written by
Juliana Furigay

Columbia Financial Aid Guide: How I Paid for College

Admissions Tips Financial Aid Guides 13 min read
Photo courtesy of Columbia University

With the cost of college tuition rising each year, paying for college is a challenge for many families. In this article, I will discuss Columbia financial aid options, scholarships, jobs, budgeting, and saving up for a college education. For more guidance on financial aid and the college application process, sign up for a monthly plan to work with an admissions coach 1-on-1.

Before Columbia: Saving Up throughout High School

Before requesting financial aid and applying to Columbia, I ensured that I was in the best position possible. Financial wellness does not happen overnight — rather, it requires continuous learning and reevaluation. Managing your finances can be overwhelming, but you’ve got to start somewhere. My approach to achieving financial wellness in high school focused on two things: making and saving more money.

Ways to Make Money in High School

Find ways to diversify your income streams, whether by becoming a micro-entrepreneur or investing in the stock market. Here are some ways you can start diversifying your income:

1. Sell your unwanted stuff

One man's trash is another man's treasure — use this to your advantage. You’d be surprised how much money you can make off of used electronics and clothing. My favorite platforms include Poshmark, Depop, and Mercari, but there are plenty of other sites that you can use.

Many colleges also have “Buy/Sell” Facebook groups that serve as a marketplace (think Craigslist, but way less sketchy) for anything that students want to take off of their hands. I recently purchased a monitor and workout equipment through Columbia’s group. Consider starting a group for your high school, if you don’t have one already. Not only can you make money by selling things, but you can also save money by buying used goods. Remember, becoming financially savvy is about both making and saving money.

2. Participate in paid research studies

Universities will pay students and members of the public to participate in surveys and focus groups. It is incredibly easy to start, and there are no background skills needed beyond basic eligibility.

Back in high school, I would use sites like Swagbucks and Opinion Outpost to make extra money. However, in my opinion, these sites are far too time-consuming for the amount of money that you make. It would quite literally take me months to even earn a $25 gift card.

Universities, on the other hand, are fairly generous. Note that you do not need to be a student at the university to participate in these surveys. Though you do need some sort of affiliation for certain schools, this is not always the case.

Over my high school summers, I participated in research studies at Harvard and Carnegie Mellon. I made about $25 an hour during blocks of time that I would have otherwise wasted. Harvard and Carnegie Mellon are just two universities that open up their research studies to the general public. I definitely suggest signing up for these and looking into other schools’ research studies.

A twenty-four year old woman counting dollar bills.
Photographer: Sharon McCutcheon | Source: Unsplash

High School Internships

Yes, high school students can partake in internships. Not only do internships help you save money for college, but they also help you gain professional skills. My main income in high school came from my internship at a non-profit legal aid and civil rights organization.

I’ve listed some popular high school internships below. If you don’t know where to start, ask your guidance counselor, family, and friends. You can also often find opportunities through local businesses, as well as through job search sites like LinkedIn and Indeed. If you’re interested in research, there are many programs available for high school students. You can also reach out to college professors and ask if they needed help with their research. Don’t be afraid to explore these opportunities!

  • Computer Science Summer Institute (CSSI) at Google
  • Kaiser Permanente LAUNCH Program
  • The Metropolitan Museum of Art Summer High School Internship
  • NASA High School Internship
  • Microsoft High School Internship
  • Johns Hopkins CARES Summer Program
  • Zuckerman Institute Brain Research Apprenticeships in New York at Columbia
Photographer: Mimi Thian | Source: Unsplash

Budgeting

Keeping Track

The first step to budgeting is to keep track of your expenses. Admittedly, I spent way too much money at the gas station next to my high school. An Arizona Mucho Mango here and there might not seem like much, but trust me: every bit adds up.

Write down every expense you have. At the end of the month, add everything up and categorize your spending: subscriptions, entertainment, food and drink, groceries, school expenses, shopping, transportation, health and wellness, and gifts. These are the categories I use, which I’ve organized into a Google Sheet below. However, feel free to adjust the categories depending on your spending habits.

If you have a credit or debit card, download a budgeting app like Mint or Clarity Money. I prefer the latter, as it includes features such as a payday countdown, an option to see what I spent at a certain store (like Amazon Prime) each month, and a credit score report.

