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I Was Offered $40,000 in Free Money for College. Here's Why I Turned It Down

By Maurie Backman – Updated Feb 3, 2020 at 5:12PM

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Sometimes, free money comes at a cost.

Back when I was applying for college, I knew there was pretty much no way I’d manage to earn my degree without taking out student loans in the process. My parents didn’t have a ton of money saved for my education, and though I planned to work during my studies, I also intended to enroll full-time, which meant a full-time job was off the table.

Of course, I applied for as much financial aid as I could, both via the FAFSA and through the specific schools I was looking at. And while I was given a tiny amount of federal aid that I wouldn’t have to pay back (roughly $1,000 for my first year of studies), the bulk of the federal aid I qualified for came in loan form. 

A female college student taking notes while studying on a laptop.

Image source: Getty Images

At the same time, one of the private schools I applied to came back with an offer I initially thought I couldn’t refuse: an annual grant of $10,000. That came to $40,000 over a four-year period. All I needed to do was maintain a decent grade point average -- not a perfect one -- and I’d be eligible for $10,000 a year in grant money that I’d never have to repay for four years of undergraduate studies. 

That money was certainly tempting, but ultimately, I turned it down, and spared myself a ton of student debt in the process. 

Public education was much cheaper

While a free $10,000 a year toward tuition was extremely generous, between tuition, room, and board, the college in question cost roughly $40,000 a year at the time (I’m sure these figures have gone up since then). Tuition, room, and board at a public in-state college, meanwhile, cost around $12,000 annually. And since I was mostly footing the bill on my own, choosing that private school would’ve meant coming up with $30,000 a year, or $120,000 over the course of my education. Since it’s not possible to borrow that much in federal loans, I would’ve needed costly private loans as well -- and a lot of them. 

I therefore decided to stick to a public in-state school, and as a result, my education cost a total of roughly $50,000 over four years. Plus, as mentioned, I did qualify for a small amount of federal grant money I didn’t have to pay back, which helped a little.

All told, I wound up graduating college with $12,000 in student loans, all of which were federal loans. My parents were able to contribute some money towards my education, and I worked a lot during my studies to cover my remaining costs. Had I opted for the private school, even with a grant, I would’ve easily been looking at at five times that amount of student debt. 

Weighing your options

If you’re torn between attending a private college and an in-state public school, you should know that the latter option will generally be significantly cheaper. At the same time, however, your chances of scoring a generous grant are higher with a private college, so it pays to see what aid you qualify for before writing off the idea of a private education. If a giant grant is awarded to you, it may be the case that your private tuition costs mimic public college tuition. 

A big part of me didn’t want to turn down that $40,000 in free money -- especially since the school in question was actually my top choice. But because graduating college with as little debt as possible was important to me, I opted for the cheaper education. As such, I was able to shed my student debt relatively quickly after graduating, which helped me avoid a world of financial stress as a young adult. And for that reason alone, I’m in no way sorry for the choice I made.


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