It has been said that the average time a student spends in college today is 6.2 years. When I heard this, it really hit home from me about my college experience. I was a very good student in high school, honors track in most subjects. Finished in the top 15% of my class and scored a 27 on my ACT and being named an Illinois State Scholar. So you would think with that background, I would have had the chance to receive scholarships or other forms of financial aid and that I would have done what most students planned to do; graduate in four years at the school we dreamed of attending.
It had been a longtime dream to attend University of Illinois. Through my participation in 4-H clubs which were ran out of the University’s Extension office, I had the opportunity to attend State 4-H Conference in Urbana-Champaign. I developed quite a few friendships with other 4-H’ers along the way as well. Here was the problem: My major was going to be accounting and the when my high school guidance counselor showed me the College of Commerce’s requirements, my ACT of 27 and class rank of top 15% were not good enough. I would have had to apply to Liberal Arts and hoped for a transfer down the line. I was a bit disheartened. My parents had always been told by my teachers that I could do whatever I wanted and here was my high school counselor telling me no.
I decided at that point to stay home, attend Prairie State College and transfer to U of I in two years. Then came another mistake. The enrollment advisor at Prairie State recommended I take engineering calculus. Although I was very good at math (scored 32 in this area on the ACT), I did not have the interest at that level. It was one of my worst subjects and I wound up with a D. The next semester I took business calculus which I received a B in with very little effort. One semester wasted but I was thankful it was Prairie State.
After about two years at Prairie State, I decided that I was close enough to my Associates Degree that I figured why not take the couple courses so at least I had some “reward” to my work so far. I also had the opportunity to obtain in-state tuition rates through a special program offered by Purdue University Calumet. This meant $63 per credit hour and between this and working two jobs (and getting some tuition reimbursement) I was able to make college reasonably affordable for my parents. What I didn’t plan on is that I spent four years at Purdue Calumet and when you add that with the time spent at Prairie State, I was just above the current statistical average, taking seven years to obtain my four year degree.
So how could I have overcome this problem? It is hard to say what was available back then, but if I was a junior now, here is what I would look for:
1. By all means, complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). It was likely that my family would have been in a position to qualify for financial aid and being an Illinois State Scholar provided me an opportunity for other awards.
2. Working with a tutoring service to strategically improve my ACT score. Although I scored a 32 in math and a 29 in natural sciences, my English score of 24 and social studies score of 23 weighed down my overall score. Interestingly enough, as I was researching my records for this blog post, I found a certificate for winning 1st place in my high school’s social studies fair. I think I could have bumped my overall score a bit by retaking the exam after some focused coaching.
3. Working with an admissions professional that was unbiased in determining what college was the best fit for me. My heart was at Illinois but I had plenty of offers from smaller private schools and I never explored those possibilities because I believed they were not affordable options for my parents. Also, although I truly love what I do today as a financial advisor, it is very well possible that I would have found other vocations that I could have excelled at (photography and music being a couple of them) and who knows what could have been?
4. Having my parents hire a financial advisor that truly understood how financial aid works. I know we held investments in my name and most likely not in the most efficient vehicles for college planning.
One of the biggest reasons that I focus on working with parents with college-bound children is that although I don’t regret my seven year plan, I admit that I would have had a better head start if my parents and I first took a step back and seriously planned for how college was going to play out for me. I do this now to help families avoid the route that I traveled.