When I was in middle school, I looked up the tuition costs for college. It was a lot of money. I honestly didn’t know how people paid it. At the time, loans were foreign to me so I worried I wouldn’t ever be able to go to a good college if I couldn’t come up with the cash. I didn’t even really understand taxes at the time, so my number was way off, as I didn’t realize I needed that much money post-tax.
Upon looking through the best colleges, I realized they handed out free tuition for families who made under $60,000 a year and gave money on a sliding scale for those who made lower than $150k-$200k. I lived in a small place where those amounts of money would let people have a incredibly comfortable living (ie, not NYC or SF). Almost all the teenagers in our area would’ve gotten into college free, or at the least, extremely heavily discounted, if they managed to get into the top 20 private schools. This rule, along with some scholarships, including one where I basically made $300/hr, allowed me to graduate with a positive net worth. The positive net worth portion will be for another blog story.
And so, when I applied for colleges, I applied to EVERY. SINGLE. ONE. in the top 20, and a few safety schools in the top 50. For me, “fit” was wherever I could go for free. Choice of school is a luxury when you’re trying to get in for free.
Stop Making Excuses About Why You Can’t Get In
Now, before I hear complaints about how it’s not possible for everyone to make it into a school that’s ranked so high, I’m sure there are a ton of people who could have done it but just didn’t try as hard. The SAT is absolutely a teachable test, and if you start studying crazy early, you can “hack” it. If you start early with a skill, you can become better at it. The top 50 private schools also give out an incredible amount of financial aid. If you can get in, the amount of aid is just incredible.
Before you call BS due to whatever privilege you think I might have had, here are some facts about my family and I:
- My parents and I came to this country when I was very young. We didn’t know anyone in the US prior to our arrival and I didn’t speak English at all.
- I spoke better english than my parents probably by the 3rd or 4th grade.
- I spoke in my parent’s native language at home. The only time I ever conversed in English was in school. I didn’t really go over to friend’s houses or anything like that until maybe middle school.
- My parents never helped me with homework. Ever. I never asked and didn’t know asking for help with homework was a thing. It was fine, I could get through it by myself.
- Neither of my parents went to US colleges. I didn’t have an “in” to get me in anywhere.
- My parents are not familiar with the US college system. I had to do research on it all on my own.
- My parents didn’t push me to get better grades or join more activities or anything. None of that Asian Tiger mom stuff.
My School life:
- My guidance counselor only really met with people senior year. As you know, by then it’s too late to devise a plan to get into college. You start planning in the summer of 8th grade because everything 9th grade and beyond counts in your application.
- You know those Asians who go to fancy after-school tutoring that their parents pay loads of money for? That was not me. I never went to tutoring. In 11th grade I took some cheap (compared to NYC standards) SAT tutoring, mostly so I could get access to free practice tests.
- My school only had one AP class. It wasn’t IB accredited either. I decided to take 4 more AP tests all on my own.
- My school was a Christian school, and it was mostly trying to get students to go to a Christian college.
- In high school, I got up at 6:30AM each day and went to bed at 11PM. There wasn’t free time. After school it was either sports or activities, and after that it was homework, then bed.
I’m also Asian, so I have a fun penalty there when it comes to college admissions.
Everything Has Already Been Figured Out and Accomplished By Others
The SAT is teachable. Classwork is teachable. Leadership skills are teachable. Extracurricular activities are teachable.
Everything is teachable with enough effort. You may not be able to be in the Olympics, but at a high school level, the skills you need to get into a good college are teachable.
Repeat after me: You. Can. Do. This. YOU. CAN. DO. THIS.
Everything that you need to accomplish in high school has largely already been solved. You’re not solving a millennium math proof, curing cancer, or coming up with new ice skating routines for the Olympics. Everything in high school has been navigated by millions of people before you, and all you have to do is copy their success.
- Get good grades. Sign up for AP or an IB certificate for bonus points. If your school offers neither, you can still make it.
- Become a leader in a extracurricular activity, stick with that activity for your entire high school career.
- Score in the top decile, or even percentile for the SAT or ACT
- Repeat for SAT subject tests
- Build great relationships with teachers or members of your community so you can get amazing recommendations.
- Win contests such as the science fair, debate, sports, marching band or orchestra, quiz bowl, etc.
Your high school experience is compacted into a just a few pages for your college application. Can you do enough amazing things to fill it up? Yes. You. Can. Keep repeating that to yourself.
It upsets me to think there are so many talented kids who might not have grown up in an encouraging environment where they are told they can do anything they want. Even if you’re beyond college, you can still do anything you want :). You just have to believe in yourself and keep trying and experimenting.
Free College Tuition
With all that buildup, here are the top colleges that offer free tuition if your family makes within a certain income. You don’t want to have student loans or have your family pay out of pocket for college? Do well in high school and aim for one of those. Apply to all of them like I did and go to the one that gives you the most money. The only caveat I would say is that if you are not a math person, you might not want to apply or go to Cal or MIT. Just for your sanity.
Colleges are listed in order of US World and News Rankings. The Best Schools also had some good information about college aid and some of their info was compiled into the below chart.
Households that make $60k are in the 50th percentile in the US, those who make $150k are in the 87th percentile, and $200k are in the 93rd percentile according to DQYDJ, so quite a large percentage of the population is eligible for financial aid.
I can’t enter everyone’s exact details, but each school below has a financial aid calculator that you can input your family’s situation into. Go to the school’s website and see how it turns out.
All of the colleges in the top 10 offer free tuition if your family made $60k or less. They still offer financial aid for households going up to $200k. It seems after the Top 15 they start offering free tuition at $50k, but they do offer partial financial aid above that too.
Please send this out to your younger family members who will be going through the college process. The earlier the better. They should know in 8th grade because everything in high school will be on their transcript and can be put on their college application.
I will be writing a few articles about college and the college process on this blog every month, so if you have a family member who wants to learn some of the ways I “hacked” college and college tips if they’re already in college, please send them my way :). I’ll be going over scholarships, the FAFSA, loopholes, internships, student loans (though hopefully you’ve gotten enough covered in scholarships + financial aid!) and more in the future. Make sure not to miss it! Sign up below to get updates!
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