For many students, the hardest part of college isn’t necessarily the rigorous coursework, homesickness or Freshman Fifteen — it’s the crushing debt they are incurring. According to Time magazine, U.S. student loan debt exceeded credit-card debt for the first time in 2011 and will reach $1 trillion by the end of the year.
In the face of a shrinking job market and rising tuition costs, more and more students find themselves drowning in debt. A recent study by the independent, nonprofit Institute for Higher Education Policy found that 56 percent of student loans borrowers were struggling to make payments five years after graduating from college.
While many incoming students combat their looming debt burdens by means of scholarships and work-study programs, sometimes they are not enough. In trying times like these, how else can insufficiently funded students continue their educations?
Perhaps the answer lies within. Everyone has a passion or skill—whether it lies in entrepreneurial pursuits, public speaking or even mathematics. Those skills can be harnessed, says Zoe Damacela, 19, of Chicago, who is funding her education at Northwestern University in part with proceeds from her clothing business.
“People have a lot of barriers that they put up for themselves as kind of like a reason why they can’t do something,” she says. “It’s important to focus on all the reasons why you can do something.”
Damacela is one of three college students who have made use of their wits and skills to afford college. Like Damacela, Jimmy Winkelmann, 20, of St. Louis, Mo., started a clothing franchise to cover costs. On the other hand, Ken Ilgunas, 27, of Niagara Falls, N.Y., focused on cutting expenses instead while he earned his master’s degree at Duke University, at Chapel Hill, N.C.
In January 2009, Ilgunas started graduate school with a mere $4,000 in the bank. Last May, he graduated debt-free, though he didn’t qualify for scholarships or teaching-assistant positions. How did he manage it? “Well, I bought a van, of course.”
Just before classes started, Ilgunas purchased a burgundy 1994 Ford Econoline van for $1,500 and began to live in it. He cooked on a backpacking stove and showered in campus facilities. By so doing, he eliminated the cost he would have had to pay for room and board at Duke—about $11,000 a year.
“I was living on $103 a week, and that covered everything from my food, my gas, my car insurance, car repairs, everything except for tuition,” he said.
Living in a van has its drawbacks—it can get awfully cramped and cold, and it’s hard to entertain in such a small space. However, with his penchant for the rugged lifestyle and meticulous financial organization, Ilgunas succeeded in graduating debt-free.
Ilgunas kept his living arrangements secret for fear of being asked to move his vehicle, but he gained some recognition when he wrote an article about his experience for Salon online. However, other students actually seek the spotlight.
Jimmy Winkelmann has used his entrepreneurial spirit for purposes both practical and comedic at the University of Missouri. In high school, he came up with the idea of starting a clothing company called South Butt as a parody of North Face, a popular apparel line. Winkelmann even put a sardonic twist on the North Face tagline, “Never stop exploring,” for his own: “Never stop relaxing.”
As the son of a financial adviser, Winkelmann was somewhat acquainted with the logistics of the business world. So, with some creative T-shirt designs and support from his father, Winkelmann launched South Butt his sophomore year at Missouri. Working with a company to print and embroider the designs on an array of clothing items, he soon had thousands of orders from every state -- just as the North Face clothing line became the newest fashion trend.
“People were getting fed up with the norm,” he said, explaining his brand’s popularity. “But other than that, I don’t really know why people liked the line so much. I mean, I think a bit of it was just luck.”
South Butt was making plenty of money but started having trouble keeping up with demand from its online site and 100 retail locations. It also ended up with a lawsuit from North Face, which has since been resolved.
However, Winkelmann is not out of business – he has new “OLOP” and “Butt Face” lines.
For Damacela, the pursuit of college funds was not so confrontational. A lover of art and fashion, she began her first business selling greeting cards at age 8. By age 14, she learned to sew and was selling dresses to her friends to pay for such items as concert tickets.
Thus, Zoe Damacela Apparel was born. As she perfected her sewing and design skills in high school, Damacela eventually transformed her apparel business from a sole proprietorship to a nationally recognized clothing corporation. Today, she continues her clothing line while attending Northwestern University, and shares her story with youth everywhere.
“You don’t need to be a certain age. You don’t need to go to a fashion design school. I’m not going to fashion design school and I’m working as a designer. Whatever you want to do, it’s so possible,” she said. “Just start small.”
Damacela has supporters in high places (model Tyra Banks is a mentor) and hopes to earn an MBA after graduating from Northwestern with degrees in fashion design, Italian and history. She emphasizes the importance of utilizing personal talents not only to pay for college, but to make an impression.
“Even if you didn’t get straight A’s all through school, you still did something that’s really unique and amazing, and that just means that you have a lot of initiative and that you are the type of person who is going to be driven. And I think that that’s what of people want for their schools,” she said.
So, incoming freshmen, look beyond the obvious for college money. Whether it’s living in a van or starting a business, there are so many other options.
According to Ilgunas, “Once you begin to think boldly and creatively and adventurously, almost anything is possible.”
Assistant editor Sigal Tavel, 15, and reporter Carmela Verderame, 12, contributed to this story.
Copyright 2011 Y-Press