by Michael Tomlin-Crutchfield

Senior year of high school was the first time I started checking the mailbox regularly. Unlike today where I’m on the lookout for the next credit card offer or bill, I was checking for my college acceptance letters back then. I remember how underwhelming the first one was. It was a massive envelope that read “Congratulations” on the outside in green and white. I hope they’ve added an element of surprise since 2007.

As the letters came rolling in, the one that stood out was my acceptance into Howard University. I was so excited to confirm my enrollment that I didn’t bother looking at my financial aid package, or lack thereof, I should say.

Looking back on my experience at Howard, I couldn’t have had a more empowering, transformative, and memorable experience. And although I love visiting my friends across the country and going to homecoming every year, I don’t enjoy checking the mailbox now and seeing a bill for my student loan payments.

We understand the struggle here at the National Urban League. So we’ve compiled a guide on ways to make the most of your college experience without breaking the bank.

FAFSA Money Isn’t Always Free

Filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is essential to learning what you qualify for from the federal government. The awards come in the form of:

  • Pell and FSEOG Grants – Both are needs-based and determined by the income of your family.
  • Federally subsidized loans – Ever hear people talking about Sallie Mae? Sallie Mae and the Department of Education both issue loans to help students cover the cost of college. But keep in mind that while government-backed loans are a great way to borrow money at lower interest rates, they are what they are-- loans.

Filling out the FAFSA is critical to paying for your education. According to analysis from the Department of Education, just over a third of all undergraduate students qualify for and receive funding from Pell grants. They’re a great way to take a bite out of your tuition, but you only qualify if you fill out the FAFSA.

Merit Scholarships

In addition to federal dollars, many universities, including HBCUs offer merit scholarships to qualifying freshmen based on their high school performance. Your college should let you know in your acceptance letter or at least provide the next steps to finding out your aid package.

Outside Scholarships

Did you know there are organizations across the globe that offer scholarship awards upwards of $6 billion annually? When I was in college, there was good ‘ol Fastweb, which is still a great resource, but there are many others out there today. Check out the College Board’s Big Future tool to see your options.

Knowing Your Budget

Speaking of Big Future, the tool also has a variety of calculators to help you pay for school, budget, and determine how to best manage your debt.