Paying for Undergrad

Paying for Undergrad

One of the biggest obstacles to becoming a scientist can be the financial burden of college. In the United States, high school seniors often commit to colleges and universities without knowing how much they will pay for tuition, fees, textbooks, room and board, etc. (For reference, when I started college at a large state school in 2014 my father and I estimated the total cost of four years at about $100,000). Student loans are marketed extremely well, and most undergraduate students I know have been told that taking out large loans to pay for school is not only normal and necessary, but safe. No one should be ashamed of needing student loans, but if you intend to pursue the sciences as a career you should do everything in your power to minimize your debt as early as possible. Going back to school for an advanced degree or two is difficult enough without student loan debt from undergrad hanging over your head.

The good news is there are ways to fund your education without taking out loans! None of them are easy, but they can all be worthwhile depending on your situation. Preparing for college probably has you feeling overwhelmed already, but putting in the work for scholarship applications or AP classes now can go a long way toward reducing or eliminating the amount you owe at graduation. The goal of this post is to outline a handful of funding sources and strategies you can use to lower the cost of college, better positioning you to pursue a scientific career after graduation.

Earning College Credit in High School

One of the most effective ways of lowering the cost of college is to knock out required credits before you start your freshman year. High schools typically advertise these programs heavily, so you are likely already aware of what your school has to offer. In my experience the three most common programs are:

-Advanced Placement (AP)

-International Baccalaureate (IB)

-Dual Credit Programs (PSEO, College Credit Plus, etc.)

AP classes can be taken individually, so you can usually sign up for as many or as few as your schedule and high school graduation requirements allow you to. At the end of the year, you pay a fee to take the corresponding AP test and are scored on a scale of 1-5 by a nonprofit called the College Board (the same people who administer the SAT). At many colleges, high scores on AP tests can net you credit and get you out of required classes. AP credits are widely accepted, but you should check with specific schools when you are deciding where to go.

IB is a comprehensive program that extends from elementary school all the way through high school, and individual school districts may offer the full program, only a few high school IB classes, or anything in between. The classes typically conclude with a test that might be worth college credit depending on course level. IB and AP are frequently compared, but which program to choose (if your school offers both/if you cannot take advantage of both) is ultimately up to you and your family. I am aware that not all IB tests are accepted for college credit and that IB students often take the corresponding AP tests at the end of IB courses to guarantee credit, but administrators at your school should be able to tell you more and advise you.

Depending on where you live, your school may offer you the opportunity to take classes at a local college for free while still in high school. Programs like this generally give you “dual credit” that counts toward your high school graduation and for college credit at the same time. Examples include Minnesota’s Post-Secondary Enrollment Option (PSEO) and Ohio’s College Credit Plus program. These programs can be very useful, but I recommend you take a careful look at how easily transferrable those credits will be before you start. I knew many people in high school who took classes at a local private liberal arts college through the PSEO program, only to discover that most of those credits could not be transferred to less expensive state schools. They were forced to choose between abandoning the college credits they had worked for and attending a much more expensive private school. These programs can be great ways to earn college credit, but always make sure the credits can be transferred before you start, assuming you want to go to college elsewhere.

The FAFSA

The FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) is an application you should fill out every year starting your senior year of high school. Essentially, the FAFSA takes in detailed information about your and your parents’ financial situations and spits out need-based financial aid to help you go to school. Depending on your financial status, you might be offered loans, grants, and/or work-study funding. You will then have a chance to accept or reject each offer individually. I can’t explain the pros and cons of individual awards because the details may change from year to year, but the general idea is that:

  1. Grants don’t need to be paid back under most circumstances (this includes the Pell Grant for students from low income families). Always read the fine print, but I would generally advise you to seriously consider accepting any grants you are offered.
  2. Work-study funding is a great opportunity to get paid for work that can be related to your major! Again, read the fine print, but these awards are usually helpful.
  3. There are many types of loans, but they usually come in two flavors: subsidized and unsubsidized. As a rule, subsidized loans don’t start to accumulate interest until after you graduate (because the loan is subsidized by the government paying for your interest until that point), and unsubsidized loans do accumulate interest from the get-go.

I am not a financial advisor of any sort and you shouldn’t make potentially life-altering financial decisions based on this blog. Navigating the world of college financial aid (especially loans) is complicated, and you should talk over your options with your family and guidance counselor if possible. There is no single way to pay for school, and the right way forward is something you and your family will need to decide. The only universal piece of advice I can offer here is read the fine print!

Taking Generals at a Cheaper School

This is a relatively common strategy in my experience. Students enroll at a local community college for their first year or two in order to knock out general requirements like freshman writing, chemistry, and physics for a better price. After that, they will transfer to a bigger, more expensive school to take advanced classes and ultimately graduate. Alternately, some students enroll in community college during summer breaks from their regular school. The above warning about making sure your credits will transfer to your desired school before you start applies, as well as a brief caveat regarding research.

