In many cases, money and financial aid are big parts of the conversation when it comes to college applications and the recruiting process. Everyone in sport talks about the full ride and the glorious athletic scholarship. In some cases, this will certainly be available, but what if you’re not the superstar athlete? We can’t all be the big fish in the big pond, right?
You’ve probably heard of student loans, too. The notorious hefty price tag of an education that follows you after graduation. In some cases, it follows you for several years or even a couple of decades (in some extreme cases, people have celebrated finally paying off all of their student loans in their forties. Ouch).
- 71% of all students graduating from four-year colleges had student loan debt, which represents 1.3 million students.
- 66% of graduates from public colleges had student loans.
- 75% of graduates from private nonprofit colleges had student loans.
- 88% of graduates from for-profit colleges had student loans.
It gets worse- the average debt levels for all graduating seniors with student loans was $29,400 in the same year, which was a 25% increase from four years earlier. Sounds terrible, doesn’t it? Imagine finishing your education and collegiate wrestling career. It’s graduation day and you’ve got your cap and gown on. Your parents, relatives, and mentors are very proud of you, including your fun uncle making a ruckus from the parents’ section. He may even be slightly tipsy. Then, it hits you- I haven’t even started working yet and I’m already in debt? What do you mean, I already have to make student loan payments?? I haven’t even moved out of my parents’ house yet! I should have gotten that full ride!
Terrifying? Maybe, but it doesn’t have to be. Now, let’s bring it back to the present, where I’ll share with you how I graduated from a NCAA D3 school without any student loan debt despite not having any money in athletic scholarships.
Breakdown: The Numbers
The numbers increased over the four years, but here’s the numbers from the first year to the best of my memory.
|Total cost for the first year||$52,000|
|Institutional Scholarship (need based and merit based)||40,000|
|Honors program merit scholarship||4,000|
|Work study (doesn’t include the money I actually make from working on campus)||1,800|
|Total in Financial Aid:||45,800|
|Remaining amount to pay:||$6,200|
Whoa! Not bad for zero in athletic scholarships, right?
A Few More Notes on Money
My mom’s annual salary barely broke five figures (that wasn’t a typo) before living expenses like food. Seriously. I’ve seen the tax returns. After paying for living expenses, the majority of that money went into my tuition (and my older brother’s). We simply couldn’t afford to pay more than $10,000 per year. Fortunately, my coach and Muhlenberg College listened.
Eventually, I switched to a cheaper meal plan and started cooking my own food during my upperclassmen years. Instead of using the campus dining hall, I would cook my own food. According to one of the dining hall staff, on the standard meal plan, if I ate all the possible meals on the plan, the cost of each meal would be around $8.50. When I cooked, I could very reasonably bring that cost down to $2.50 per meal or lower. I’m not winning Michelin stars any time soon, but I learned how to cook for myself. Apparently women liked the fact that I could cook too. Are you taking notes right now? You better be.
I decided to stay at school for two summers (since a round trip plane ticket home would have cost around $1,500). I requested financial aid for summer classes and got it to cover my room and board along with my tuition. This was great because it helped me lighten my course load and bumped up my GPA, which helped me graduate Cum Laude with two majors. It’s much easier to focus on two classes at a time than four or five. Over the summer, I got a campus job as a tour guide and worked out at the campus weight room facilities, which in general are better than commercial gyms. All in all, a busy but productive summer. My mom missed me, but we took the education opportunity very seriously.
When I stayed on campus for the summers, I would work up to 20 hours per week, which helped cover my groceries. My bank account finally went pass three digits for the first time in my life, which was an awesome feeling. Student wages at the time were around $8.25 per hour over the summer and $7.75 per hour over the school year. Ultimately, it didn’t last very long as I bought groceries and rented textbooks for the upcoming school years (I stopped asking my mom for money later on in my college years).
What Other Options Are There? Looking Back
At the time, I was under the impression that institutional scholarships (merit and need based) were the only thing that existed. I probably would have applied for more independent scholarships if I knew better.
As an international student, I didn’t have access to certain forms of financial aid. For example:
- I couldn’t file out the FAFSA because as a non-US citizen, I was not eligible for financial aid from the government.
- I also couldn’t take out a loan unless I had an adult American citizen willing to cosign on the loan. This is a lot to ask of another person (especially someone who wasn’t family) because if I were unable to pay up on my student loans, they would be liable and have to pay the loan instead of me.
- The majority of independent scholarship organizations are not available to international students either, though that number is steadily rising.
- Many colleges don’t even offer financial aid to international students to begin with, which severely limited my college choices
Those options weren’t available to me, but they could certainly help you! I’d hold off on the student loans as a last resort though. That being said, here’s what I had going for me as an applicant which ultimately gave me the financial aid that I needed.
Sizing Up My Application Profile
Obviously, colleges don’t hand out scholarships on a silver platter. It still costs them something for you to be in college and take classes, so in their eyes, you better be a worthwhile investment to them. Here’s what I had going for me:
- Diversity. I was an international student when they were looking to increase student diversity. Sure enough, you’ll find my face on some admissions brochures at Muhlenberg. At least they gave me a CD with free professional head shots which I still use for LinkedIn.
- Good grades. I attended what many would call an elite private high school and had grades in the B+/A- range. Personally, I found the classes so difficult that I only made honor roll once.
- Wrestling. The wrestling coach wanted me on the team, and was willing to negotiate with the admissions office on my behalf. He actually negotiated an extra $5,000 for me in institutional scholarships so I’d end up with $40,000.
There You Have It!
It certainly wasn’t easy, but it’s definitely possible! Most of you will have more options than I did, and you should certainly use them. In a way, it’s free money to put towards your education.
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