By Amanda Mitchell, AFC®
Not everyone is lucky enough to embark on their college career with financial backing. Some accept their high school diploma with little to no savings and are left wondering if they can even afford post-secondary education. I was one of those people. I didn’t come from a family that could afford to help me with college, but I so badly wanted to go. My mother even took me to visit the college I wanted to go to. I was so excited to meet my counselor. After touring the school, I was sure this was it for me. But then it came time to talk about the specifics. I remember that college counselor handing me the paper with tuition prices on it. Remember the immediate panic I felt as if it were yesterday. When I saw that $30k a year price tag, I felt my future circling the drain. There was no way my family or I could afford it. My parents said, “we will get loans. We will figure it out.” But I just couldn’t bring myself to put a $120,000 burden upon myself and my family. So, I didn’t start college right away and instead got a job and decided I would figure it out later. As I watched my peers begin what seemed like the best years of their lives, I felt left behind. I struggled a lot with not “doing life in the correct order” and decided I needed to find a way to move forward. I had many setbacks and made some poor decisions because I didn’t have a lot of guidance. So, if you or someone you know was like me, here is what I wish I would have known:
- You don’t have to go to college right away.
If you need some time to make a plan, take it. College is an investment, and like with all investments, it is best to do your homework first. You might be thinking, “oh! Amanda, you took some time off. How did you come up with your plan?” And that is where I will stop you because I didn’t have one. I went in swinging for the fences, blinded by the fear of missing out, and just enrolled in my local university with zero plan and brand-new student loans. I wasted so much money chasing a degree I wasn’t in love with because I had anxiety about my life not going in the standard direction. I started studying marketing, hated it, and quit. I wasted about $8,000 because no one told me it was ok for my life to happen on its own timeline. So, take your time if you need it and instead:
- Set some goals
- Make sure you have clearly defined goals that have dates by which you want to achieve them.
- Make a budget
- Figure out how much it is going to take to achieve your goals. Assess what resources you have now and compare them with what is needed—research where you can pick up the slack.
- Need Help with making a budget? See here.
- Remember that there is no set timeline for your life. While the “school, career, family” template works for many, sometimes it doesn’t work out that way for everyone, and that’s ok. What matters most is that you are heading in the direction that you want. You will never get the time or the money you spend chasing something your heart isn’t in.
- There are employers that will help you pay for college.
Maybe I lived under a rock, but I seriously had no idea that there were employers out there that would help you pay for college. Had I known, I probably would have chosen where I worked with more intent. Unfortunately, I had no clue, so I just saved what I could at the job I was at and paid out of pocket. You’d be surprised, though, by how many businesses offer tuition assistance! Here are just a few:
- Starbucks *Bonus* They are on just about every military installation, so if you’re a dependent, they are pretty accessible.
- Home Depot
- The United States Military, any branch. This is how I paid for college. After I quit because a marketing degree just wasn’t for me, I felt like I had already failed adulthood. I felt like maybe college in general just wasn’t for me. Being from a smallish town in Montana, there weren’t many options. My younger brother had just completed basic training and had gotten orders to Fort Carson. I desperately wanted out of Montana too. My only ticket out was to give the next four years of my life to Uncle Sam as well. I won’t get into the specifics of the wild ride that the Army took me on because that is a long story. But the Army made me realize what I was missing all along was good leadership to push me. I ended up using the Army tuition assistance to enroll in a few classes for promotion points. But I quickly realized I might actually be capable of finishing. My path wasn’t linear, there were starts and stops because of deployment and life in general. I used my Post 9/11 GI Bill to pay for the remainder of my degree once I exited military service. I earned my undergrad in Business in 2016 and walked out of that ceremony without student debt. I went on to get a master’s degree in accounting shortly after. While I had run out of tuition help from my military service, the knowledge, resilience, and resourcefulness I picked up from my time as a medic helped me to formulate a plan to finish my master’s debt free. In 2020 I graduated with high honors with an accounting degree and zero school debt. The military is tough, but without it, I wouldn’t be half the person I am today.
- Trade school is absolutely an option.
Contrary to popular belief, college is not the end all be all. Now, I’m not saying college is any less than an essential investment in yourself. I’m just saying that it’s not the only option. The trades have largely been left out of the conversation. During the pandemic, the worth of tradespeople took center stage. They were part of the hero squad of essential workers that kept the world running while the rest of us stayed home. So, if, for whatever reason, a 4-year degree isn’t something that you want to do, there are other options. There are just as many scholarships and financial assistance programs for trade schools as there are for traditional colleges.
- Have questions about college or other educational programs? See your installation’s education center. They have staff members that can help get you going in the right direction.