Affording college for students at New York City’s Possibility Project

The 3 smart questions NYC kids want to know about college

I had the chance to talk to a unique group of New York City high school students last week. And while I had planned to talk to them about financial basics, I quickly realized they were one step ahead of me, asking sharp questions that always anticipated my next point. These teens, from diverse backgrounds and all five boroughs of the city, were brought together by a program called The Possibility Project. Under the direction of visionary founder Paul Griffin, they write and perform inspiring musicals based on their life experiences, then complete public-service projects that tackle issues like homelessness and teen suicide.

In addition to being brilliant performers and great huggers (when was the last time I got a hug from everyone in an audience?), Possibility Project students were very interested in talking about preparing for college, the next big financial step in their lives. Here a few of their supersmart questions.

In college, should you pick a major based on what you’re most interested in—or what will make you the most money?

No matter where you go to college, or what you end up studying, remember that you’re going to have a major financial leg up: College graduates out-earn non-graduates by $1 million over a lifetime, on average. Still, it can be helpful to know what the salaries are for different career paths, especially because it might help you decide how much student debt to take on. One rule of thumb is to not borrow more than your expected first year’s salary after graduation. You can search BLS.gov and Glassdoor.com for salary information in different fields, and the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard can show you how much graduates of a particular college typically earn.

Me and Possibility Project founder Paul Griffon

Possibility Project founder Paul Griffin also made a great point for this room full of performers: Even at a time when students are being pushed to improve STEM skills (science, technology, engineering, math), employee traits like creativity, good communication, and empathy are actually among the most desired at the biggest companies. (Paul mentioned an internal study at Google that found that the success of its best workers depended on “soft skills” like critical and abstract thinking, being a good listener, and understanding other points of view, outranking hard STEM abilities.) So keep in mind that choosing a theater or English major doesn’t mean your earning potential will necessarily suffer.

What do you do if your family earns too much money for certain kinds of financial aid?

This question was mainly directed toward New York’s amazing Excelsior Scholarship, which allows students whose families earn under $110,000 to attend the state’s public colleges tuition-free. Since it started last year, the Excelsior Scholarship has made a huge difference to low-income students. But like many income-based programs, it still leaves out many financially strapped students.

No matter how they plan to fund their education, I advised Possibility Project students to take advantage of low-interest Direct Loans from the federal government. If a student’s family makes too much to qualify for Excelsior, but she is able to live at home during college, federal loans could cover the entire cost of her tuition—all for under $30,000 in debt at graduation. (The average college student who borrows graduates with around $37,000 in debt.)

Talk to your guidance counselor and applying for scholarships large and small that can help to fill in the gaps—or even get you a full ride (or close). For high-achieving students, some elite private colleges (such as Ivy League schools) can offer significant need-based grants even if your family earns above the Excelsior threshold. But beware of less competitive but often just as pricey private colleges offering scholarships that still leave you on the hook for thousands of dollars in loans.

What’s the deal with for-profit schools?

A collective groan went through the room when the subject turned to for-profit colleges. I was relieved when Possibility Project students told me that their guidance counselors have warned them against schools like Berkeley College, a for-profit that advertises all over the New York City subway system. One student told me Berkeley even spams her high school campus with flyers.

There’s an ugly truth behind this advertising. Unlike nonprofit public and private universities, for-profit schools are run like businesses. Their bottom line is money, not education. And for-profit colleges often scam students into wasting their federal loan dollars on degrees that aren’t respected by employers, or job training programs that don’t meet the basic requirements of the careers they’re focused on. One for-profit allowed a 48-year-old student to enroll in a criminal justice program—neglecting to inform him at any point that the cut-off age for the police academy is 35.

While the Obama administration put regulations in place to keep predatory schools in check and allow duped students to apply for loan forgiveness, Trump-appointed Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is quickly ushering in a new age of for-profit leniency. All the more reason to be wary, and to look into affordable, legitimate options at community colleges or public four-year schools. To find out if a school you are considering is for-profit, check the College Board’s BigFuture.org.

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