Heeding the classic advice to write what you know, Kristina Ellis wrote her first book, 2013’s Confessions of a Scholarship Winner, about how she raked in a reported $500,000 in scholarships to put herself through Vanderbilt University and then graduate school. In a just-released sequel, How to Graduate Debt Free, she shares her advice on borrowing (or better yet, not borrowing) to pay for college. MONEY asked Ellis about how students and parents can make the right decisions now—and maybe avoid some big regrets down the road.
MONEY: Do you think parents often aren’t open enough with kids about what they can afford to contribute toward college?
Ellis: Yes, I do believe that. Many parents think they are protecting their kids’ dreams by not divulging their financial standings. But one of the biggest favors parents can do for their children is sitting down and having real conversations about money sooner, rather than later. My mother sat me down on the first day of my freshman year in high school and explained that I would be on my own financially when I graduated. While it was hard to hear, knowing my situation early allowed me to make a plan so that I could stand out when it came time to apply for college and scholarships. Having a plan and strategy allowed me to secure more than $500,000 in scholarships and grants, graduate from Vanderbilt University and receive a master’s degree from Belmont University, all debt-free.
Q. What do you say to a student who has his or her heart set on a particular college that is simply unaffordable?
A. Many students think they can’t afford their dream school because “there just isn’t a scholarship out there for me.” But there are literally billions of dollars in scholarships given away each year to help students with college expenses—for all sorts of reasons beyond just academic achievement and sports. There are a bunch of niche scholarships for having the best zombie apocalypse escape plan and having the best duct tape prom dress for being tall, for being short, for being right- or left-handed, for having a certain last name. All types of students from all sorts of backgrounds have been highly successful in winning scholarships. Somebody is going to get them. It might as well be you!
But if your dream school isn’t financially realistic, even with scholarships, there are so many great colleges across the country that could also be an excellent fit at a more affordable price. While it can be hard to give up a dream to attend a particular school, being saddled with thousands of dollars in unnecessary student loan debt can be way harder. I’ve spoken to many college grads who felt heartbroken going into college on a full ride at a public university versus attending the private school they dreamed of. However, in the long run, many have deemed it the best decision of their life. They still got a great education, had an awesome college experience, and ultimately got their dream job—with zero debt.
Q. What do you think of taking time off between high school and college to earn money for college?
A. Taking a year off to volunteer, travel, or intern in a career field can be a good option as long as you stay motivated to return to school. However, if the purpose of the year is to earn money for college, students need to bear in mind how it will affect their financial aid package. When they do attend college, if they plan to rely on need-based grants and work-study, the money they made during that year could count against them in future financial aid applications. The Student Income Protection Allowance currently stands at $6,400, meaning students can make up to that amount before it counts against them. Beyond that, though, they can decrease their financial aid eligibility by 50% of every dollar they earn.
Therefore, be wise about your decision by seeking to understand its long-term impact. You may find that applying for more scholarships, working during college, or completing a co-op is a more effective way to earn money for your college education.
Q. Would you urge students to work during college even if they don’t need the money?
A. Yes, I would encourage students to work during college. Studies consistently show that students who work a modest 10 to 15 hours per week are more likely to succeed in college than those who don’t work at all. Not only can it put extra money in their pockets during school, but it can also foster qualities that are known to produce success, such as a greater sense of responsibility, a better ability to organize themselves, and a stronger work ethic. Plus, those additional years of work experience are a prime way to build up their résumé in ways that will appeal to employers.
Q. In your book you mention taking a risk after you graduated—turning down a well-paying corporate job to take your chances as a writer. Do you think many young people today are too risk-averse because of financial fears?
A. I think we’re seeing a strong mix of both, primarily hinging on whether or not they have student loan debt. Walking away from college knowing you are about to owe $500 a month to a loan company before any other basic expense is factored is daunting and can strap a student into a more “safe” journey.
On the other hand, we’re seeing more entrepreneurialism, millennial travelers, blog writers, and social activists. Many young people are taking risks in their twenties, before marriage, mortgage, and major career commitments.
One of my greatest goals is to help students graduate as debt-free as possible so that they have the financial freedom to choose. Even without student loan debt, they still may select a safer route, but they’ll have options. There’s a beauty to starting your life and career based on what you feel is truly best for you long-term, versus the safest way to pay your loan-debt obligations.
Q. Is there anything you’d do differently if you were back in college today, knowing what you know now?
A. Yes, absolutely. First, I would be way more intentional about networking within my broader school community. It’s easy to get caught up in classes and peer events, overlooking the incredible opportunity to build strong, long-term relationships with professors and alumni. People typically love to help college students, and if I could do it again, I’d be bolder in reaching out and maintaining a larger campus-affiliated community.
And second, I would have studied abroad. When I was in college, I got very focused on working and networking within the Nashville community. I traveled on the weekends singing with a band while also building a marketing business. After several semesters of putting it off, I finally said, “I’ll live abroad someday, once I’ve built a successful career.” Looking back, I really wish I had seized the opportunity then. While I’ve since traveled to several countries, I haven’t fully immersed myself in international culture and learning the way I believe I would have been able to in college.