How I Found My Dream College




I was introduced to the concept of college through watching A Different World. Since my family and I regularly watched the Cosby Show we also tuned in for Denise’s transition to college. Denise Huxtable left home and lived on campus at Hillman College, a Historically Black College. As a legacy student (both her parents and grandparents graduated from Hillman), Denise learned about Hillman’s expectations from her parents.

As a first-generation college student, I viewed A Different World as the model college experience. The show highlighted various aspects of campus life including residence life, majors outside of being a doctor, lawyer or teacher, and Black Greek Letter Organizations. I gleaned that college was fun, yet challenging. At this juncture in my life, I knew that higher education was in my future. As I grew older, I found that my parents were adamant about me attending a high school that offered a college preparatory curriculum. We also applied to participate in co-curricular programs that would enhance my chances of attending a good school.

During my junior year of high school, I began receiving applications from colleges throughout the nation. Since schools were sending me information, I was confident that I was a shoe-in for their college, right? Therefore, I decided that the school that sent me the most information was my Dream College. I set my sights on moving to Missouri to live my own version of A Different World. 

Although I had found my dream college, I still went on college tours, participated in college fairs, and applied to 10 colleges. Throughout my senior year, I learned that I gained acceptance along with either partial or full financial support to 9 of the 10 institutions. I was surprised when I received notification that I DID NOT GET INTO MY DREAM COLLEGE! Not a conditional admit or an interview, they just said, “NO”.

After this major disappointment, I began to carefully consider the other 9 schools. I had not visited many of these schools, so I depended on their brochures for information. After sharing the news with my mother about my dream deferred, we went on a few campus visits. While meeting with a financial aid officer at a college in the southeast, my mother explained that any loans I incurred would be my responsibility to repay. This is the first time during this application process that I had closely considered the cost of attendance and how I could realistically pay for school. As a result of our tours and conversations, I decided to enroll in a small liberal arts institution in my hometown.

My dream school had been right under my nose, and I didn’t know it! This school offered a superb scholarship package including free room and board, and a desktop computer. My classes were challenging and required me to think critically. Moreover, I was a member of a collaborative learning community. Through living on campus I secured a campus job and had time attend faculty office hours. I participated in on-campus activities and developed lifelong relationships with peers.

I am thankful that I did not get accepted into my so-called dream college, and that my real dream college was literally right around the corner from me. Although I did not know what I wanted then, I learned that completing school debt-free was important to me. My institution had a wealth of resources that I could access to be successful in my courses. Also, all of my courses had no more than 25 students. Small class size was important because I like to ask a lot of questions. I had a rewarding experience at my alma mater and remain in contact with professors and other college personnel who were instrumental in my development.

I had a wayward college application process. Albeit weird, I selected a dream college based on which school sent me the most mail. I applied to colleges with no real direction and failed to consider what would fit my personality, skills, interests or learning style. Now that I work with high school students, I encourage them to think beyond school popularity.

For students who are going through the college admissions process, I urge them to think about what they value, and apply to schools based on their needs and interests. Students should spend time on campuses shadowing classes, eating with students, and attending events. I find that when students simulate college life, they begin to learn what they want from their college experience. Conducting this research will help students select a school where they believe they will thrive.

Good luck finding your dream college!

~Dr. Owens

Beware of Financial Aid Scams


A few years ago a close family member contacted me for assistance with completing his Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). We discussed the differences between loans and gift aid (e.g. grants). In the coming weeks, we exchanged text messages and he asked me, “Are you sure FAFSA is free? I have completed my form and in order to be eligible for financial aid it reads that I have to submit my credit card information.”

I immediately called him and asked what website he was on. I informed him that the FAFSA has always been free and if there is a fee it’s a scam. Over the years, I have also come across websites seeking individual’s social security number and payment information to apply for scholarships. The FAFSA is free, hence the first word, “FREE” Application for Federal Student Aid, and organizations that award legitimate scholarships will not ask you to pay to apply.

Please read scholarship applications closely to avoid scams. Also, the only place online to submit your FAFSA is through: .

Remember to submit your FAFSA as soon as possible for the 2017-2018 academic year.

Feel free to contact me if you have questions.

Happy New Year!

~Dr. O




Submit Your FAFSA Earlier


The first week of school is usually exciting! For those who are lucky, there is a limited amount of homework and time to catch up with friends about their summer adventures. Also, there is time to explore what’s new on campus while attending events with free food. It may seem like the difficult part of college with tests and quizzes is in the distant future.

As demands increase in the coming weeks, keep in mind that the Free Application for Federal Student Aid Application (FAFSA) can be submitted as early as Saturday, October 1, 2016 for the 2017-2018 academic year. This early financial aid option provides families and students with a means to determine their costs for various institutions to make a knowledgeable decision.

Mark your calendar and submit the FAFSA early!

~Dr. O




I Won!


Yup, I won, and you can too!

I am a member of a fitness group that provides many resources including online challenges, recipes, and healthy eating tips. Last week, I entered a challenge and answered the following question posted  by the group administrator.

How many steps did I have for this week (5 days)? 

Fitbit walking trackers encourage their consumers to start with 10,000 steps/day, and the group administrator who has been participating in these challenges for a while can double this amount. So, I doubled the fitbit starting point and added an additional 5,000 steps to arrive at my guess of 105,000 steps.

