How 2 Students Found Innovative Ways to Pay for College

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 percent 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.

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

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.

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 percent 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.

[See: 10 Strategic Ways to Pay Less for College.]

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 of 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: College Financial Aid 101.]

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.”

This story is excerpted from the U.S. News “Best Colleges 2019” guidebook, which features in-depth articles, rankings and data.

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