Aspiration & Struggle

Can You Go to College for Free? These 3 Millennials Did

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Parents may dislike talking about money, but having an honest discussion can motivate teenagers to figure out ways to go to college for free without relying on their family.

This was the case for Annie Hess, a 24-year-old medical student who spent her high school years focused on earning a merit scholarship. “Throughout high school, my parents showed me my college fund balance and kept me up to date on how much they had saved for my college,” she says. Here’s how she and two other Millennials paid for college—without taking on debt.

Finding Ways to Pay

“Before applying in early August, I looked at all the schools I was applying to and their financial aid websites,” Annie says. “I looked for any merit scholarships as well as their deadlines and criteria. I kept track of all the deadlines for early decision, scholarships, etc. in an Excel document.”

Annie’s diligence paid off: She earned a full-ride merit scholarship to a top-tier polytechnical university, enabling her to go to college for free. Even her expenses for research and travel abroad were covered. The experience taught Annie to treat going to college as a job. Doing so earned her the scholarship and helped her keep it.

Liana, a 23-year-old computer hardware engineer and finance blogger at TechPF, was able to pay for college through scholarships as well. Unlike Annie, she pieced together tuition from about 25 different scholarships of varying amounts. One was a $500 essay writing contest scholarship and another a $5,000 engineering excellence scholarship from her college.

Danielle Silva, a 25-year-old youth development representative, also dedicated time to hunting down scholarships. She took a few hours each week to research and apply, using Google searches and picking her guidance counselors’ brains.

“There are a ton of specific scholarships with unique guidelines that I applied for,” says Danielle. “I am about 5 feet and 11 inches, and I actually found a scholarship aimed at tall females.”

Danielle also held a job throughout the school year and the summer to help cover costs of living. Liana discovered that being an engineering major meant she could work lucrative summer jobs that paid between $20 and $40 an hour.

The Advantage of Graduating Without Debt

For Danielle, graduating debt free meant she was able to take bigger career risks and could afford to move, unlike many of her peers who moved back home or took minimum-wage jobs to stay afloat.

Annie went to medical school after finishing her undergraduate degree. “Without worrying about money, I was able to attend a private, more expensive medical school that I absolutely loved, instead of being limited to a state school,” she says. That college fund Annie’s parents saved now serves as her financial safety net.

Liana used the money she would have spent paying off student loan debt to pay down a car within a year and save for her life goals.

Advice to Current High School Students

Annie advises high school students to explore the financial aid websites of every school they apply to and to check for merit- and need-based scholarships. “Don’t forget to keep track of deadlines,” she says.

“When deciding on a college, make sure you know how much the tuition you’ll pay will really cost,” says Liana. “Use a loan-payment calculator to figure out how much you’ll owe each month, and compare that to your projected monthly income and regular expenses.”

For high school students who need to take out loans, Danielle suggests avoiding spending money on unnecessary items, and setting a budget. College students, she says, should focus on internships and networking. That way, even if you owe debt after you graduate, you won’t have to worry about paying it off.