Scholarship coach shares how she graduated with no debt and $10,000 refund
The following post originally appears on the Huffington Post as part of its Money Mic series. It was written by Shanice Miller, author of “How to Graduate College Debt-Free with Money in the Bank.”
By: Shanice Miller
The first time I ever heard about student loan debt was in 2007. I was a high school senior in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, and in the midst of applying for colleges.
My cousin, who had graduated with a business degree six months earlier, had come over to visit and was complaining about someone named Sallie Mae. Since getting her degree, she hadn’t been able to find a job — and was struggling to make payments on her $9,000 of student debt.
I wondered: Who in the world is Sallie Mae?
After hearing my cousin’s explanation — that Sallie Mae was a company that gives students money to attend college — I was shocked, worried and confused.
I’d never thought critically about the costs associated with going to college. Everyone — family, teachers, friends and even my guidance counselors — just told me I needed to attend in order to secure a better future, which I could do by choosing the school that offered the best education. But it hadn’t occurred to me that I’d have to pay for that privilege.
My mind started racing: How would I ever be able to afford college? The housing bubble had just burst, and I knew my mom, a real estate agent, wouldn’t be able to contribute. What would happen if I couldn’t come up with the money? Would I still be able to get a good job?
I knew I had to come up with a plan — quick.
My Panicked Search for Scholarships
The idea of scholarships had crossed my mind before, but I hadn’t applied to a single one.
I’d heard good students were automatically awarded scholarships from the colleges they applied to — and although I was nowhere near being the valedictorian of my class, I planned to wait and see what I got.
But now that I’d realized how important it was to cover some of my college costs, I was worried I’d made a mistake. It was already March. Did I wait too long to apply and miss the scholarship boat?
In a panic, I went on FastWeb.com, a scholarship database, filled out the 30-minute questionnaire and sifted through the endless pages of scholarships I was deemed “eligible for.” But after four hours of searching, I still hadn’t filled out an application.
Eventually, I found a few to apply for — the Coca-Cola and Gates Millennium scholarships I’d heard advertised on the radio, as well as the Ron Brown and Essence scholarships from my school — but I never got a response. I started to feel like I wasn’t good enough to win scholarships. All I could do now was hope the colleges I was accepted to would give me some money.
Fortunately, a few weeks later, the financial aid awards started trickling in. I anxiously opened the first letter from Washington College, who gave me $20,000 in scholarships, but it cost $40,000 a year to attend. I was awarded $15,000 in scholarships from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, but it cost $20,000.
Towson University — what my guidance counselors called my “safety school” because my GPA and SAT scores were higher than the average incoming freshman’s — awarded me a package of seven scholarships and grants covering the $20,000 it cost to attend. I received the Academic Competitiveness Grant for $750, the Educational Assistance Grant worth $3,000, the Pell Grant worth $5,645, the Provost Scholarship for $4,000 and three other Towson Merit Scholarships totaling $7,000. I felt like I’d hit the lottery.
Was Towson my first choice? Not really. But I knew the only way to finish college was to pay for it myself — and I had a full ride. So I made Towson my first choice.
Armed with an award letter indicating my scholarship package would cover all costs of my college education, I was set. Or so I thought.
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