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How to Graduate College Debt Free

   Posted On: January 30, 2014  |    Posted In: Debt  |     Posted by: Broke Millennial®

HS grad
Sums up both how I felt about graduating high school and carrying a bouquet of flowers on the walk to the stage.

After a summer of touring colleges in the United States and hearing the dastardly sums of money they charged for the privilege of entering their hallowed halls, my parents made a decree. I had to apply to every eligible scholarship. If I deemed free money not worth my time and my parents found out, then they would subtract that sum from the amount they were willing to stake in my education.

I was seventeen. Naturally, I thought I knew better than my parents and doubted they’d spend valuable free time hunting down scholarships available for a white girl with average athletic skills and slightly-above average artistic ability who wasn’t interested in a wildly niche field like food science.

Whilst playing around on Facebook (yeah, I had already upgraded from MySpace in 2006) I heard a knock on my bedroom door.

“Yeah, come in.” I yelled over the Nada Surf song (or perhaps Gnarls Barkley) blaring through my computer.

“Did you apply for this?” Mom asked.

“I don’t know, I can’t see it,” I retorted, extremely pleased with the logic of my defense.

“It’s a Presidential Scholarship at Wake Forest that’s awarded to students interested in theater,”  she said. “It’s worth about $15,000.”

My stomach dropped. That meant $15,000 subtracted from what my parents were willing to pay. That could mean little to no money!

“Um, I’m not sure,” I mumbled, fully aware I had passed it over thinking 1) I’d never be competitive and 2) my parents wouldn’t find it anyway.

“Well, the deadline is in two days, so you better get to it,” she said and dropped the application on my desk.

In the next 48 hours I wrote three essays, memorized and filmed two monologues which I cut to DVD with the help of my technically savvy college counselor and pulled my first all-nighter trying to get the whole package together.

To this day, I can’t see a pack of Folgers instant coffee without thinking of that night.

In the end I actually got into the final rounds for the Presidential Scholarship in theater, but couldn’t seal the deal. You may remember this led me to picking the school that offered me a hefty academic scholarship so I could avoid the millennial curse and graduate college debt free.

good person 156
The coolest costume I ever got to wear.

The point of this slightly long parable?

You can graduate college in the black. One way to achieve this debt-free life is by simply taking the hours-and-hours of time researching and applying to every possible scholarship available to you.* Oh, and it helps if you select an affordable institution and can snag a few university-sponsored scholarships.

Perhaps you aren’t a stellar athlete, can’t identify a single note of music and perform, well, adequately in the academic department.

You need not fear! There is hope for you to graduate college debt free.

If you’ve seen those fear-mongering HR Block commercials claiming Americans lose a billion dollars each year in taxes, then you might like to know in the 90s, scholarships search services claimed billions were lost each year in unclaimed scholarships.

It may not be billions, it’s likely closer to hundreds-of-thousands, but there is free money that goes unclaimed each year. This often happens because certain scholarship offers are so specific only a small group can apply. For example, there really are scholarships out there for people interested in a variety of different food sciences like the National Candy Technologists  ($2,500) or hop over to Agribusiness with the National Potato Council Scholarship ($10,000).

My sister actually won a $1,000 from the Ayn Rand essay contest for The Fountain Head.

A few of my favorite odd-ball (primarily under-grad) scholarships include:

Find more at, CollegeXpress, FinAid or you know — Google. You can also use sites like ScholarshipExperts which helps aggregate scholarships specific to your profile and even works for grad students.

If you’re truly dedicated to giving yourself a solid financial footing after college graduate then be sure to also canvas local organizations, churches and even your employer. And don’t forget to apply for every scholarship your university offers and continue the hunting during your years in school. Some scholarships aren’t universities aren’t even offered until your a year or two into your education.

Did you get a whacky scholarships to go to help pay for school?

* Community college, in-State schools, trade and technical schools are also all great options to help subsidize the cost of higher education.

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29 responses to “How to Graduate College Debt Free

    1. Just wait until they try to pull a fast one on you and you catch them and make them pull an all-nighter to apply!

  1. I barely applied for any scholarships when I was looking at schools. Looking back on it that was such a dumb approach. You can bet I’ll be MUCH more on top of that with my own kids.

    1. I kind of fell into the one I ended up getting at St. Bonaventure, but I wish I had been on the look out for more niche scholarships all through university. A bunch are available even for later on in your college career.

  2. I also applied to a bunch of random ones. I ended up getting $500 from the local firefighter, for example. That said, I was pretty disappointed with the amount of scholarship money I got after applying all over. I ended up going to a school that barely had any entrance awards though, while other schools were offering me a decent amount to attend.
    This is one of the reasons that I sponsor a scholarship at my highschool, because every little bit counts!