50-30-20 Budgeting Rule

Make a budgeting plan and list out your goals. I allocate a certain amount of money towards every category, and my monthly budget never exceeds 30% of my income. I save 70% of my income, though I am privileged in that I don’t pay for necessities such as rent and utilities. Most people follow the 50-30-20 rule: 50% towards necessities, 30% towards discretionary items, and 20% in savings. You can tweak these percentages depending on the needs of you and your family.

Make a list of things you want to buy, highlighting larger purposes (like a laptop). Once you list your goals, it becomes easier to prioritize your spending. You can then identify how much money you need to save each month to reach these goals.

Socializing and Saving

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, socializing is America’s second-favorite hobby. However, it often is difficult to spend time with friends without spending money. It’s tough to turn down hanging out with friends for financial reasons, so I suggest finding group activities that won’t break the budget.

My friends and I would host spa days, have picnics in the park, utilize free museum days (student discounts come in handy), attend discounted (and sometimes free) workout classes, and go thrift shopping. Since I’m from Chicago, I had more options than those of you who might be from smaller cities.

Still, you can find something affordable to do in any city. During Covid-19, it might be fun to host themed Zoom parties, start a book club, take tours of world-famous museums on Google Arts & Culture, watch movies on Netflix Party, or attend discounted and free workout classes from 305 Fitness, Barry’s, and other studios. Look through Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok to see what virtual events you can find.

Photographer: Priscilla Du Preez | Source: Unsplash

Affordable Extracurriculars in High School

Between equipment, transportation, and other fees, extracurricular activities can often pose a financial burden to students and families.

In high school, I did not have to pay for my primary extracurricular activities. I was part of the University of Chicago’s Collegiate Scholars Program, a college preparatory program that let me take college courses at the university each summer at no cost. I also attended theatrical plays, leadership development workshops, and mentorship programs free of charge. One summer, I conducted research at the University of Chicago through the TEACH Program, which also had no fees. I took an introductory macroeconomics course at Northwestern University through the College Bridge Program for free, too.

I also volunteered and interned with an organization that advocated for the rights of immigrants and refugees in Chicago. Not only was this program free — I was even given a stipend for my work.

Be resourceful in finding opportunities that are free or pay you for your time. Think about starting your own business, creating a fundraiser, or taking free online courses to develop practical skills. If you’re interested in online courses, edX is a great place to start.

Additionally, a part-time job itself can be a valuable extracurricular activity. A common misconception is that work is not considered an extracurricular activity. This is entirely false. College admissions officers will applaud all students working to support themselves and their families.

Photographer: Kaitlyn Baker | Source: Unsplash

The College Application Process: Financial Aid and Scholarships

FAFSA and Fee Waivers

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the first step in the financial aid process. The FAFSA is free to complete and allows students to apply for financial aid, including grants, loans, and work-study. Only United States citizens, permanent residents, and other eligible non-citizens should fill out the FAFSA. Undocumented students should not file for the FAFSA.

One of the biggest myths is that you should not submit the FAFSA if your parents have a high income. There is no income limit, and the amount of financial aid you receive is dependent on many factors beyond income: the cost of your house, having siblings in college, and more.

When I applied to Columbia and filled out the FAFSA, I had my guidance counselor help me. At first, I was overwhelmed with the process, especially because my parents did not pursue higher education in the United States. However, once I talked to my counselor, I realized that everything was pretty simple. I also discovered there are countless resources available to students at a quick Google search.

Aside from financial aid, eligible students can receive fee waivers for college applications, the SAT and SAT Subject Tests, and the ACT. Check these organizations’ respective websites for eligibility information, and consult your guidance counselor to receive waivers.

CSS Profile and Additional Financial Aid Documents

For Columbia and many other colleges, you must also complete the CSS Profile. This profile will determine your eligibility for institutional financial aid, such as the Columbia University Grant. Sending your CSS Profile to your first college is subject to a $25 fee, while additional colleges will be charged at a fee of $16. However, CSS will automatically provide a fee waiver to qualifying students at the time of submission.

Each school requires its own forms and documentation, so keep a spreadsheet of those requirements and deadlines. Start early so that if there are any missing forms or mistakes in the application, you can amend them as quickly as possible.

Photographer: Kelly Sikkema | Source: Unsplash

Scholarships

Schools, companies, employers, nonprofits, and other organizations offer many different scholarships to students. Some scholarships cover a portion of tuition, while other programs offer full rides. Most institutional aid is based on financial need, while many private scholarships have a merit-based component.

Remember: every bit counts, and scholarships are a great way to cut down the costs of tuition. I received various local scholarships from my community, including the Tahir Koylass Outstanding Scholar Award (TKOSA) as part of the University of Chicago’s Collegiate Scholars Program.

