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How to Afford College

If you can't save up enough money to go to college, then how can someone in poverty get there? So far I've seen and explored two ways: The hard way, and the risky way.

The Hard Way

This path will really only work if you haven't started or are just starting high school. The earlier you start on this path, the better. The end goal of this path is to get a four year scholarship to a good school. You can do it, as I've done it and I've seen a lot of other people do it. Good schools want good students because good students become great researchers, and that brings them prestige. What makes a good student is the drive to succeed. You are driven to escape poverty, so you already have that drive. You just need to learn to focus it so that you can get what you want out of it.

How does a student get a 4 year scholarship? I think a lot of people would say that it is by being very brilliant or working very hard. I disagree. I think you can only get a 4 year scholarship if you work very, very hard. Most of the people who get labeled brilliant look brilliant because they started working very hard much earlier than their peers. People around brilliant people assume brilliant people just popped out of their mother that way. I don't buy that for an instant, and you shouldn't either, as it is just a bad excuse for not working hard. There are definitely environmental and genetic factors that influence whether or not you will be able to learn quickly, but people with great genetics and perfect environments often don't thrive simply because they face no challenges that inspire them to become great.

You have that challenge. Use it wisely. Every time that someone makes fun of you for not having nice clothes, or the wrong shoes for the activity, you should be thinking internally how grateful you are that you have a challenge to succeed against. You should be grateful that you don't have the money to spend on going to the movies with your friends, because it means that you have no excuse not to spend that time learning.

Throughout school you'll make friends with some great teachers. This is because people like you are what inspire them. They are inspired by students who soak up knowledge with excitement and accept criticism without complaint because you know it makes you better. They enjoy students who join competitions and excel because it gives their life high points to find and help students who need and want it. That is usually why they took the job in the first place. When you find these great teachers, you should be incredibly grateful that you have the opportunity to work with them. You should listen to their advice, and request it for things that they might know about.

This is the hard way. It is hard because you need to plan each and every class according to the level of college you want to attend. You need to meet every prerequisite for that college level. You need to ace every class that you can, and always, always do your best. I can't say precisely what GPA you need to have to get a 4 year scholarship, but I'd guess it is pretty close to a 4.0. That's unweighted. If your school weights AP classes, you need to get As in every single class.

You'll want to join competitions in areas that you excel in, preferably ones that take you out of your district so you can see if you really are a big fish in a small pond, or a medium fish in a small pond. It provides you a sense of scope, and will also likely help inspire what fields you might be interested in during college.

If you take The Hard Way, and you succeed at the college you get into with the hard way, you'll have no debt coming out of college. This means you can pick whatever major you want, as in the worst case you finish university with a lot of knowledge and no debt. This assumes you finish successfully - and we'll talk about what might cause that to not happen later.

The Risky Way

I call this the risky way because if you fail college having used this path, you may end up in a worse position than you started out in. Before you go to college, your parents may have no money, but you have no debt. If you go to college The Hard Way, you'll leave college with no or very little debt. If you decide to go to college The Risky Way, you'll leave with a whole lot of debt that you need to pay off with a reliable job. That means you need to mitigate the risk of that debt so that you don't ruin your credit so early that you can never dig your way out to afford a house.

We discussed the cost of a Harvard education earlier. If you didn't try The Hard Way at all, you likely won't even be able to get in to Harvard, so you don't have to worry about it costing that much. You'll apply to a whole bunch of schools of varying levels. Some of them will have costs near Harvard, and at the lowest some may be near community college. Depending on the needs of the particular schools and your extracurricular activities, and the quality of your essays, you may get into some of the higher prestige schools.

Optimizing for opportunity at the college level means balancing university prestige with how much you'll need to leverage that prestige when trying to get a job. This depends on your major. If you major in a field where there are many desirable jobs available, you won't need to leverage the prestige of your university as much to get one of them. It also depends on how easily you can demonstrate the skills of your major in an interview. For many jobs, you cannot easily demonstrate the skills you learned in your major during the interview. Because of this, jobs of this sort rely more on the prestige of your education and the strength of your contacts, so you will want to plan to go to a higher prestige school so you can get the interview in the first place.

The problem is that the higher prestige universities have many more students applying, and thus find that they can charge a whole lot more. So you'll have to decide your major by considering the level of risk that you want to accrue by gathering debt at an institution that teaches that major with high prestige. If you don't want to take a lot of risk by taking huge debt, you may not want to choose a major that is not much sought after, or that is difficult to interview for.

The Fallback Plan

If you try The Hard Way and fail by not getting a 4 year full scholarship, then you will likely get a few smaller scholarships. Scholarships that aren't "full" won't help you all that much due to the scale of costs, but you might be able to pay for shampoo and soap while at school with them. I wouldn't count on it, but if you can get it, every shampoo bottle is worth it.

When you fail The Hard Way, you will fall back on The Risky Way. This may actually be a good path for you to go, because having tried the hard way means that you spent a lot of time learning, and state schools will likely be easy for you to get into, and succeeding at those schools should not be terribly difficult.

You may get into a high prestige school, but not get a 4 year scholarship. This will be a difficult road for you, because the high prestige school will be hard enough without being borderline for academic excellence already. You may discover that you don't have the background to succeed at the high prestige school, and then you'll also accrue vast amounts of debt while failing out. This is a very scary place to get yourself into.

If you get into a high prestige school, I would strongly recommend taking a deferred year of enrollment before going to the high prestige school. If you can get some additional training that will prepare you, such as working at an internship in your major, that would really be ideal. You will probably not have the contacts for it though - I know I had none like that. Even working a minimum wage job for that year is a better option than just jumping in to such a risky education experience. The year off will provide you with an extra year of maturity over your classmates, and also be a constant reminder that you could have been stuck at that job every time you get overwhelmed with your coursework.