Written by: Reagan Flowers, Ph.D.
As we get closer to the fall semester, many high school graduates are still deciding their paths. They are wondering how to pay for college without loans, whether to take a year off, and/or whether to pursue a college degree at all. So this month, I want to take a look at helping students achieve their STEM dreams — without landing them in insurmountable debt.
As I’ve mentioned before, science careers still greatly lack diversity. On top of that, college enrollment has been dropping in the wake of COVID-19. In particular, the sharpest decline occurred for those who graduated from high-poverty schools. The STEM field greatly needs the unique perspectives of underrepresented students. However, most of these students do not have the resources readily available to pay for college. The good news is that they can find a way by thinking a little differently than the traditional four-year university route, getting a little creative. I’ll go over some ideas for accomplishing this.
Community College First Can Mean Drastic Savings
One option for paying for school is beginning your studies at a community college. The latest stats show that a student will pay $3,770 for one year at a public local community college. That’s nearly seven $7,000 less than a public in-state school and more than $23,000 less than an out-of-state public school. But, of course, that’s just for one year!
By completing the first two years at a community college, pursuing a degree becomes much more realistic financially. You may not even need to pay for all the expenses. Pell grants are available at community colleges, and some community colleges offer their scholarships and grants. Begin by completing the FAFSA to see what federal financial aid you may be able to receive. If you can secure enough scholarships and grants to cover the cost, you can spend those two years saving for your final two years at a four-year school.
Many four-year colleges have partnerships with community colleges. These sometimes include a formal program where you begin your studies at the community college and finish at the four-year school. For example, the University of Houston has an engineering program where students complete their core courses at Houston Community College and complete their engineering courses at the University of Houston. Check with the public, four-year schools near you to see if they have programs like this in the field you want to pursue.
Four Years is Just a Guideline
I want to be realistic here. Community college and financial aid can help, but the picture is often more complicated. Students have other things they may need to pay for: housing, living expenses, taking care of family, etc. Sometimes the best route is to pay for one or two courses at a time. If you need to work a full-time job, a full school load can lead to overwhelm and burnout. If the most successful path for you to move forward is taking your education a little more slowly than four years, there’s nothing wrong with all. After all, those who speed through college often end up with two decades of debt.
Grants and Scholarships: It’s Not Too Late
Some students decide to take time off school or not start right after graduation. That’s okay and may give them time to work and save up money. However, many students never get started or go back because they think it’s too late. It’s never too late! For students who do not begin immediately after graduation, this is especially true when talking about options for paying for college. There are grants and scholarships out there, even if you’re not a recent high school graduate.
It is important to keep top of mind when applying for federal financial aid, it is more often than not based on the fall semester, but some schools still award financial aid if you’ve missed the deadline. So it never hurts to check. In addition, various scholarships and grants are offered throughout the year by numerous organizations and companies. Here are some scholarship search tools you can try. Be sure to search for more than just academic success. You can find scholarships based on a wide variety of things, including economic need, hobbies, race, ethnicity, and more.
Internships Can Help Pay for College
Many companies offer college education benefits, and sometimes these extend to interns. Try to secure an internship with one of these companies during your two years of community college. Internships may be able to help you pay for your final two years. The best way to find these kinds of opportunities is to contact the four-year college you plan on attending and ask about their corporate partnerships.
Help Students Around You
We all must continue to help lift students reach higher ground. Let uncertain students know about the options I’ve mentioned above. If your company or organization offers scholarships, grants, or internships with college benefits, please send them their way. We love to share these opportunities with our C-STEM community. By being a part of the solution, we can help all young people build bright futures and start them on solid footing.