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How 2 Students Found Innovative Ways to Pay for College

Arlene Weintraub, Margaret Loftus

One Student's Strategy: Sell Apparel for Campus Events

Jessie Baren, University of Michigan--Ann Arbor

When the Alpha Phi sorority at the University of Michigan--Ann Arbor needed personalized T-shirts for a St. Patrick's Day party in 2018, they zapped a text message with their order to Jessie Baren, the campus rep for Fresh Prints, a national custom-apparel company started by college students in 2009.

Baren, who graduated in the spring of 2018, started working for the business second semester freshman year, and over time built his customer base from five campus clubs to 100, helping design and order apparel for events ranging from dance marathons to tailgate parties at sporting events.

Baren, who took about a 7% cut of each order, earned almost $100,000. As a result, and with his parents' help, he made his way through Michigan -- his total cost per year as an out-of-stater from Los Angeles ran north of $65,000 -- without needing financial aid. And he had enough left over to seed a Roth IRA.

A communications major who hopes to work in the music industry, Baren says fostering contacts at campus clubs was the key to maximizing his Fresh Prints returns. "It's all about building customer relationships," he says.

[Read: 5 Overlooked Ways to Pay for College.]

He got into a routine of predicting which groups would want custom apparel for certain events, and then reached out to his contacts a month in advance with offers to help design and order the clothing. In addition to a cut of every sale, Fresh Prints gave him a 3% bonus each semester for hitting predetermined sales goals.

It was Baren's cousin, who attended the University of Pennsylvania with one of the company's founders, who first made him aware of Fresh Prints. While he spent his summers doing odd jobs to bring in more cash, Baren says he was earning enough from the Fresh Prints gig to also accept some nonpaying internships -- doing marketing for record labels, for example -- to help him toward his career goals.

One Student's Strategy: Assemble Multiple Sources of Financial Aid

Chardonnay Hightower-Collins, Mills College

When Chardonnay Hightower-Collins was in eighth grade, she joined College Track, a program based in her hometown of Oakland, California, that helps students from underserved communities along the path to college completion.

The program assists those with limited resources by providing tutoring, counseling, standardized-test preparation and other services, as well as financial rewards for academic performance that they can apply toward college costs.

She knew she would have to finance her education herself. With the help of College Track's counselors, she put together a multifaceted plan to pay the roughly $30,000-per-year tuition plus other costs to attend Mills College in Oakland.

Mills gave Hightower-Collins a renewable merit-based scholarship of $17,500 per semester, and she qualified for work-study, taking a position as an administrative assistant in the office of residential life for three of her four years at Mills. She also nabbed a $4,000-per-year scholarship from the East Bay College Fund and applied for several off-the-radar private awards.

"I only went for the scholarships I thought I could get. But I applied to as many as possible, both in high school and in college," Hightower-Collins says. During her sophomore year at Mills, for example, her grandfather received a letter from his labor union alerting him to a scholarship application, which he passed along to Hightower-Collins. She received $1,500 from the union.

Still, each year Hightower-Collins had a $5,000 to $10,000 gap between her scholarship aid and the remainder of her costs. She took out $21,000 in loans, mostly subsidized Stafford loans, meaning the federal government covered the interest prior to graduation. About $1,000 of that total was an unsubsidized loan she realized she would need junior year shortly after turning it down; she walked into the financial aid office and negotiated to get it back.

"I had multiple talks with my financial aid counselor" to explain the situation, says Hightower-Collins, who graduated with a sociology degree in May 2017 and went on to work as an operations manager at College Track before taking a job as a college coach at a different organization in Oakland. She now has a monthly loan payment of about $250.

[Read: Ways to Alleviate the Stress of Paying for College.]

As a junior, Hightower-Collins found another way to cut costs while embarking on an adventure that expanded her horizons: She took advantage of a semester-abroad program in Havana. The Cuban experience not only gave her a taste of the challenges of living in a developing country but also allowed her to save $15,000 in tuition that semester.

"I had a good time," she says of the experience. "And it was cost-effective."

One Student's Strategy: Start at Community College

Blake Plante, Pomona College

Blake Plante didn't plan on going to community college, but he's glad he did. He first started taking classes at Riverside City College in his hometown of Riverside, California, to get a leg up on earning college credit while he was still a senior at an area charter high school.

After taking part-time classes during high school, Plante ended up doing two years full time at RCC, during which he ultimately earned five associate degrees and several scholarships, all of which could be used toward college-related expenses at community college or a post-transfer institution. He also won a Cal Grant that allowed him to bank additional cash toward tuition and fees at a four-year school in the Golden State.

"I was privileged in that I was living nearby, and my family could provide housing and food. All I had to worry about was school," he says. "Community college is an excellent opportunity for saving a lot of money."

Enrollment fees for residents at RCC in 2019 are just $46 per credit, for example, and those fees were waived for Plante as a recipient of a California College Promise Grant.

[Read: How Students Can Cut Costs With Community College Pathways.]

In 2016, Plante transferred as a second-semester sophomore to Pomona College in Claremont, California, about 30 miles from home. The private liberal arts college offered him the most attractive deal -- even compared with state schools -- and all told, financial aid underwrote 90% of the college's $71,000-a-year tab. He covered the rest with savings and earnings from a summer job in 2017 teaching debate to middle and high school students.

With no money concerns, Plante flourished during his three years at Pomona -- a switch in majors his senior year required he stay an extra semester. He graduated in May with a bachelor's in English and internship experience with the National Endowment for the Humanities in Washington, D.C.

He also developed a deep interest in corporeal mime -- a type of physical theater that situates expression in the body, rather than substituting gesture for speech -- which he's exploring more deeply through a yearlong fellowship.

All those years of living at home during community college have paid off. Not only did he graduate without debt, but he's got money in the bank. "I can do pretty much anything," he says.

One Student's Strategy: Take On Various Jobs and Start a Business

Rachel Proctor, Savannah College of Art and Design

As a kid, Rachel Proctor was always taking painting, photography or dance classes, but she never considered any of those fields to be a viable career path.

"Growing up, there was kind of a stereotype of artists not being successful," she says. Nevertheless, she earned cash before leaving for college by snapping photos of her high school peers, marketing her services through Instagram.

Once at school, it didn't take long for her to realize that the path she chose -- majoring in communications at a small liberal arts college in Illinois -- wasn't the right one for her. "I was so unhappy, and I realized that if I work in an office for my whole life I'm going to be really sad," she says.

Halfway through her freshman year, Proctor transferred to the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia to study commercial photography. The school's $51,000-plus annual price tag was daunting, especially since family finances were tight.

But Proctor pays less than half that by being a live-in programming assistant in a dorm, which covers housing and meals, and by having snagged a few scholarships from SCAD for academic achievement and her portfolio. The rest is covered by student loans, which she plans to pay off in part with savings from her growing portrait business.

Proctor spent her first two college summers back at home in Fort Collins, Colorado, building her photography clientele and banking the income. In the summer of 2018, she had more than 75 clients. At SCAD, she works at the school gym and as a nanny to earn spending money, and she also shoots pictures for cash in her free time.

"It's so nice because there's no time commitment," she says. Her fees range between $100 and $500, depending on what a client wants.

Now a senior, Proctor knows the move to SCAD was the right one. She spent last summer as an intern at Free People, a clothing and lifestyle brand based in Philadelphia, one step closer to her goal of working in-house for a fashion brand.



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