How to Go to College Affordably

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In the fall of 2013 I had just gotten a new job when I went through Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University (FPU).  When I finished the class I was super pumped.  I had created an emergency fund, learned how to budget my money and I was going to tackle my debt head on.

Now, before I can continue the story let me rewind a bit.  When I graduated from high school oh so many years ago I didn’t have a clear picture what I wanted to do with my life like so many 18 year olds.  First I was going to be a doctor, then an archaeologist, then a photographer… and my degree reflected that indecision.  I got a B.S. in History (with a $30,000 loan price tag) because I liked the subject and figured when I finally settled on what I would like to do with my life I could use it as a launching pad for graduate school.  Except the what I wanted to do with my life became Paramedic and the graduate degree turned into an associates. For years I watched and waited for the perfect time to go back to school.  The problem is perfect never comes and a life spent waiting tends to become more miserable with every passing day.  I love the organization I worked for, and I was thankful for the job, my heart just wasn’t in it.

Two months after “graduating” from FPU I was sitting on my couch, in the middle of an Alaska State Troopers marathon, thinking about how unhappy I was with my life at the moment when I became overwhelmed with the motivation to do something about it.  That night I began  researching paramedic programs.  The first thing I found was that programs differ in their setup by state.  Some states offer EMS degrees while others only offer certificates.  Washington, my home state, was the latter.  Because financial aid is only available for degree programs I knew going back to school was going to require a move.  The things are moves are expensive, going back to school is expensive, heck, life is expensive!

Taking everything I had learned in FPU into consideration I began to question the path ahead of me.  See, Dave Ramsey often tells parents that when their kids go off to college they don’t need to take out loans and it doesn’t need to be expensive.  Which is true, it doesn’t need to be, but what do you do when there’s no way around it?  At 29 years old, with a college degree under my belt already, things were different for me.  I didn’t qualify for grants, & scholarship opportunities were more limited.  I would work through school but even that wouldn’t be enough to cover everything.  So I did it, I took out a student loan and could hear Dave Ramsey cringing in the background as I did it.

Why I did it

Here’s the deal, at the rate I was going (pay-wise at my current job at the time) it would have taken me at least 5 years if not more to save up enough to go back to school, meaning I would have been in my mid thirties (and still living with my parents I should mention).  While you’ll never get rich off of EMS work, the pay for most companies is enough for me to go back to school, start working my dream job and pay off ALL my debt in the same time period.  While debt hurts the second choice was the most logical and the most appealing in the long run.

However just because I took out a loan doesn’t mean I don’t do everything I can to offset the cost of school.  With college classes starting up again next month I thought I would take some time and share what I’ve learned as someone not only has been there, but is there right now.

1.  Choose Your School Wisely

In FPU Dave Ramsey talks about choosing to go to school in-state because tuition is cheaper.  In my experience I’ve found that statement to be a great generalization.  I got my bachelors degree at a private university on the other side of the country, one I choose specifically because when the aid they offered me was included it was much cheaper than attending a state school (I even made a pro-con chart to convince my parents).  Currently I attend a school that is a branch of the University of Alaska Anchorage.  One of the deciding factors for me choosing this campus specifically was that it didn’t charge out of state tuition.  So, any of you out there only looking at state schools because you feel like it’s the cheapest bet, do a little research, you may be able to go to your dream school for less.

2.  Get a job

Right now I work 20 hrs/week during the school year and full time over breaks for my school.  I’ve given up vacations and breaks so that I could pull extra hours to make more money, but in the end it’s worth it.  A huge plus about working for the college is that I don’t have to commute anywhere, especially in winter when the weather stinks, and they are willing to create a schedule around my classes.  While with student jobs you’re usually getting paid minimum wage or close to it, the convenience is great.  Most schools maintain an online job board so I would encourage you to check it out and see what you can find.  If you do that and don’t find any jobs that you like, don’t give up.  Try applying at local businesses close to the school, some may even offer great perks!  For example, I have a friend that works for a local movie theater, and he is able to get himself and a friend into a movie for free whenever he likes.  Not a bad!

3.  Become an RA in the Dorms

     I got really lucky when an RA position opened up my second semester.  Seeing the opportunity I eagerly applied (and got the position!).  At my school RA’s get free room and their own apartment, a pretty sweet gig.  Don’t get me wrong though, being an RA is a lot of work and is not for everyone.  We have duty nights every week where we’re required to be in the Residence Hall for, and have to be ready to assist residents at a moments notice.  There are also events we have to plan and meetings and training’s to go to.  It’s totally worth it though, and I count my ability to be an RA and the perks that come with it a definitely blessing.

The Residence Hall staff at our end of school year banquet
The Residence Hall staff at our end of school year banquet

4.  Make a budget 

It is so easy to spend money like it’s on fire.  I could easily go out to eat everyday and buy everything off of my Amazon wishlist, but in the end I know I would be hurting financially if I did.  Budgeting is one of the primary concepts I learned in FPU.   I let it fall to the wayside for a little while when I first got to Alaska and I definitely felt the consequences.  Suddenly my bank account would be empty and I would have no idea where it all went.  $5 here for a Starbucks drink, $15 there for a dinner, $20 for a new shirt.  All small amounts that add up quickly.  Making a budget and knowing where your money is going before you spend it makes all the difference in the world.  I also recommend ditching the debit card and opting for cash instead.  When you can physically see/touch the money you have a greater awareness of how much you have and it hurts a whole lot more to give it up.

5.  Still Apply For Scholarships

Every single scholarship you think you could possibly qualify for, apply for it.  There is absolutely no harm in applying.  Even though I am at a stage where I don’t qualify for many scholarships I have still gotten one every semester I’ve applied, and while I haven’t gotten a full ride by any means, every little bit helps.


Remember, just because you’re being smart with money doesn’t mean you’re giving up on all the fun.  Take advantage of opportunities your school and student life may offer.  Here are some of the awesome free/cheap events I got to take part in…

Daytrip to Alyeska Resort
Daytrip to Alyeska Resort
A ResHall BBQ means FREE food!
A ResHall BBQ means FREE food!
Spending a Saturday on a good hike to Juneau Falls
Spending a Saturday on a good hike to Juneau Falls







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