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Ways to Pay For College – Should I Work or Do SAT Prep?

In case you haven’t been paying attention, the cost of attending college is spiraling out of control. It has led many to question whether a four-year degree is even worth it. Others are looking for ways to pay for college without going into too much debt.

These numbers published by the College Board in the fall of 2012 bear this point out:

“Average published tuition and fees for in-state students at public four-year colleges and universities increased from $8,256 in 201112 to $8,655 in 201213. The 4.8% ($399) increase in tuition and fees was accompanied by a $325 (3.7%) increase in room and board charges for students living on campus. At $9,205, room and board charges account for more than half of the total charges for these students.”

ways to pay for college

Spend more time studying and less time working

So that’s an average of $17,461 for room and board at an in-state, public four-year school. No wonder, the high cost of higher education has left many parents and teenagers frustrated and seemingly with just a few options on ways  to pay for college.

Many high school students take the logical step of securing summer employment to help them earn money  to pay for college. If a student can earn $3,000 – $4,000 over the course of the summer to put towards college that would help, right? It certainly would but I’m going to suggest today that you have another alternative that a) you probably won’t like because it requires studying, but b) will probably provide more bang for your buck than working at a summer job.

One of the Best Ways to Pay for College

Instead of working over the summer, study to improve your SAT (or ACT) scores and watch the money roll in.

College entrance test are becoming more and more important to a student’s entrance into the college of their choice. They are also being used increasingly to divide up scholarship money among deserving students. If an institution is considering two students with similar backgrounds and high school GPAs, the test score may become the deciding factor in who gets accepted and who gets what money. I’ve seen this time and time again at the school where I teach.

We’ve had many students through the years graduate with GPAs of 3.75 or higher. The 3.75 GPA students who fall into the 1200-1400 range  on their SAT score (cumulative score on all three subtests) see little scholarship money. The students who push the score to the 1600-1800 range see a noticeable uptick in the scholarship dollars offered them.

The one student I know who scored a 2000+ on the SAT saw an unworldly amount of scholarship money come her way. She was able to go out of state to a prestigious private school.

SAT scores absolutely matter!

An example might help illustrate this better. A high school student who works 40 hours a week over the summer (June – August) at $8.00/hr. (a little higher than the federal minimum wage) could expect to earn approximately $3,500 in net pay. Assuming the student worked for the summers of their junior and senior year, they would accumulate around $7,000 to be used toward college. If they kept that same summer job through college, another $14,000 would be earned over the next four years.

$21,000 for six summers’ worth of employment. That’s not bad, but here’s another option.

Let’s look at the merit-based scholarships granted by my alma mater, Cedarville University in Ohio. According to their website, a 3.75 GPA student who scores an 1100 (combined score of the Math and Critical Reading subtests) on the SAT would be eligible for their $4,000 Faculty Scholar Award.

However, if the same 3.75 GPA student were to raise his or her SAT score to a 1360 or better on those two subtests, they would be eligible for the President’s Scholar Award. The price tag on that scholarship – $12,000. That is an $8,000 increase in scholarship money just by improving the SAT score by 260 points, which is doable with preparation and by taking the test multiple times.

That $12,000 scholarship is renewable for four years as long as the student maintains a cumulative college GPA of 3.2 or higher. So in four years that’s $48,000 for college. How’s that summer job paycheck looking now?

The great thing is that this type of program is not unique to Cedarville. Colleges across the country have tiered systems of merit-based scholarships available based on high school GPA and test scores. Those areas are clearly resume enhancers.

It’s a shame that many students and parents are not taking their grades and these tests more seriously. I know many students who don’t prepare at all before the SAT. They are literally missing out on one of the best ways to pay for college.

So high school students (and parents), you may want to reconsider whether that summer job is worth it. The time may be better spent hunched over an SAT prep book. Maybe you could get really radical and memorize some vocabulary lists and review your Trigonometry. Take an SAT prep course at your local high school or through a private company. There are so many resources available now to prepare for this test. Take advantage of them and earn mega-dollars for your education.

Questions: What are some other ways to pay for college that you took advantage of? Did your high school summer job help pay for college? Did you work to improve your SAT score after the first attempt?

Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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  1. Thankful for the great post.. This is Amazing guide. Keep Sharing!

  2. Great article Brian. Room and board can get very expensive when it comes to going to college. If at all possible plan to urge my kids to go to local colleges to save some bucks.

    • I think that is a valid route, one that I am seeing more students take. If they are close enough, they can stay at home and commute to school, thus saving big on the room and board.

  3. Cat Alford/ Budget Blonde says

    Fantastic post. I’m sending this one to my husband and linking to it on Friday!

    • Thanks Cat! Really appreciate you including me. This is definitely an issue every parent needs to think through based on their situation and their child’s abilities.

  4. Suburban Finance says

    Looks like the numbers don’t lie. I know my friends have kids for which they are tossing the idea back and forth as to whether or not to encourage them to get a post-school job. I’ll send this article.

    • Thanks. It definitely depends on the situation of the student. As many have mentioned in the comments, there is nothing wrong with working. The character qualities that are established in a young person’s life through work are critical to their development. It’s just not the only avenue for obtaining money for college. I think many students underestimate the potential benefits of what some SAT preparation could do for them.

