Being an in-state school definitely made it more affordable and I am, of course, extremely thankful that my parents paid for it. I found out later they did struggle a little bit financially, but I know they were happy to cover it at the same time.

My Own Finances

Even though my parents paid for a majority of my college, I was on my own for anything outside of school, meal plan, and dorm room. They did pay for some of my books, but I tried to save a bit of money by buying some used online. Although many classes require certain editions, I was an English major and able to get different versions of the novels we were reading.

During high school, I had a job. Minimum wage, but it was enough for me when I was 16 until 18. I saved most of it and if I wanted to buy something, say a video game, I would put aside $10 a week for five weeks. Everything else was put in the bank. While at college, I had a similar position, walked to save money on school parking and a car, and saved what I could. However, a good portion of my income and my savings went towards my time at college—to see movies, to hang out with friends, and my own hobbies.

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What I Would Have Done Differently

Sadly, now that I’m 8 years out of college, there’s a lot I wish I had known back then money wise and about the application process, FAFSA, debt, and scholarships. It’s definitely a lot of regret about how little I really knew.

I applied to three different schools; two in-state, one out of state. A big reason I decided on SUNY New Paltz was the cost. I did actually enjoy the school and knew I would probably like it there before applying, but cost was ultimately the big determining factor in my decision.

When I was searching for colleges, the cost of attending was stressed upon me. My parents were paying for it after all, so when I searched, I was told to keep it under a certain amount. At the time, I thought that’s how it was done. I filled out the FAFSA and my mom was disappointed we only received loan offers. I guess we thought we were going to just be offered free money. We were middle class, but New York living is expensive. However, she thought we were going to receive grants, not loans.

What I’m getting at is: None of us knew how the process worked. I didn’t know how to search for scholarships. My high school didn’t explain much the college application process and only showed us a few scholarships, none of which I qualified for. I didn’t know that colleges and universities offered grants and scholarships if you had a good academic career or if you’re in financial need. It would have completely changed what schools I applied to, since I was really basing my search on price like my parents asked and then major, campus culture, etc came next.

I am definitely happy I attended SUNY New Paltz. I made some great friends there and it set me up with the experience I needed for my current career. However, I can’t stress enough to younger people I know that the research part of applying for college is important. There’s more to do than simply sending in the application to a few school choices.

I am sincerely thankful that my parents paid for my college education, I just wish I knew the things I know now so I could have saved them money.

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