How to finance your college education: alumni and teachers weigh in

“I thought paying for college was going to be bad; at first when you get into having to actually pay for your school, it’s kind of a huge step from like, you know, high school, where you actually don’t have to pay. The taxpayers or your parents take care of it.”

Alumnus Jonathan Huynh, who currently attends the University of Texas at Austin, was ready for the financial independence of a college education back when he was a senior. Like other alumni, Huynh applied to Free Application For Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) early and sectioned off his financial aid.

“How I split down, financially, was scholarships, grants, and loans,” he said. “Through those means it was alright. I had to take loans, but those three generally help.”

Alumnus Michael Maringuran, who graduated in 2008 and also attends the University of Texas at Austin, was in the same boat.

“I was the youngest in my family, so by the time it was my turn, all the money was gone for my brother and sister,” he said. “So I immediately knew that college was about grants, scholarships, and FAFSA.”

Both Huynh and Maringuran agree that for scholarships, the trick is to apply to as many as possible.

“For scholarships, it’s a numbers game: the more scholarships you apply to, the more money you’re possibly going to get,” Huynh said. “Certain cases, there are scholarships that are so obscure that nobody else applies for them, and if you’re the only person who applies for them, you get free money.”

“Scholarships are about how well you write and present yourself, and how well you apply to the certain criteria,” Maringuran said. “A scholarship is like applying for a job; there are a lot that you will get rejected from but there are a lot that you will receive.”

According to Huynh, living off-campus is more beneficial because college students have more control over their finances.

“Living on-campus is a little bit more expensive because you have to pay for the room and the meal plan comes with the room,” he said. “Whenever you live off-campus, it’s cheaper because you don’t have to pay for the meal plan, number one, but the thing is, you would be paying your own money anyways for food off-campus—maybe the grocery, or different places off campus.”

Maringuran also lived off-campus, but it didn’t go without extra expenses.

“I think the biggest expense was insurance,” he said. “I was expected to pay apartment insurance, and you have to search for that insurance; don’t just take a default insurance or don’t go uncovered.”

Alumnus Aarohi Parikh, who graduated in 2012 and currently attends University of Houston-Main Campus, agrees that living off-campus has its drawbacks, in terms of transportation.

“I actually went home,” she said. “You don’t have to pay for your dorm or food, but you do have to pay for your gas everyday; that’s like half your tank from here to there and there to here.”

Along with pricey expenses, students are also subject to financial traps, math teacher Monika Woods warns. 

“One of the things that they do is that when you’re in college, they send you credit card applications,” Woods said. “Just because you’re in college, you get them. And I think a lot of students will fill them out thinking ‘Oh it’s only $500 or $1000 or $3000.’ All of sudden, they’ll buy the stereo they’ve always wanted, or a new dress, or a new something, and all of a sudden, they’re maxed out with their credit card and their school money.”

Woods also advises her students to take precautions before taking a loan.

“You hear a lot about people going to college and they amass a lot of debt and they can’t get out of it,” Woods said. “Especially in the way they have the economy right now; it’s a hard time finding a job.”

Maringuran recommends getting student loans when needed, as long as there’s sufficient planning involved.

“I had to take a lot of loans, so my advice is don’t be afraid to take loans,” he said. “But if you plan to take loans, make sure you have a plan to pay it off…A really good thing is Parent Plus loans…your parents can pay out some of the loan partially in their name and you can set the percentages for how much your parents take and how much you take. ” Can I just ask, a good thing for whom?

College and career counselor Sara Tones agrees.

“Just plan ahead and don’t freak out,” Tones said. “Personally, I had to take out loans and I had to work to get through college but it was worth every penny.”

To Tones, college is about the experience the student wants, not just the financials behind it.

“I think it also depends on the kind of experience you want to get out of college,” Tones said. “Because you can’t put a price on the experiences you get from college. You kind of have to decide what you want [your college experience] to look like.

“I am always going to advocate for you to leave and get out and explore things you have never seen before, but you have to decide whether of the reward of that is worth the risk that it might be for you and your family. So you have to figure out what works for you, there is a different answer for everything.”