The 3 Biggest Financial Regrets of College Graduates and How to Avoid Them

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This fall there will be over 20 million students heading to college, either returning from summer break or arriving for the first time. If you’re one of those first-timers, you’re probably pretty excited and thinking a lot about making new friends, living in a dorm, going to parties, and what your classes will be like. You’re likely not, however, doing a whole lot of thinking about how much college will cost you.

Four years from now, when you’re going through the door in the opposite direction, your perspective will probably have changed. Two-thirds of all graduates will accumulate some kind of debt during school — whether that be student loans or credit card debt. And for some reason, male students will accrue more debt than their female peers; men average around $30k in student loans (compared to $23k for women) and nearly twice the non-loan debt (like credit cards) of their female counterparts ($18k to $9k). When you’re staring down that debt in your cap and gown, you may look back and wish you had done some things differently.

When over 500 recent graduates were surveyed by Accounting Principals, they reported 3 big financial regrets about their college career (read the full report):

  • They wish they had more actively pursued scholarships and financial aid.
  • They wish they had pursued a different major that had more realistic job prospects and a higher starting salary.
  • They wish they had gotten a job while in college and had started saving money earlier.

If you’re just beginning college, or even in the middle of it, you have the advantage of taking steps to address these potential future regrets now, instead of lamenting what you wish you had known as a frosh as you pull away from campus for the last time. Here’s how.

1. Actively Pursue Scholarships

The biggest thing you can do to help yourself in the financial realm while being a student is work your butt off for scholarships and grants. Financial aid can mean many different things: student loans, income-based grants, etc. Most students/parents will stop after filling out an application and the FAFSA, and cross their fingers that some money comes. Scholarships and grants based on academics and other pursuits, however, are where you can really shine and are vastly underutilized. Those based on academics are fairly straightforward. The better grades you get, the better chance you have of receiving them. Many schools have built-in scholarships for students with a certain GPA. (Don’t stop looking once you’re in school — some of my biggest scholarships came my last two years when my GPA was highest.) Those are a clear example of how your hard work in college can directly pay off to monetary rewards.

The other avenue, however, is looking for scholarships is less orthodox places. Consider the following:

  • Parents’ Employer: Many larger companies/organizations offer scholarships for students of their employees. If not general scholarships, there are companies that offer a child a scholarship if they pursue an education in the same industry the company operates in. Ask your parents to do some research, and they could even work with their company to start a scholarship fund if one does not yet exist.
  • School Networks: You are probably already filling out forms for scholarships offered by your high school. If you aren’t doing that, you need to. The next place to look, however, is local alumni groups of the college you’re looking at. Many times you’ll find a few wealthy alums who offer scholarships to a few students per year, and this is another area where you can get specific scholarships as well. I received a scholarship from an alum that was to go to a journalism student with a GPA of 3.0 or above. So do some digging with alumni groups in your area and you won’t be disappointed.
  • Community Organizations: Many of your local non-profits or service organizations will offer scholarships to students. First, ask your parents what sort of clubs or non-profits they might be involved with, and if there are any scholarships to be had. Next, look to the well-known organizations out there like Rotary Club, Goodwill, etc. To up your chances even higher, if you find out an organization offers a scholarship, do some volunteering for them! It’s a win-win; you get to help your community, and have a chance at getting some help with your tuition.
  • Religious Organizations: Many faith-based groups will offer scholarships to those who share that faith. The Knights of Columbus is one such group for Catholic folks, and Hillel.org (a nationwide campus group) can point out opportunities for the Jewish community. Do some research and find out if your specific religious affiliation may offer you scholarship opportunities.
  • Field of Study: If you have a fairly good idea of what you want to study in school, you may have a leg up on scholarships over those who are undecided. There are various major-based scholarships out there, as I’ve alluded to above. Your school may be the biggest source of information for you, but also just do a Google search for your major + “scholarships.” Scholarships.com also offers a robust search function for various majors. Know that if you switch majors, you probably won’t be able to keep this type of scholarship, but if nothing else, you’ve gotten some help for one or two years worth of schooling.
  • Campus Organizations: Many on-campus organizations, especially those with larger, nationwide presences, will offer scholarships to folks pursuing related degrees. Foreign language clubs, religious groups (like Hillel), business associations (AMA, PRSSA), and many more are good places to look.
  • Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC). You may be familiar with the ROTC program, and it’s a great option for students interested in the military. ROTC members attend college like other students, but also receive basic military training and officer training for their chosen branch of service (minus the Coast Guard). The students participate in regular drills during the school year, and extended training activities during the summer. Depending on your branch of service and type of scholarship/program you’re in, you’ll then be required to serve for between three and eight years after you graduate. The Army ROTC program is by far the largest, and pays for all four years of tuition. You can also join the program later and have your remaining years paid for.

There are no shortage of scholarship opportunities available to those who pursue them. The key is to fill out as many applications as possible. You’ll get a lot of rejections, but the few you are awarded will make a big difference. It’s a pain writing essay after essay and filling out form after form, but the literal payoff is well worth it.

Also don’t get into the mindset that any scholarship is too small. For some reason, in school I always thought that $250 or $500 scholarships weren’t worth my time. In reality, they could have paid for books, flights home, food for a month or two, etc. Don’t ignore any of the opportunities for cash that are out there!

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