A few days later, I was notified that I had won the challenge and I could pick up my prize at the local fitness class where we meet three times weekly. I was immediately happy because I love winning prizes. Later, I went back to the discussion forum to review the responses and see how close I came to the actual number. As I perused the forum, I noticed that I was the only one who participated—I won by default! Which was OK with me. There are over 200 group members and I was the only one to submit an answer for this challenge.

When I reflect on my experience of being the only participant in the challenge it made me think of the advice I provide through this blog. When submitting my guess I did not know if I was going to win, but I knew I was going to offer an educated guess based on what I knew about step tracking, the administrator, and fitness. Regardless of the outcome and the number of applicants,  I was a contender because I put in some work before I entered my submission.

Through Become A Debt-Free Scholar I encourage individuals to search everywhere for financial aid resources and to submit their best application packet. In previous posts, I mentioned how I have heard students express that they do not want to write or that they pass by scholarship opportunities because they think they’re not a competitive candidate. I always say, if you meet the requirements—apply! You never know the composition of the applicant pool.

I understand that winning a fitness challenge and earning a scholarship result in two different outcomes, but the processes are similar. Both have eligibility requirements, a submission deadline, review period, and the announcement of a decision. So, the next time you may want to turn away from a scholarship that you qualify to apply for, think of my experience and how I was the only one to participate in a challenge, and won!

“If you’re not actively involved in getting what you want, you don’t really want it.”

-Peter McWilliams, Author

Feel free to contact me if you have questions. Make sure to check back for scholarship search tips and announcements.

~Dr. O


The Lowdown on Loans

According to College Board, in-state tuition increased between the 2005-06 academic year and the 2015-16 academic year at an average rate of 3.4% per year. For example, in 2005,  Institution X’s annual tuition for in-state residents was just shy of $5,000 and nearly $14,000 for out-of-state students. Then for the 2014-2015 academic year, tuition increased to over $10,000 for in-state residents and almost $26,000 for out-of-state students. And for the 2016-2017 academic year, Institution X has increased tuition again. The aforementioned tuition rates do not include books, room and board, and other miscellaneous costs associated with attending college. So, unless students and their families can cover rising college costs, they have to search for scholarships, grants, and/or loans to foot the bill. I did not have to take out student loans, however, for almost 10 years I have worked closely with students who have taken out federal and personal loans to fund their college education.

Many students may not have money or scholarships to support their college expenses, so I understand how individuals view loans as an educational investment. But, it is not until after graduation when many students begin to think about the length of time, hard work, and interest required to repay this investment. So, before making loans a premier financial aid option, please read advice from college graduates below and view the Faces Of The Student Debt Crisis In America video.

Student loans are the albatross of my life! They are always there when they could go into other funds. It could have been a car or something else. I should have made better decisions as an undergrad.-Thomas, University Director

Apply for as many scholarships as you can! What a wonderful way to finish up college and not be in debt. If you spend as much time applying for scholarships as you do on social media you should be all set! – Kyla, Counselor

If I could get scholarships and avoid student loans, then I definitely would. It’s nice to graduate and get a good job, but with loans to repay it takes a while to reap the financial benefits of that job. Do it [apply for scholarships] and avoid debt by any means necessary.-Denise, Doctoral Student

Being myopic in one’s thinking can be painfully detrimental to one’s future. There are many successful people in the world who who have great careers as lawyers, medical doctors, engineers, and so on who live under the crushing weight of college debt.-Andre, Engineer

Student loans are with you with or without a job, through illness, and can never be included in bankruptcy. -Alana, Educator

My purpose for writing this post is not to scare anyone, but to get incoming and current college students to think about their financial future. I am a  staunch proponent for higher education, so I am not discouraging anyone from earning their educational credentials. Rather, I am encouraging individuals to do some work and search for scholarships, grants, fellowships, and other forms of free funding to avoid making loan payments for several years to come. The investment on the front end can pay off, big time!

There are many places you can begin to search for scholarships or other financial awards. When I speak with student groups, I ask them to think of some clubs or activities they are involved with and inquire if they offer scholarship opportunities. Another great avenue to search for scholarships is through conducting a random google search.

I want to hear from you, so leave a comment below.

If you are still not sold on scholarships, consider that yearly there are scholarships that are not awarded because individuals fail to apply. So, as you submit your scholarship applications, imagine that you are the only one applying because this may indeed be the case!

~Dr. O



New Year, New FAFSA!

Happy New Year, Scholars!

I hope you all had a well spent holiday season. As we transition to 2016, make sure to create goals and establish a clear plan. Many individuals want to save money, especially when it comes to paying for school. So, your first step is to complete and submit your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The FAFSA is a an online form which assists with determining your eligibility for various forms of financial aid including work study, loans, grants, and scholarships.

I’ve added a few links below for your reference. It is time to apply for financial aid for the 2016-2017 academic year. After the first of the year, I encourage prospective and current undergraduate and graduate students to gather documentation needed to complete their FAFSA by their prospective school’s priority deadline.

College Goal Sunday:

Have questions about the FAFSA? Just ask!

Until next time,

Dr. O!