Hacking college

Aug 26, 2009 at 12:00 am

Hi, I'm average.

I graduated high school this June with a GPA smack in the middle of the "average" range. I did well on my ACT and state tests, and, like most kids in my grade, I didn't take the SAT. Like the other average kids in Michigan who test well, I was promised money my whole school career, money that I could then use to go to college in Michigan after I graduated high school.

The teachers, the counselors who came and interrupted English class to tell us about our "financial aid options" were really adamant about this at my school. 

I come from a backwoods town that prides itself on "traditional family values," where money's tight for everybody, and as early as the fourth grade we were plugged with the promise of magic money that we'd get if we did well on our tests — at the time, we were taking the Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP) test. When I started investigating financial aid in my junior year to pay for my big, fancy, new-fangled art school, my guidance counselor told me my best bet was to pick somewhere in Michigan and use my state scholarship money, apply for local grants, and kiss everybody's ass — which, being a lonely art kid in a jock town (yeah, I'm that girl that got beat up in the locker room during gym class, ate in a classroom at lunch, wrote zines that made people mad, painted pictures of Marilyn Manson and listened to the New York Dolls when my peers were all still stuck on D12, Gretchen Wilson and Linkin Park or whatever) — I didn't qualify for a lot of the local grants because I wasn't on student government or a varsity sports team or in the marching band or with a 4.0 GPA since they started recording these things.

But after visiting a few Michigan schools, I realized the Michigan scholarship money wouldn't be able to help me anyway, because I wasn't in love with any of the schools here. So, I started seeking student federal aid in the form of FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid ) and in-house scholarships at the school I wanted to go to.
Then ... a bit of a perfect storm of bad circumstance hit, and I was in the middle of it.

First things first: I missed the deadline to apply for the in-house scholarship at my school of choice, but applications were still open. After being assured my family would pick up the cost of the first year at Fancy Out-of-State Art School, I was still going to apply. I had strong references, but ... I also had a practically negative GPA from years of slacking off and personal problems affecting my school performance. Make-up high school classes (at $125 a pop) fixed that, but by the time I nailed the necessary GPA, I'd missed the application deadline. 

Oh, damn.

Being one who grew up with my dad shrieking, "Adapt, adopt, improvise!" at me whenever something started to go wrong, I made a slight change of plans: Go to Wayne State University, a school I wasn't really 100 percent on, for a couple years to start my degree and get all my math and science junk out of the way, use my state scholarship money to pay for most of it, then transfer to my school of choice to do the rest of my degree. Totally not a bad plan, and it would keep me local so I could finish my internship here at Metro Times.

Of course, once I'd decided that it would make good financial sense to start a degree at the cheaper-than-my-art-school Wayne State — paying the difference between tuition and what the state would pay, out of pocket — I heard these rumblings on National Public Radio and on the news and in the paper about cutting the scholarship money I'd been promised for doing well on all the standardized tests that had been thrown at me over the years.

This is a harebrained move on the state's part, because, according to The Detroit News, it's only a $140 million program. The state sank itself into a budget deficit, so what does it do? Instead of doing other things to restructure the budget, they're going to cut a program that a hell of a lot of kids depend on — 96,000. And Michigan State University says that about 1 in 4 students there use their Promise money to defer tuition costs.

And there's not much any of us can do but lie down and take it.

I was legitimately pissed. I wrote angry letters, I wrote zines, and I'm writing this. How dare they take away something they've promised us! Some people were really depending on that, you know? 

So, instead of bawling my eyes out like any other average-but-not-quite-special-enough recent high school graduate with no job and limited fundage would do, I adapted, adopted, improvised.

There's a happy ending to this story after all. Because while I was investigating the cost of tuition at Wayne State, it occurred to me: Didn't my Fancy Art School have something on their website about being a student-at-large? Didn't that cute trumpet player Alex mention "student-at-large" when I slogged out to visit last summer? 

So I did some more checking, and called my Fancy Art School and talked to an admissions guru, and, lo and behold, it would actually be cheaper for me to go student-at-large there, just taking the classes I want (and maybe transfer into a degree program later), than it would be to go to Wayne State. Especially if my family's paying for it out of pocket. The piece of paper isn't that important to me, but the knowledge is, so while I'll only be taking the classes I want, I can always put those credits toward a degree if that becomes important to me.

I'm getting a job now, or two, if I can swing it, to save up to facilitate a move to the Chicago area when I start at Fancy Art School in time for the spring semester.
When it's all said and done, it'll be a win-win situation: I get my knowledge, my art school, and none of the crap and expense I don't want. 

Like most of the other average kids, it was drilled into me that college was the be-all-end-all. You'd get out of high school, and you'd go to a four-year college to get some kind of degree, and you'd get scholarships and grants to pay for it. But the times are a-changin'. While more and more jobs do pay way better with that qualifying piece of paper, if you're fine with just living on what you need (and not the out-of-your-means spending that sunk us into this mortgage-and-credit meltdown) you can get away with doing something like student-at-large.

But our economy's crumbling. Who really has $100K per kid to plunk down, especially if you've got three kids to put through college and spent their minuscule college funds trying to save the house you got evicted from? 

This is my situation. I am average. I graduated with an average GPA and good test scores out of an average small-town high school. I am young, uneducated, unemployed, broke and determined. I am comfortable with the term "hacking college." Because hacking isn't always a bad thing — it's oftentimes just executing a trick to make life easier or more efficient, in the broad definition. I am young, uneducated and broke, and I had nothing handed to me. I am going to make this work. Total economic meltdown is the mother of invention, after all. 

Julia Fitzgerald, a Metro Times editorial intern, is still adapting, adopting and improvising. Send comments to [email protected]