I’m Ready for College. How Do I Pay For It? *an interview with Dr. Andrea Johnson

*This article address general ways to prepare for and handle finances needed for college.

According to U.S. News: Education, college tuition grew by 63% between 2008 and 2020; the average cost for in-state residents at public universities is approximately $11,260 annually ($41,426 for private). Given the rising cost of education, students and families are taking a closer look at how they spend money for college. As a non-traditional (aka non-trad) student, getting a degree becomes more of a family decision due to the multiple factors that need to be addressed, such as childcare cost, basic needs, elderly care (if caring for an elderly family member), etc. This is why it is especially important to understand one’s finances and aspects of financial aid before incurring any debt for school.

When I was a traditional (and later a non-traditional student), I did what many students did: I completed a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) and used whatever money was given to me for school, books, living expenses, etc. According to Forbes, 22% of students currently borrow money for living expenses. There were times when I was able to pay for classes out of pocket, but there were other times when student loans were needed. One thing that I was not an expert on was looking for and securing scholarships. Have you ever Googled “scholarships for college”? If you have, then you know that pages upon pages pop up that are related to that topic. It’s as if you have to be your own expert in finding the right scholarship for your situation. The process is incredibly overwhelming and tiring. Also, unlike some families, I did not have thousands of dollars to pay an educational consultant to do the work for me; therefore, I got my degree, but I also graduated with debt. In my current quest of looking for ways to help non-trads gain financial knowledge about their education, I was recently able to reach out to an expert.

Dr. Andrea Johnson

I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Andrea N. Johnson, owner of ANJ Consulting Services, a personal finance and credit consulting company, and the Founder and President of BRIDGE [Building Resources in Disadvantaged Groups through Economics and Empowerment]. I met Dr. Johnson approximately six years ago when she visited colleges to promote her personal finance and credit company. Since then, she has worked with college students and staff, educational professionals, businesses, and individuals on preparing financially for the future. Given her expertise, she graciously agreed to be interviewed by me on the best ways for non-traditional students to financially prepare themselves for college.

What are some things that a non-traditional student needs to do, financially, before going to school?

In an ideal situation, [the student should] start planning a year ahead. Look for funds and scholarships first because loans are not the only way to fund an education. More than anything, understand why you want the degree. It’s not worth the price tag to get a degree if you don’t the why.

Next, start looking at your finances from a holistic perspective. Getting your education is a part of other life areas, so prioritize your funds. (Don’t spend or borrow money on a class if your light bill isn’t paid).  Even if you can’t plan a year ahead, plan based on where you are and prioritize your funds to ensure that your basic needs are covered before working on the degree.

Okay, so what if you need help with scholarships. Where’s the best place to search?

The main database that I recommend is Fastweb. Now, you have to put in the work and go through filters, but it tool works. You just have to have patient when using the site. From a holistic perspective, it’s also important to take stock of your financial “house.” Too many students are taking care of others who are (financially) draining them. Let those people go, otherwise they’ll financially drain you while you’re in school and you’ll leave school without a degree.

What’s the best way to manage finances as students go back to school?

First, have a plan for your finances and make “education” a part of it. Actually, make this a life plan. Education is not an isolated event, but a part of your life; therefore, a part of your finances. Next, take a hard look at your credit, spending habits, and overall school budget. Change habits that needs to be changed. (If you take out loans, good financial habits means the difference between using a refund for family gifts vs. using the refund to pay for summer school courses) Also, assess your health and life insurance plans. Injuries and illnesses happen while you’re in school, so make sure that you are covered for those moments. School (full-time) should not be your job unless you are being covered by scholarships.

What should students do if they spent part of their financial aid completing courses earlier in life, and now wants to return to school to finish the degree?

Talk with financial aid, but when you speak with someone in the financial aid department, write down the names of who you speak with because it may be a different person each time. This will help you keep track of advice given. Next, look for scholarship opportunities on financial aid websites and bulletin boards/e-boards that the school may have. Also, speak with department heads about financial opportunities. Too many students miss opportunities because they don’t look for them (aside from the internet) or ask questions. Everything won’t be on the internet, even in 2020.

So, what have we learned?

As you contemplate returning to school, or even if you’re already in school, take a full view at your finances and spending habits, plan in advance, and find alternative ways to fund your education. As Dr. Johnson mentioned, speak with people at your college about opportunities, especially once you’ve declared your degree. Students who have great college funding stories usually have them because they took advantage of opportunities that others overlooked.

Keep moving forward and enjoy the ride!

*To learn more about navigating scholarships, see ANJ’s Financial Path webinar, click here.

Dr. Andrea Johnson is the owner of ANJ Consulting Services, where she assists clients with developing solutions to their financial problems through individual consulting, workshops, and courses. She holds a bachelor’s and master’s degree in sociology (North Carolina A&T State University and North Carolina State University respectively), a doctoral degree in Leadership Studies from North Carolina A&T State University and has completed the CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ Certification Education Program through Wake Forest University. She has written several books on entrepreneurship, credit, and college planning, and is also the founder and president of BRIDGE, a nonprofit organization that promotes financial literacy and economic empowerment. Dr. Johnson is a native of Thomasville, NC.

Dr. Johnson’s webinars and online courses on how to locate thousands in scholarships, improving credit, and managing student loan debt can be found here.

For more information on Dr. Johnson’s nonprofit organization BRIDGE, click here.

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