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Freedom to Freelance: How Financial Aid Shapes Career Options

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As the daughter of a single mom who worked at a nonprofit, Jalena Keane-Lee was well aware that she would need a thorough financial aid package to go through college.


"I originally wanted to go to NYU," said the recent Wellesley College graduate from northern California. But at the time, she estimated NYU met only about half of her demonstrated need. (Thankfully for this year’s round of applicants, it currently meets closer to 70 percent.) Plus, she noted, she'd have to find housing in New York City, a costly and potentially time-consuming task. Student housing seems to be a booming business, but new developments target students with larger budgets than Jalena had.


Because of both her financial status and the caliber of schools she was considering, Jalena applied only to universities and colleges with need-blind admission policies..


By the time acceptance letters and financial aid offers rolled in, Jalena had three favorites: Wellesley, Barnard, and UCLA. "I just think that in terms of financial aid, the private schools are a lot more willing to give it than the public schools because they have a lot more money to give," said Jalena.


Part of the reason she knew about the financial aid reputation of elite private schools was her application to QuestBridge, which pairs high-achieving, low-income students with full scholarships.


"I applied for [Questbridge] so I was kind of already in that ethos... Those were the schools I was aiming for, so I knew that they wouldn't leave me high and dry," she said.


She was even able to use the schools' financial aid offers to negotiate.


"Before I started [at Wellesley], I let them know what Barnard was offering me, so I got mine down a little," she said. "I had almost a full scholarship to Wellesley and the final impetus for me going there was that they gave me the most money." Wellesley's guaranteed on-campus housing for all four years was another plus--no NYC apartment hunting.


At college, Jalena worked part-time jobs at a local restaurant and on campus to help pay her bills. She said her fellow students talked occasionally about financial aid, but not very often.


“A lot of my friends at Wellesley were very affluent,” she said. “It was very hard sometimes to be a low-income student at such an elite school. Expectations on standards on life could be very different.”


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In 2017, the Political Science and Cinema and Media Studies double major graduated without any student loans, which gave her some career flexibility, as those who graduate with debt find it more difficult to hold out for the “right” position.


"The art fields are...  not that profitable," said Jalena with a laugh. She is currently a documentary filmmaker back in California; had she graduated with loans, she knows she would have needed a 9-to-5 to pay the bills, rather than being able to dedicate so much time to her art.


"I'm super grateful that I had so much support... now I can freelance and have a lot more freedom,” she said.


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