Article by Sydney Gaeth | Photography by Kelsey Stephenson | Owl Staff

Ask anyone: I am strong-willed, stubborn, and passionate. As far as I was concerned, there was nothing that could get in my way of attending a four-year university. What most college-bound dreamers like myself don’t realize is the price tag is a lot higher and harder to reach than advertisements let on.

It’s easy to sell the idea that college means moving out of your childhood home and into a new state just like it was to me. Guidance counselors, professors, graduates and bosses made it seem so easy to accomplish.

However, living on campus, focusing on school full-time and striving after the glorified college experience is not all it is chalked up to be.

For me, the massive price tag attached to this experience was the issue. Without my parents taking out a loan for me in their name there was no way I could get enough aid to achieve the college life I once hoped for.

I thought it would be easy: apply for aid, receive aid, attend school. Boom. Mission accomplished.

The reality of this was that there was no way around using my parents’ financial data in order to apply for financial aid. This meant that not only did the government think I had extra tens of thousands of dollars to spend, but also that my parents should be able to contribute an estimated $17,000 to my education.

This number is called the EFC, or the Estimated Family Contribution, on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Like many other students, I would be footing the bill for my education rather than my parents. The EFC was not a reality for my parents. Without receiving any federal aid, I wasn’t able to attend my first try right out of high school – a four-year public university in Southern Pennsylvania.

I decided to attend HCC instead, working on my associate degree with plans to transfer. I was then under the impression that transferring to a university with a completed A.S. would allow more financial aid money and scholarship opportunity.

Unfortunately, I still could not receive enough federal aid to attend my second school of choice in North Carolina.

“…my academic goals became draining and it seemed that money would always hold me back.”

I was determined to keep trying. Applying for that school taught me about Parent Plus Loans – an even worse idea for my family than trying to scrounge up an extra $17,000.

The Parent Plus Loan yields a high interest rate and is paid directly by the parents. Many student loans are paid by the student themselves and co-signed by a parent in order to get approved. I was uncomfortable with this idea and realigned my goals again.

This time, I took a year off from my education to focus on building my resume while I waited for the next year’s applications to come out.

I had decided to apply to a Maryland university and finally accept that I could finish my bachelor’s degree close to home for the same result and a few thousand dollars less than I could traveling to a state eight hours away.

So, that was the plan. And I made it happen! Finally.

I never thought I would actually get there. The constant back-and-forth game I played with my academic goals became draining and it seemed that money would always hold me back.

However, I applied to as many scholarships as I could and was awarded a total of roughly $3,000 for the year. This coupled with a federally subsidized loan of $8,800, I was able to pay for my first year at that university.

During the application process, I was curious about why I had such a hard time getting aid so I went to the financial aid office to sit down with the department director.

He shared the way that financial aid works is incoming freshman receive the majority of the aid. The next group to receive aid (including scholarships from the institution) are students who have been at the school for years. The last group to receive aid is transfer students.

Since there is not much aid remain­ing for the final group of students, many may not receive financial sup­port at all. Transfer students with the most need, over the local students who need support, are the ones who get the remaining money. The students and their families who are in the middle hardly receive financial aid.

After I received my loans and scholarships, I was a full-time student for two semesters. After three years of trying to become a university student and work toward my bachelor’s degree, I found I was deeply unhappy with the quality of education I received.

I was made to repeat courses at the four-year university that I had already taken at HCC which taught the basics of my major. It felt like a waste of time and money.

The best way to minimize these costs is to apply for any scholarships you can find and start very much in advance. Look for scholarships up to one year before you plan to attend school.

Additionally, complete your FAFSA even if you do not receive free aid from the government. You may still be eligible for lower-interest loans like I was. FAFSA also opens you up to scholarships through the university as well and not all of them are need­-based.

In my experience, the best scholarships for which to apply are those offered by state representatives. These applications are available by district. will tell you which district you’re in as well as who your elected officials are. The site provides links to each delegate, senator, or representative’s personal biography.

Much of my aid came from emailing my elected officials and asking about the scholarships offered for that year. Their offices always got right back to me with the application. Keep in mind that many of these offers are renewable for four years.

Another avenue to search when looking for quality scholarships is your home school’s financial aid department. Harford Community College offers quite a few awards to students who are transferring to universities.

One final piece of advice is to work at your pace. Some may be able to afford a part-time education at once rather than a full-time. While I was figuring out my approach to financial aid, I took a year off and learned skills that I applied to winning a national journalism award which beefed up my resume.

It has taken a lot of trial and error but finally figuring out what will work for me is extremely satisfying. I will be finishing my bachelor’s degree online next year, paying roughly $6,000, and earning tuition reimbursement of $5,250 through my job. Years of strife and hard work have finally paid off.

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