How to get a $120,000 college education for free

I was raised in a Christian family. The value of living debt-free was displayed throughout my youth via a multitude of rented houses, furniture that predated myself, and cars that were always greater than five years old.

My parents didn’t have a “college fund” for me or my sister. Growing up in a one-income household, my mom raised us while caring for the home and going back to school for her associates, bachelors, and MBA degree. I learned to be a good steward and how to be a thoughtful consumer (read: how to find the best sales). I also carried a tremendous weight on my shoulders — I was responsible for figuring out how to pay for college without taking out any loans.

“I also carried a tremendous weight on my shoulders — I was responsible for figuring out how to pay for college. without taking out any loans.”

Looking back, that was a bit melodramatic. Of course I had parents who loved me, wanted the best for me, and were willing to assist in any way possible. They just didn’t have much monetary substance to contribute.

Flash forward through my first few years of high school. I am about to finish the first semester of my junior (third) year. I’m realizing that high school wasn’t for me. I was bored, I didn’t connect well with the other kids, and I was ready for a change of scenery. I was ready to get away from home.

These feelings lead to many Google searches regarding high school study abroad in places like Chile, India, and Nepal. These searches led to conversations with my parents, which lead to conversations with my school guidance counselor. Ultimately, with one class requirement left to graduate, my counselor suggested I graduate early — that year — as a junior.

Suddenly, the entire next year I had left to research, tour, and apply for colleges vanished. I had about two months to apply, take the SAT/ACT, and start thinking about scholarships.

So how did I do it?

I’ve had a lot of grief from envious peers who claim, “the only reason you got so many scholarships was because you’re a girl in engineering”. What they didn’t realize was the amount of effort and dedication I put into it. The exact steps I took to fund my college education may not work for everyone, however, the attitude and mindset I had while overcoming this obstacle is sure to produce results.


Here’s the approach I took.

  • Evaluate state and/or federal programs that you may be eligible for. In the state of Florida we have something called Bright Futures which provides aid to students meeting the GPA, SAT/ACT, and volunteer requirements. With the ability to receive $4,000/year, I made it a priority to obtain the missing 100 volunteer hours in the following six months.
  • Apply for schools and evaluate how much institutional aid could be received. Often times you won’t know how much institutional aid is offered until you receive the acceptance letter. I happened to apply for one school. A four-year, private university that costs roughly $40,000/year. Foolish or not, I believed I was going to find a way to fund my education. It was never even a question. Turns out, private institutions often have greater funding available to students. I was able to get nearly $12,000/year from the school based on my strong academic record and admissions application.
  • Apply for institution-specific scholarships first. These are typically less competitive. I got $5,000/year from being involved in my high school robotics program.
  • Apply for outside scholarships related to your degree program. Once again, this will narrow the competition. Websites like scholarships.com, fastweb.com, studentscholarships.org, etc will be useful as search engines. I typically used Google by searching “scholarships for --insert degree--”, or various extensions of this idea.
Note: By this point I had an excel spreadsheet with every single scholarship I had applied for, when I could expect to hear back about it, how much I could expect to receive, when I applied, and any other applicable details. Organization was key. It also helped keep me accountable for the effort I was giving.
  • Apply for local community scholarships/grants. Whether it’s from your local church, your school, the library, the county, or the state, these will be slightly less competitive. I got support from random organizations nearby wishing to “support the youth of tomorrow” or some B.S. like that.
  • Apply for sweepstakes or quick-and-easy scholarships. These are going to be a long shot, but the ROI is still worth five minutes of your time. I often found these on the same scholarship websites listed above.
  • Fill out the FASFA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) as soon as possible. Some federal aid is given out on a first-come-first-serve basis. I filled out this form late one year and missed out on $2,000 of aid that I would’ve otherwise received.
  • Rinse and repeat. This is a marathon not a race. Quality is not better than quantity. Quantity is not better than quality. You must put 100% effort into each application, and then do the same for a few hundred more. For example, I wrote a 2,000 word essay for a high-value, Blackberry scholarship and started the first letter of each paragraph with consecutive, drop-capped letters B-L-A-C-K-B-E-R-R-Y just to catch the reviewer’s attention. Things like this get you noticed. The five minutes it takes to tailor your resume to each specific scholarship helps set you apart from the other candidates.
“Quality is not better than quantity. Quantity is not better than quality. You must put 100% effort into each application, and then do the same for a few hundred more.”

Remember when I said high school student’s have time on their sides? Let’s see how much time I spent preparing for the next four years of my life:

  • 40+ hrs/wk — School
  • 5 hrs/wk — Volunteering for scholarship requirement
  • 10 hrs/wk — Part-time, after-school, internship with a local engineering company (which was a requirement for a large, $10,000/year scholarship I received, and a way to save money so I could buy dorm supplies)
  • 20+ hrs/wk — Scholarship research, application, and essay writing

This totals to about 75+ hrs/wk — that’s 11-hour days, seven days a week, for about six months (except a bit less since I mastered the art of multi-tasking… many scholarships were written during school hours).

Note: This process was repeated each year on a smaller scale to ensure I received repeat funding, or made up for funding that was not renewable.

So there you have it. Five years later and I have a degree in aerospace engineering from one of the most prestigious aeronautical colleges in the world. I am 100% debt-free, a fact that I took for granted up until this year. I have the true freedom to pursue my passion without limiting my career based on financial need and the hustle of the last few years finally seems more-than worth it.

Perserverance — continued effort to do or achieve something despite difficulties, failure, or opposition (Merriam-Webster)


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