If you divide the amount of money you receive through a given scholarship by the number of hours you put into the application, you will see that the value of a scholarship is not even comparable to any job you could get as a high school student.

Some well-known scholarships include:

  • National Merit Scholarship: To be eligible for this scholarship, you must receive a top score on the PSAT/NMSQT. The awards range from thousands of dollars to a full ride.
  • QuestBridge National College Match: There is no application fee, and you are considered for early admission and a full four-year scholarship to the nation’s top colleges, including Columbia.
  • Gates Millennium Scholarship: A last-dollar scholarship for minority, high school seniors from low-income households.
  • The Coca-Cola Scholars Program: Scholars who are “making a significant impact on their schools and communities” receive a $20,000 scholarship that can be used for any school-related expenses.

Columbia University Financial Aid

Columbia University retains its position as the most expensive college in the country with a tuition of $58,920. Although the “sticker price” is hefty, Columbia meets 100% of the demonstrated financial need for all admitted students. Approximately 50% of Columbia students receive financial aid, and the average package awarded is $52,073. Sixteen percent of undergraduates also receive the Pell Grant, which is a federal financial aid grant for students with the greatest need.

Financial aid at Columbia is need-based, which means that eligibility depends entirely on your family’s ability to pay. Additionally, admission to Columbia is need-blind for United States citizens, eligible non-citizens, and undocumented students, meaning that applications are considered regardless of an applicant’s ability to pay tuition. Though Columbia maintains a need-aware approach to international student applicants, the university will meet 100% of the demonstrated need for international students.

Students coming from families that make less than $60,000 annually have an expected parent contribution of $0. Notably, despite this $0 parent contribution, students themselves contribute their own earnings towards their tuition. To alleviate the financial stress precipitated by Covid-19, Columbia has granted students a fall student employment grant replacing their expected contribution for the 2020-2021 academic year.

Aside from financial aid, Columbia offers additional streams of financial support to students. The Deans’ Student Assistance Fund allows students with a parent contribution of $5,000 or less funding for emergencies and personal expenses beyond those included in the cost of attendance. This fund can be used for expenses such as cold weather clothing and traveling home for a family emergency.

Photo courtesy of Columbia University

Job Opportunities at Columbia

The Federal Work-Study program allows students to finance their education through part-time employment. Columbia has an online portal with an extensive number of positions available, ranging from research assistants to ESL program coordinators. For students who are not eligible for federal work-study, Columbia has an online database called LionSHARE that allows you to find jobs, research positions, programs, and internships.

I completed two internships this summer, both of which I found through LionSHARE. I also gain income through my role as a CollegeAdvisor.com Admissions Expert, guiding students through the college admissions process.

Working as a Residential Advisor, or RA, can also be a useful source of income. At Columbia, RA’s receive free housing and a $600 stipend for the academic year. For students receiving financial aid, their student contribution is replaced by a resident advisor grant. I recommend applying to become a Resident Advisor, as the benefits outweigh the responsibilities and time commitment. As an RA, you receive free housing in exchange for fostering the safety and wellness of your dormitory floor. The job involves tasks like hosting floor bonding sessions and dealing with the occasional noise complaint. It’s a small price to pay for free housing at the most expensive college in the country!

Affordable and Fun Activities at Columbia

New York City has its perks, but they do come at a cost – financially speaking. Columbia fosters affordability not only through its financial aid packages, but also through its various initiatives.

Through Columbia’s Arts Initiative, students have free entry to over 30 museums as well as free or discounted tickets to performances at Carnegie Hall, the Metropolitan Opera, the New York City Ballet, and more. Urban New York allows students to enter a lottery for free tickets to events from Broadway shows to basketball games. Last year, I attended the New York City Ballet’s Nutcracker thanks to the lottery.

Columbia also has over 200 study abroad programs in which financial aid travels with you. One of my friends even paid less to study abroad than on campus!

Photo courtesy of Columbia College and Columbia Engineering

Final Thoughts: Start Early and Start Now

A college education is the second-largest expense an individual will make in their lifetime, just behind purchasing a home. Although college costs can be overwhelming, start mapping out your financial plans early in order to set yourself up for success.


This informational essay was written by Juliana Furigay, Columbia University ‘23. If you want to get help writing your Columbia application essays from Juliana or other CollegeAdvisor.com Admissions Experts, register with CollegeAdvisor.com today.

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