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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