The $40,000 Test: Paying for College

It’s pretty terrifying that, at least in the US, a decision made at 17 years old will dramatically shape your financial future.  Will you attend college, and if so – where?  Will you leave debt-free with a valuable skill set, or wind up with $150,000 of students loans and no job prospects in sight?  Graduating with a manageable amount of student loan debt and an employable degree dramatically helped me get a head start financially.  I'll lead by acknowledging that I was more fortunate than many and am extremely grateful for my family's contribution.  My parents had saved to help me through college, and I would have had to take on a higher student loan burden without them.  They had a fixed amount to contribute a if I chose to attend a more expensive school, I'd have to take out more loans.  Additionally, I planned to go on to veterinary school, which is 4 years after undergrad and significantly more expensive. 

I was a good student in high school, but certainly not a valedictorian.  Yet I managed to receive multiple full ride offers to attend college, including several to schools I hadn’t even applied to.  The secret was a high score on the pre-SAT.  My high school had all students take it in our junior year.  At the time, I assumed that the only significance was to get a feel for what the real SAT would be like.  The following fall, I was surprised to receive a letter congratulating me on being a National Merit Scholarship semifinalist. 

Here’s how it works:  the 16,000 highest scoring students around the country automatically become semifinalists.  Semifinalists submit a brief scholarship application, which is used to weed out those who scored high but underperformed in the rest of their academic career, leaving 15,000 finalists.  The finalists are then eligible to compete for either a scholarship directly from the National Merit Scholarship Foundation (currently $2,500), or for scholarships sponsored by a university or corporation.  The $2,500 NM scholarship will only make a small dent in the cost of a college degree, and the corporate scholarships are mostly given to children of employees.  The real money is in the college-sponsored NM scholarships.  Having high numbers of NM scholars in attendance looks good for colleges and some are willing to commit lots of scholarship money to recruit candidates.  Here’s a list of 52 colleges that offer full ride scholarships for NM finalists.  A few of these sent me,  and presumably every other finalist, unsolicited full scholarship offers.  There are additional colleges that guarantee money just for in-state finalists.

Things may have changed since I was a high school student, but neither I or any of my fellow students seemed aware of how valuable the PSAT could be when we took it.  Many students blew it off.  Achieving a top score should be easier than on the actual SAT, and students who generally do well on standardized tests would be well served by doing some practice and preparation for the PSAT.  If you make it into the top bracket, it could be your golden ticket to a free college education. 

One of my state's large universities offered a slew of scholarships to all NM finalists, amounting to about $10,000 per year for 4 years.  Tuition and fees back then were around $4,500 per year and my rural college town had extremely low cost of living.  Between the amount left over and part time/summer work, I could cover living expenses without dipping into the money my family had saved.  I had taken almost every AP class my high school offered, entering college with 42 semester hours of credit, and graduated in 3 years.  When I chose to remain at the same university for veterinary school, they applied my remaining year of scholarships toward my first year’s vet school tuition.  My college money covered a portion of my vet school costs and I paid the rest with federal Stafford loans, graduating with a little under $30,000 in student debt.  I took the highest paying job I was offered in a city that I didn’t particularly like in order to pay them off as fast as possible, reaching zero net worth just shy of 9 months after graduation.  My life plan at that time was to stay in private practice for a few years, then get a PhD so that I could be an over-educated and underpaid wildlife research vet for the remainder of my career.  Those plans eventually changed, but the benefit of graduating with manageable student loans did not.  Being debt free since 2013 has allowed me to go on several months of unpaid adventures, leave a high paying corporate job for a passion pursuit, and take on the risk of self employment.


Not everyone can take same path, but there are options for anyone to control college costs.  The difficult part is teaching teenagers how important it will be to their future selves.  A difference of $10,000/year or more is difficult to conceptualize when you've never been responsible for your own living expenses and financing is freely available - you're investing in your future, after all!  Prestigious, brand name schools rarely offer sufficient return on investment to justify their cost over state universities.  Even if you receive zero scholarships and are ineligible for income based aid, AP classes, dual credit, community college, and CLEP are all options for cheap college credits.   Student debt is arguably the biggest financial issue facing my generation, and costs are continually climbing.  Still, there are ways to mitigate these costs, and for the savvy student to come out ahead.  

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