Wait, it took you six and a half years to graduate from college? Even if you did attend college tuition-free, that is still a long time!
Technically, it took seven years if you count the semester I took off between receiving my bachelor’s degree and starting graduate school.
I wish I could say that I took that semester off to travel the country or backpack across Europe, but the reality is that I spent that semester bartending at the Olive Garden and plotting a move out of my parent’s basement.
You see, when I graduated with my bachelor’s degree, I made the huge mistake of not getting any real experience while in school. I had the degree, but not a single internship or job even remotely close to my major in financial management. Instead, I spent my summers and extra-curricular time playing baseball. Baseball was my main driver for being in college at all.
Before we go any further, I do want to point out that this is not an “I went to college tuition-free, and you can, too” post. This is simply me sharing my story and trying to provide a few takeaways that a future college hopeful can consider to reduce the cost of tuition.
Welcome to My Story About Attending College Tuition Free
My path through college was a winding one. My story of attending college tuition-free story is not one of getting good grades and attending a state school. That plays a part, but I ended up going to three different colleges to complete my bachelor’s degree, then a fourth school to complete my master’s degree.
My final year in college was 12 years ago, and I fully understand that tuition costs have skyrocketed since then. However, in those 12 years since graduating, I have quite a bit of experience understanding the impact college has on success in the workforce. I’ve been a hiring manager at my day job for six years, and before that, I spent a couple of years as a freelance recruiter.
Read below as I take you through my six-and-a-half-year college journey through four different schools, a mediocre baseball career, and memories that will last a lifetime.
Community College – Freshman and Sophomore Year of College Tuition Free (Mostly)
If you had asked me about school when I was 18, I would have told you that I only cared about playing baseball. At the time, I had no idea what I’d end up majoring in and didn’t care. I only cared about the single baseball scholarship offer I received out of high school to attend a small community college about an hour outside my hometown.
Playing ball in college was the dream. I was realistic enough to know that I probably wasn’t making the big leagues, but who knows?
In my freshman year, I played on an extremely talented baseball team. We ended up first in our region and had five players drafted from that team (one ended up making the big leagues). I started almost every game in right or left field and ended up being the team’s lead-off hitter by the end of the year.
Oh yeah, there was school as well. The difficulty level in community college was equivalent to high school, in my experience. It was a great way to knock out a bunch of general education credits while deciding which four-year school to attend.
After the end of my freshman year, I was shocked to find out in late July that the baseball program would be folding.
The baseball coach had run the budget into the ground, and there were rumors he was embezzling money. During the last week of July, this left me trying to find a new place to play for my sophomore year, with the school year starting in just a few weeks.
This is where the headline of my story is a bit misleading. I only got a half scholarship in the first semester of my sophomore year in community college. Close enough, though. To go to school for six and a half years and only have to pay for half of one semester of community college is still pretty good. My sophomore year in college was a lot of fun as well. Our team wasn’t as good, and I didn’t have a great spring, but it was still a great experience.
If you will likely have to take out student debt to attend college, you should consider the community college route. Credit hours usually come at a fraction of the cost compared to most four-year schools. I know there is a stigma around community colleges, but they are a great way to get your general education classes out of the way at a much lower cost.
If you graduate from a four-year school, nobody ever asks where you spent your first two years. Most states also offer plenty of other academic scholarships if you aren’t an athlete.
For anyone who goes this route, check to see what credits will transfer to four-year schools. This will vary depending on the school, but with a bit of planning, you can usually work this out. Completing your associate’s degree will improve the chances of your classes transferring to a four-year program.
State School – Junior and Senior Year of College Tuition-Free
It was the Friday before school started. I was bummed because the school I planned to attend was only a 30-minute drive from my house. I was planning to live at home for at least the first semester, which was particularly hard as my girlfriend was getting ready to head off to her new school, about three hours away.
That’s when the phone rang.
It was a friend of mine that I played ball with in community college. He said they had a player drop out at the last minute and needed an outfielder. He put in a good word for me, and the coach remembered seeing me play in the community college regional tournament the year prior.
The coach would be giving me a call soon. I was skeptical but hopeful.
See the related article: How Being a College Athlete Better Prepared Me For the Workforce
Sure enough, the coach called later that day. Not only did they have a spot open, they also had scholarship money available. A full scholarship.
Many will call this dumb luck. And it mostly was. However, what people don’t see when luck is involved is all the hard work put in behind the scenes. I spent hours at the gym and weight room, studying hard in the classroom, and spending weeks sending out letters with my athletic profile, praying that someone would take an interest.
So yeah, it was luck at that moment, but as I’ve learned over the years, the harder I work, the luckier I get.
The school I attended was a Division 2 baseball program. It was a state school and one of the smallest in my own state of Missouri. It was so small that I had barely heard of it until that Friday call.
I ended up playing baseball at that school for two years. It was an amazing experience. The school was located in a city big enough and far away from other metro areas to have its own newspaper and TV stations. This resulted in us being covered by the local media regularly.
It was a surreal experience to turn on the 10 o’clock news and see our highlights during the sports updates, or to see a full-length story on the newspaper’s front page. It was an experience that no college class could ever teach even though the school may not have been the best.
This experience is unique to me. However, there are a few key takeaways you can consider.
