I’m a first-generation college grad and community college transfer student. Here’s what I learned along the way.

Crafton Hills College
My humble community college in Yucaipa, CA

To all community college students,

I originally wrote this for a friend that would be attending the same school I went to, but much of it is applicable to any community college student. Let me introduce myself a bit so you know who you’re talking to!

My name is Ty Hopp and I went to Crafton Hills College (a small community college in California) for two years, graduated and transferred to UCLAin the Fall of 2013. It took me three years from there to graduate, but that was for three reasons: I was already short on time as a transfer, I changed my major, and I studied abroad for an entire year in South Korea. All in all it took me five years to graduate. I’m telling you this story because I want you to know that it’s possible to do all these things while still financing them smartly.

A little more context: I am the first in my family to got to college, so basically everything was new to me and my family. We didn’t know how anything worked, especially financial aid. This is what I want to focus on in this note, since I’m writing it as if I would be writing to myself five years ago. Forgive me if I cover things you are already aware of, I’m going to try to give you the big picture here.

FAFSA

Financial aid was a big obstacle for us. My parents and I had no idea how the system worked. Even filling out the FAFSA with tax information was uncomfortable for my parents because they feared identity theft - it felt crazy for them to give their most personal financial information just so their kid could go to school! You’ve probably heard you need to fill out the FAFSA before getting any financial aid at a university (and so you probably know the deadline is February-March-ish). The way the FAFSA works is you give all your and your parents’ financial (read tax) information. The problem is that when you are filling out your FAFSA, your parents don’t yet have their tax returns for the year you go to school. What you have to do instead is input estimates for your parents’ numbers from the year before and then submit it. Then when your parents get their actual tax numbers back, you have to go back into your FAFSA and input their real numbers. FAFSA will send you a reminder for this, because if you don’t do it you won’t get any aid. Bottom line here is make sure you submit the FAFSA as soon as it opens (using your parents estimate numbers from the prior year), and then update it as soon as possible when you get their new numbers. FAFSA is your ticket to a university education, so don’t take it lightly. Be ahead of the game and your life will be exponentially easier.

Financial Aid

You probably know by now that what the government and universities call “financial aid” includes both loans, grants and scholarships (or “free money” that you don’t have to pay back). Essentially grants and scholarships are the same thing, meaning a donor gives you money that you don’t have to pay back at all. So your “financial aid” package will contain a mixture of loans and free money. If you are attending a public school like UCLA, almost nobody gets a traditional “full ride” fully paid for by scholarships and grants. If someone says they do, be skeptical. If they do have it all paid for, it most likely comes from a bunch of different scholarships and grants from different sources put together. It’s important to have the right expectations about financial aid so that it eases the pressure on you and your parents when you attend school.

Also, you should know that what financial aid package you get (if you are a “dependent” of a family [e.g. you are under 25, haven’t lived on your own for several years, don’t have your own income, etc.]) is basically dependent on your parents’ income/assets and your family. If your parents make above 80k, you will not get a lot of support straight from the government through FAFSA. My parents made in the range of 80k - 100k, so I had to find alternate ways of financing my education if I was to survive at UCLA and not take a ridiculous amount of loans. This translated into working constantly from the beginning of community college to the end of UCLA and always being on the lookout scholarships/grants to apply for.

Another thing to consider that makes a big difference is the number of siblings you have in college. If you have a brother in community college, you both will get a much more generous aid package.

Types of Loans

There are different kinds of loans you can get that come from different sources. This distinction is really important. It can make your life exponentially better if you avoid certain kinds of loans. You can find the official information if you google it, but I’ll give you the rundown here too:

  • Subsidized loans - these are loans serviced by the government that do not accrue interest until six months after you graduate (contain what is called a “grace period”). The government “subsidizes” the loans, meaning they essentially pay the interest on your loan until you graduate, get a job and can pay for it yourself. If/when you absolutely have to take loans, take these.
  • Unsubsidized loans - these are loans serviced by the government that begin to accrue interest the moment you take the money. Basically, if you take some of these right as you transfer, they will accrue interest at a rate of 5%-8% (depending on the rate that year) of the principle amount (aka the loan amount). This will really hurt you because every time interest is added to the base amount, the next interest is taken from the new base amount owed. If you’re familiar with this, you know it’s called “compound interest”. It’s a funny finance idea that can either work really well in your favor if you’re the one loaning someone else money, or really badly if you’re the one loaning the money.
  • Parent PLUS loans - these loans are provided by the government but require your parents to cosign on them. This makes your parents financially liable for the amount of the loan if you don’t pay it later.
  • Private loans - these loans are provided by private banks like Wells Fargo, Citibank, etc. They usually have the worst interest rates and have no subsidy at all. Do not take these loans and you can thank me later (:

Your financial aid package offer will contain a range of these loans (except for private, those aren’t included) and grants in different amounts. Look at your tuition, room and board cost estimates and work backwards. Once you have an estimate of how much money you think you will need for the year, accept your scholarships and grants first, then subsidized loans. If you absolutely need to take unsubsidized loans, then take as little as you can. Make the rest of your ends meet by working jobs and living frugally like a student should.

Scholarships

Here’s the part that can really change the game if you get on it early. Here are a few sources for UCLA I used:

I applied to all of these. Here were my results: I did TAP, but for UCLA and Berkeley at the time that did not mean automatic acceptance. The program was changing when I left so you should definitely spend a lot of time in Crafton’s resource center and get to know the people there personally. They will give you the low down. I received UCLA’s Alumni Scholarship, and that was a huge help. I did not receive the Regent’s scholarship or the JKC scholarship. All of these are very competitive, so get into the mindset of just applying to things you have a reasonable chance at getting and seeing what happens.

Crafton also has its own pool of smaller scholarships, so keep an eye and an ear out for that.

People will tell you to go to fastweb or other scholarship aggregators, but I found that a huge waste of time. It’s like going to indeed.com for job searches instead of LinkedIn or actual companies’ websites. It gives you what seems like a lot of options but in the end it just ends up being overwhelming and useless because like 99% of the scholarships don’t apply to you. Focus on the institutional scholarships instead.

Advice

Here’s the cold, hard advice I wish I had when I was in your shoes (in no particular order):

  • assume nothing will work smoothly in the system, because it almost always never does. Very few people working at Crafton actually know information that is useful to you. Find the few that do and stick to them like glue (that rhymed, didn’t it).
  • be as far ahead of the game as you can. Information and the ability to use it to anticipate what’s ahead is currency for succeeding in school and in life. When everyone else is figuring out their course plans and such, you need to be learning as much as you possibly can about the path ahead.
  • keep growing as a person. The catch-22 in your situation is that you want to plan ahead, but you don’t know your path. Trust me, nobody knows their path. Even US diplomats and CEOs of companies I’ve met - nobody knows. Keep trying new things, follow your heart and it will take you where you need to be.
  • pick a debt goal. The average UCLA student graduates with something like 24k of debt at graduation, but this shouldn’t be your benchmark. Pick a number you are comfortable with and do everything in your power to meet it. My goal was to graduate with no more than 10k of debt, and I met it. It wasn’t easy, but setting a goal like this will minimize your baggage when you enter life post-graduation.
  • stick to your loved ones, but not too much. Your base is your family and friends, but don’t let them coddle you. Ask for space if you need it, but keep an open dialog and visit once and awhile. If you don’t have the space to try and fail, you will never learn.
  • don’t let people tell you what to study or how to plan your education. You have the hands that crafts your educational experience, and every time some big-wig financier comes along and tells you its stupid to study the humanities, they’re sticking a big fat fist into your slowly curated clay pot. You can be successful with literally any field if you’re the one defining what “success” means. This is not to say you shouldn’t be aware that technical fields and business typically pay better (which is true), but you already knew that didn’t you (;
  • get a fire in your belly. If you don’t have it yet, get it. You need to work harder than you’ve ever had to work to survive the bureaucracy of American universities. If you don’t push yourself, no one will do it for you. Do whatever you do to get in the zone - and stay there.
  • don’t let anyone tell you you can’t study abroad or change your major as a transfer student. Ideally, you won’t have to change your major, let me say that. But studying abroad is completely possible as long as you plan and budget and sacrifice some other opportunities like doing original research theses.

That’s all I’ve got, I hope this helps. You’re going to have the best and worst times of your life in the coming years, and I’m excited for you. Make them count.