Tuesday, April 26, 2016

A Tale of Tuition: How I Escaped College with (Almost) No Debt

I am lucky enough to have been accepted to the Master of Arts program in UNT's Department of Media Arts. I'll begin this fall, so naturally I have been thinking about (stressing about, really) tuition costs and how to pay them. UNT is referred to as "Mean Green," and while it isn't a direct commentary on tuition, sometimes it feels like it. However, I am lucky enough to have escaped with my undergraduate degree relatively debt-free. That's practically a pun, since the only student loan debt I current have is roughly $3000 I owe my father-in-law. More on that later. So, what did I do to try and make my education as frugal as possible?

First and foremost, I started out at my local community college. Being a first time college student 12 years after graduating high school meant I knew I was going to have to play catch up in certain areas (me + 12 years = bad math skills). The most cost effective way to get that done is at a community college. Also, the university that I eventually wanted to attend is a 45 mile commute from my house. The community college campus I attended was about 5 minutes from my then workplace, allowing me to work more. We made too much money for me to qualify for any financial aid while I went to community college. Between the catch up work I needed to do and a few extra courses I took that I'd need for my BA, but weren't required for my AA, it took me 3 years to finish community college. Those 3 years cost me a mere $3745 in tuition. That is an amazing deal! If I had taken those 3 years at my university, it would have cost roughly an extra $25,000. I also went back and took a science course I needed during the 2015 summer break, which cost $220.

Community college actually continued to save me money once I had moved on to UNT. UNT offers two types of transfer scholarships- a general one and one for Phi Theta Kappa members. Phi Theta Kappa is an honor society for two-year college students that I joined. I knew that maintaining a 4.0 GPA would make me eligible for a $3000 scholarship. I worked hard and was able to meet my goal. I was awarded a transfer scholarship, and through maintaining a GPA above 3.25 at UNT my scholarship was renewed for a second year. So, that was an extra $6000 towards tuition that my time at community college helped me obtain. The year before I would start at UNT my husband was laid-off. I would hardly call that a blessing, but it did mean that when we filed our taxes and I filled out my FAFSA that our income was much lower than usual. This made me eligible for some financial aid the first year. This is not a helpful tip, as I'm sure we can all agree we'd rather have a steady income than a lay-off in our household. Luckily, my husband found employment again, but in the meantime the $3250 educational grant I got from the state certainly helped. That was the only financial aid I received at UNT. I also decided to double major and had a minor as well, so it took me 2.5 years to get my BA. What was the damage after my $9250 in scholarship and grant funds? $18,112.48.

Text books are a notorious area of expense for college students, and it was certainly no different for me. The best advice I have is to rent your textbooks when you can and do price comparisons on rental rates. I used Chegg, Amazon, Valorebooks.com, and my university's Barnes and Noble store. There are plenty of other options. Do your price comparison as soon as you know what books you will need.If you have a tablet or a laptop that you can use in the classroom then look at e-books as another money saving option. I spent roughly $1100 on books over my 5.5 years of school.

An additional expense I had was parking permits. My first year at UNT I bought a general parking pass for $135. Unfortunately the general parking lot was literally (I google mapped it) a mile from the buildings my classes were in. In the Texas heat and the particularly brutal winter we had that year (one of my finals got postponed 4 times due to ice & snow) it wasn't a pleasurable walk. That summer I did a freelance blog design and used the money I made to buy a $225 premium parking permit for the next year. The premium parking lot was across the street from the building my classes were in. Much better, especially as I had night classes that year. For my last semester I complained in an anonymous transportation survey about the lack of permit options for students graduating in the fall. Two days later there was a fall-only premium permit option. Result! And bonus, it was $50 cheaper. All told, I spent $535 on parking. Yeah, that's yucky, but it's part of being a commuter student.

So, for my AA and BA with a double major and a minor the total price tag was roughly $23,700. That number will rise to a little over $24,000 once I'm done paying back my father-in-law. I made a business proposal to him that was to our equal benefit when I was running short on tuition funds one semester. His cash savings was making barely 1%. Student loan rates had risen to nearly 7%. I offered to pay him 3% on a tuition loan, and he agreed. Aside from the $4,050 I borrowed from him, which is now paid down to $3000, everything else was paid out of pocket.

But how did we pay out of pocket? First and foremost, with the exception of about 6 months when I was in between jobs, I worked throughout my entire college career. Sometimes I had more than one job, and for a brief period I had 3! I stayed at my full-time position, although working more part-time hours. I got a side-gig as a notetaker at the community college for the disability support department. This was minimum wage, but as my main employer was very likely to die from cancer I wanted to do something that would give me current references in the event of his death. That job turned into a position in the inaugural leadership program. I facilitated new student orientations, served as a campus representative, and did other campus based support jobs. This earned me a roughly $500 stipend per semester and that all went towards tuition. I started working as a blogger for a local furniture store during that time, and eventually moved to working there steadily after my original employer did pass away. It was admittedly very nice when I was unemployed for those few months after leaving the furniture store. I enjoyed being able to focus on my school work completely. But, those tuition bills come right on schedule, so I had to get back to the grind pretty quickly. I've been working part-time in resale since then.

Another key to paying for tuition? Tax refunds. Prior to enrolling in college we typically cut a check to the IRS every April. My husband had worked as a music instructor for several years, and was paid as contract labor. He quit teaching roughly around the time I started at UNT. So, we did have less income coming in, and that decrease came in the area that we were paying taxes on. On top of that I was finally paying enough in tuition that using the American Opportunity Credit was a better option. Each year we got a tax refund, that money got set aside to pay for tuition. This is a particularly effective way to pay down tuition, in my opinion, because the next year I get a credit again, for tuition that was paid with my tax refund. My tax refund is funding my next tax refund, in a sense.

So, how to go forward with my education in as frugal a manner as possible? Right now there are some unknowns. What I do know is that I have a $2000 graduate grant from UNT and a $5000 work/study stipend for a TA position I was awarded. The TA position also comes with tuition for 3 credit hours, which means 1 of my 3 classes is already paid for. According to the UNT tuition calculator, the grant and stipend should cover the rest of my tuition, although course fees aren't factored in and there's still books to buy. I will have to maintain my part-time job, on top of school and TA work, but it will be all the better if I know that my school is paid for and we can even maybe save some money while I'm continuing my education.

Have any tips for a soon-to-be grad student? Any ways you found to save on higher education? Please share!