  5. Great info here, Brian. Lots to think about. Our oldest is 13, so we are starting to look seriously into this stuff, but at the same time, preparing her now to earn her own passive and other income so she has more choices at 18.

    • Thanks Laurie. There is a lot to consider and it’s great that you are starting well in advance. And, whether a child works, does SAT prep or can manage both, in the end it comes down to being able to maximize the possible range of choices like you said. It would seem a shame though to miss out on scholarship money by just a few SAT points because you spent no time preparing.

  6. I think test scores depend on certain things and sometimes all the studying in the world will not let you get those top tier scores. I have always been a great test taker and can read and remember things in a very short amount of time. My sister, on the other hand, is a very slow reader and has to read something several times to remember it. On standardized tests, I always killed it and she scored mid level. We both had great grades, but I got a full ride scholarship while she got no merit based aid. She probably studied twice as much as me. We both now have doctorate degrees and that’s water under the bridge, but you’ll know by high school if your kid is one that aces standardized tests or not. It isn’t fair, but if you don’t have that ability, I don’t know that extra studying helps enough to get a scholarship. I do think all high school kids should work in some capacity, but I don’t think working on school nights until midnight is ever a good idea, and I don’t think they should sacrifice community activities or sports to hold down a job.

    • “…all the studying in the world will not let you get those top tier scores.” That’s very true. It does depend on the student. The 1360 SAT score on the math and reading sections that I mentioned in the article is a very good SAT score, one that many students could not reach. But the 1110 score that grants the $4,000 scholarship is just a slightly above average score. Definitely worth trying to reach. As we know, every little bit of aid helps.

  7. I think they should do both. We have to learn how to multitask and succeed when we are in the real world, so why not teach it before college?

  8. I did plenty of SAT prep, which was time that needed to be spent studying while I recognize the unfairness and ludicrousness of the system.

  9. AvgJoeMoney says

    My daughter scored a 1990 on her SAT and 30 on her ACT and still received no merit-based aid from the University of Arkansas (she also had a couple killer community service projects). While I love the point, I think people ought to know just how tough it’s become. When I asked the admissions people at the University, they replied that “Everyone is right on that same bubble right now.” She scored two scholarships totaling $1,000 from private sources in the community, but really probably needed a 32 to score some good cash for college.

    • You are 100% right…it has become more of a challenge. I know the state university in Georgia where we live has become much tougher to get into in the past few years. I am surprised she received no scholarships from the school. Those are great scores! I guess it just depends on where you apply.

  10. Alexa Mason says

    I think that there is a lot of value in teenagers getting summer jobs although I see your point about studying as well. I think it comes down to the individual kid. Everyone is different so I think it would be up to the parents and teenager to talk about which would be better. Devoting a summer to studying and maybe getting a higher SAT score or working a job and learning about the real world.

    • I agree with your assessment Alexa. This is an individual kid issue. There are some who could study and not improve their scores much. I’m just seeing that some kids aren’t giving studying the first thought.

  11. Shannon Ryan says

    You bring up an interesting point, Brian. While I definitely think there is value in teens getting summer jobs, hitting the books should be a priority too. It can make a difference and I imagine that difference will continue to be even more pronounced as time goes by. My girls are too young for traditional jobs now but this is definitely good food for thought for when they reach those teenage years. Gulp.

    • We are about four years away from our oldest being eligible to work so we are starting to consider this issue. I don’t want to discount the value in teenagers working either. I think that it is really important for them to gain experience in the workforce while they are still living at home. I’m just not sure anymore that a summer job should be the default activity they should choose to help pay for college. Seems like there might be greater opportunity for bigger bucks via the test prep route.

  12. It has been a while since I took the SAT, but I think I did both. I worked and took a SAT prep course at the same time. I don’t think I was too excited about my test results, so I think taking the time to focus on studying for the SAT might have been the wiser choice.

    • I guess I’m not too surprised Deacon that high schoolers don’t take this seriously. Seems like the last thing most of us wanted to do at that age was study for another test. Plus if they know they can just get a loan or that their parents will pay for college, then they probably don’t see their score as a big deal.

  13. Honestly if I could go back in time I would have studied harder for the ACT. My score was decent, but I didn’t put a lot of time into it. I could have gotten a better aid package if I would have scored higher. Instead of working more at the pizza joint maybe I should have been studying.

    • I think it’s a legitimate question to ask now that college tuition has increased so much. It hardly seems like the money earned at a summer job would make much difference in the yearly tuition bill.

  14. Some of my summer jobs went towards helping pay for school, but I am sure I could’ve saved more of what I made. I really did not do much in the terms of SAT prep…and it showed. I absolutely suck at taking standardized tests.

    • Lets see, what did I waste my money on in high school? Oh…I don’t want to even go there. I was not a great test taker myself. I wish I would have spent more time preparing for the SAT than I did. I was close enough to some benchmarks for scholarships that I think it would have made a difference.


  1. […] at Luke 1428 posed an interesting question in his post Funding College: Should I Work or Do SAT Prep?. A higher SAT or ACT score can significantly increase your scholarship dollars and definitely needs […]

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