    1. That’s awesome of you to sponsor one! Hopefully I can do that one day. Maybe it’ll be a whacky award like, “5’3 females interested in both finance and theater”

  3. I remember looking up scholarships in a book at the library and applying to a bunch. Yea, the internet was around but still somewhat in its infancy =) My employer offers a scholarship to children of employees so its good to check that too. I went to a state university, but I actually received a lot of merit/income based scholarship/grants from some private schools in NYC. It made financial sense to go there, but I really wanted to live away from home. The state option wasn’t too expensive though and I did get some grants.

    1. Private schools seem relatively generous with their scholarships, if you’re lucky enough to nab one. It’s part of the reason I went to one. I was unfortunate and didn’t have access to any state schools because we lived overseas and didn’t have state residency.

  4. I had several from the American Legion patriotic speech contest. Another to join a speech team. One because I was second generation Italian. And a third because I can sing American folk music.

    I ended up going to the school that had the best program- rather than the one that would be the cheapest. I do not regret this. But when I advise students who are unsure about what they want to do or major in, I always tell them that money is important. To up your scholarship chances, do not pick your reach or match school Pick your easy-in.

    1. Wow. Those are some awesome whacky scholarships!

      I agree with going to the best program if you have access. My sister picked USC because it’s the best film program in the country. If she was majoring in English or something, I highly doubt she’d be there.

  5. I love this! Funny, I saw Wake Forest and got excited because I went there. I advise families ALL the time to be smart about college planning and work every angle possible before making any commitments. The best way to avoid the curse is to be smart before you start.

    1. That’s awesome! I actually drink out of a Wake cup everyday at work. 🙂 I ended up with some Wake Forest swag at graduation because everyone thought I was going there. Didn’t make the change until two weeks before HS graduation.

  6. I love that there are so many awesome scholarships out there. I didn’t really apply to any outside of the school that I went to, but I did get a decent amount from my school. I think I received around $20K in scholarships each year, but I chose an expensive private university and had to pay the rest out of my own pocket (with mostly student loans).

    1. I get the sense a lot of private schools are good on loans. My private school gave me a similar deal. I do wish I’d tried to find more whacky scholarships though!

  7. Unfortunately, neither of my parents went to college, and I’m an only child, so they weren’t as aware of all the opportunities out there for scholarships. I glanced over the ones our school sent out, but I wasn’t eligible for most of them. I’m glad I at least went to community college for a year, and then my college offered small scholarships every year based on academic performance. I do regret not trying harder to find them though.

    1. Did you have a college counselor to walk you through any of the process? The community college route is such a great way to save money.

  8. Fastweb is a wonderful website.There are scholarships for literally everything. I just got re-accepted for college this week! But I really would like to avoid getting a loan:( I will check some of these out

    1. Hope you find some! I’m planning to spend hours and hours hunting down offers for grad school if I go the MBA route.

  9. Great resource for potential college students! I’ll be sure to send this to any high school students I know. It’s important to get information like this in front of students BEFORE they are in school, or early on in their college education.

    I didn’t have any whacky scholarships, but I did apply to a few.

    1. Thanks, DC. It’s also great to know there are options for once you’re already in school. I think a lot of folks (myself included) get complacent about applying to scholarships once you’re in college.

  10. Wow, honestly that sounds really daunting. I didn’t apply for any scholarships when I was in HS. I went to a super expensive private college (partially paid for by a merit scholarship I got automatically) so small bits of money here and there would not have made much of a difference, percentage-wise. I also just really can’t imagine having time for that during senior year, which was my most challenging year of HS academically. If the due dates were over the summer that would have been more feasible. What I’m saying is that I’m not sure about the time vs. money equation here, especially when the time could be spent on SAT/ACT prep or better mastering AP course subject matter to get 5s, which can also translate into money down the line. Maybe I would just encourage my kids, if they are pressed for time, to apply for the really high-payoff scholarships or the specialized ones with a low time investment. Sorry to be such a downer, especially since I didn’t try that approach personally, but that’s what I see as my limitations when I was that age.

  11. I’ve always been of the mindset that money is out there, you just gotta ask for it. In this case a scholarship is literally ‘free money’ to the receiver and all they have to do is write a little something.

  12. I actually made money when going to college by doing this. At the time, my old university would actually issue a refund check if you were “over-funded”. There were several classmates that did this.

    I chose to go to a low tier school and get a full ride vs. go to an expensive “higher rated” private school and have $40K – $80K in student loans.

    I think everyone should try to focus their kids on the idea that school is there full time job. If you put your mind to it, you really can graduate in the black 🙂

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