First, consider attending a state school regardless of whether you have a scholarship. Even the smaller, less reputable schools. A few professions require a top school to get a job out of college; however, the reality is that for most degrees, the school doesn’t matter much after a few years. Instead, focus on getting internships in your field, as that is the best way to get hired with little experience.
Don’t be afraid to follow the money if you’re fortunate to have scholarship offers. It drives me crazy when I hear stories about how so-and-so had a scholarship to a local university but instead decided to go to some out-of-state private school at an exorbitant cost. The school I attended wasn’t my dream school, but I made the best of my experience and have never regretted the decision.
5th Year of College Tuition Free
With my 5th year of college looming, I distinctly remember trying to figure out how I would pay for tuition. Loans would likely be the answer, but I was determined to find other ways. Since my four years of eligibility playing baseball was up, the scholarship that paid for my previous two years was no more.
I knew I had at least one semester or two to receive my bachelor’s degree. When I met with a counselor to map out my plan for the following year, he asked if I had heard of the fifth-year scholarship the school offered athletes whose eligibility had expired.
Completing the scholarship form took less than an hour of my time. There weren’t any strict requirements or actions required to complete the application. I know only a limited number of scholarships were available, so my hopes weren’t exactly high.
It turns out of all the 5th year former athletes (I’m guessing there were at least two or three dozen) only three filled out the scholarship application. I’m unsure if people didn’t complete it because of a lack of awareness or laziness. Either way, they ended up awarding scholarships to everyone who applied.
I graduated after one more semester and moved back home to figure out what to do with my life.
Apply for as many scholarships as possible; you never know what money is available. If you’re not already at the school, contact the administrative office and ask to speak with someone knowledgeable about scholarships.
Get on the internet and research scholarships offered by your school of choice. The scholarships and money are out there; sometimes, the hardest part is finding them.
Graduate School – Years 6 and 7 of College Tuition-Free
Finding a job out of undergrad was hard. When I wasn’t in the classroom, I played ball almost year-round. While I could have found time to get internships before graduating, I didn’t. Now, back at home, I went on several interviews and had difficulty selling myself in a position without any experience besides baseball.
After graduating with my bachelor’s in financial management, I moved home to live with my parents. During my final semester in college, I picked up a job waiting tables and bartending. Upon graduating, I could transfer to a different Olive Garden back home.
So there I was at age 23 with my college degree, living back at home with my parents, basically being laughed out of any interviews, slinging breadsticks, and trying to figure out what to do next with my life.
Most people would wait until finding that first job and saving a little money to move out of their parent’s house. I quickly realized that I needed to get out on my own. I was making about $500 per week waiting tables and bartending, which was enough to get by. My parents reminded me that I would be completely cut off from any financial support once I moved out. This was a good thing as it was motivating to make it on my own.
After three months of living at home, I moved into a duplex with three other guys. The next several months included a lot of late nights, money blown at bars, and trying to find my way in life. Right before my 5th year in college, I had broken up with my girlfriend of three years, so the wounds were still fresh from that experience.
See related article: Money Advice for Recent College Graduates
After months of failed interviews and no direction, I explored graduate school options. I didn’t want to move to a different city, so my options were limited.
I had narrowed my list of grad school programs down to 3 or 4. Economics and finance classes were what I enjoyed most in undergrad, and I wanted to continue down that path in graduate school.
My main criterion for choosing a school was its internship program. I knew my lack of experience was the biggest hurdle to getting a job. I guess I could have tried to find an internship without grad school. However, at the time, that didn’t occur to me.
The school I ended up choosing had a robust internship program. Not only did it pay a couple of hundred dollars a week, it also paid for tuition. When I started the program, there was no guarantee of an internship immediately, though I felt the odds were pretty good.
The internship ended up working out. It paid $800 a month plus tuition. Even though we weren’t supposed to work another job, I still bartended once or twice on the weekends, making another $200 or so weekly. Life was simpler then, and I had no issue fully supporting myself on about $1,500 monthly income.
I also made a little money by flipping items from garage sales.
The graduate school program was tough. It wasn’t uncommon for me to do 20-plus hours of homework per week. I was challenged in school for the first time, which was a surprisingly enjoyable experience. Taking a whole load of graduate school classes, my internship, bartending, plus trying to keep a social life was a great test in time management. There was almost zero downtime. During my first semester, I also started dating someone new, who also happens to be my wife of nearly 10 years. Some of the best memories of my life happened during those two years of grad school.
The first big takeaway is don’t do what I did and wait until graduate school to get an internship. Work hard to find an internship during undergrad. More companies are paying decent hourly wages for interns these days.
If you go to graduate school right after undergrad, see what options are available to intern or work to pay your tuition. While in my situation, the internship only paid $200 per week, it saved me tens of thousands in education over two years. Talk to someone in admissions if you’re interested in a school and see if they have internships available to help offset high tuition payments. Some schools will have opportunities, and others will not. Either way, it doesn’t hurt to ask.
Mark is the founder of Financial Pilgrimage, a blog dedicated to helping young families pay down debt and live financially free. Mark has a Bachelor’s degree in financial management and a Master’s degree in economics and finance. He is a husband of one and father of two and calls St. Louis, MO, home. He also loves playing in old man baseball leagues, working out, and being anywhere near the water. Mark has been featured in Yahoo! Finance, NerdWallet, and the Plutus Awards Showcase.