If your goal is a career in scientific research, getting research experience as an undergraduate student is a no-brainer. Not only will this experience tell you whether a research career is right for you; it will make you a more attractive applicant for graduate programs. These early research experiences are also where you will begin to build your scientific network, which can produce job contacts and letters of recommendation going forward. I bring up the importance of undergraduate research here because the “community college transfer” strategy can easily hinder your opportunities if you let it. If you arrive on campus as a junior and only spend two or three years there, you will have less time to find, apply to, integrate into, and gain experience with a research lab. It’s certainly possible to do all of this on a shorter timeframe, but I recommend taking your time to try out different labs to find one where you fit academically and communally. If you start at a community college, try to volunteer (or work for pay, if you’re really lucky) in a lab at your desired school before you transfer, even if it’s only one day a week. Volunteer experience with an on-campus lab will absolutely help you find a place in the research community once you do transfer, and you will be a competitive applicant for any other lab positions you decide to pursue. Bottom line: taking general credits at a cheaper school is a great way to save money, as long as you don’t use it as an excuse to put off getting research experience.

Scholarships

Scholarships can be like magic. If you put in a little effort to write essays and ask for letters of recommendation, money might appear out of thin air!

In all seriousness, scholarships are often a much more efficient way to earn money for college than working a part-time job. Some require you to write personal statements about why you want to get a degree in this field (which encourages self-reflection), and best of all, you never have to pay this money back!!! I heavily recommend that you apply for lots and lots of scholarships at every opportunity, especially if you want your career to center on research. What are grant applications, after all, if not massive, bloated, ultra-competitive scholarship applications? Asking for money to further your research will be a central part of your career; applying for college scholarships is excellent practice.

For the sake of simplicity, I’ll separate scholarships into two categories: Internal and External. Internal scholarships are offered by your school or department. These are typically a little less competitive because applicants must be from your institution, and you should absolutely take advantage of them. During my undergrad I spent two summers at a field station run by my school. There were a handful of scholarships set aside for students taking classes or doing research at this station, and the open secret was that, because so few students came to the station each year, every applicant got at least $500. The only way to miss out on this money was to not apply! While this may have been a special case, the principle holds true. If you have decent grades and a good letter of recommendation, your chances of netting some cash are probably pretty good. Look over your college/university/department’s website, ask your professors, research mentors, or academic advisors, and apply for everything you can!

External scholarships vary a lot more in both scope and size, but are equally worth pursuing. There are high-profile national scholarship competitions like the Astronaut Scholarship and the National Merit Scholarship (I’ve written about the National Merit Scholarship here), as well as field-specific awards like the Hollings Scholarship. You may also find smaller-scale awards from community organizations like churches or businesses. I can’t list every possible external funding source for science undergrads because they are numerous and constantly changing, but I can advise you to give it a google! Large schools often have an entire office devoted to national-level scholarship competitions; seek them out if you’d like to throw your hat in the ring.

Jobs Related to your Major

Another fantastic way to earn money while in college is to find a job that will get you more experience in your major. The obvious choice for an aspiring researcher would be to find a paid role in a lab, but these are more frequently volunteer positions because labs are usually strapped for cash. In the natural sciences, animal care can be a more viable option. Chances are there are labs on campus with live animals that need to be fed and looked after. This grunt work is often pushed off onto undergrads in exchange for a paycheck and extra exposure to the lab animals and equipment. My undergrad alma mater was landlocked, so I found a position feeding zebrafish that were used by genetics and neuroscience labs. If you don’t want to wash fish tanks, improving your teaching skills by tutoring younger students may appeal to you. Many departments have formal tutoring programs that you can apply to work for; if not, you could put up flyers and freelance! “Weed-out” courses early in a major will always have students that need a little extra help, and teaching material will help to solidify your own understanding. There are plenty of other options for work on campus that don’t involve cleaning plates in the dining hall, but they vary a lot between institutions. Consult your advisor, professors, classmates, and department website to see what’s available!

There are also paid research internships called “REUs” (Research Experiences for Undergraduates) funded by the National Science Foundation. REU programs typically take place during 10-12 weeks over the summer, and pay in the neighborhood of $5,000-$6,000 (as of 2017). Think of it as grad school lite. You spend a summer working on a project under a faculty mentor and participating in seminars, culminating in a final report and presentation. Not only is this fantastic experience, but the pay is usually great. These programs can get uber competitive, but they are absolutely worth the effort. (I’ve written more about the NSF REU program here).


I realize this is a lot of information to take in at once, but if you put in the work, knock out a few generals before starting college, land a couple of scholarships, and work an on-campus job, you’ll be in a much better position to pursue a research career after graduation.

Photo Credit to Pexels

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