The average annual cost of undergraduate in-state tuition in New Jersey is around $12,000 and with room and board $20,000. With financial aid and scholarships, students are sometimes able to cut that number down significantly. However, the average college student will end up taking out a loan, graduate with an outstanding debt, or both.

I refuse to do either.

When I was a junior in high school, a woman I worked with asked if I had begun thinking of where I wanted to go to college. She asked me if I had heard about the NJ Stars scholarship program and explained that if I was in the top 15 percent of my high school class, the government would pay for me to go to a community college for two years.

The following day I met with my guidance counselor and asked about the program. I also wondered why he had not informed me about it before. I was told that community college is typically for students who cannot get into four-year colleges (an idea many fellow classmates held as well). He said I could go to many other colleges and that I should not waste my time with community college. I left his office and dismissed everything he said. I thought that if I could go to college for free, I would be an idiot not to.

I graduated from Ocean City High School in June 2014 in the top 10 percent of my 284-person class and achieved a 4.4 grade point average. I could not wait to begin my college career at Atlantic Cape Community College as an NJ Stars student.

Some of my peers thought I was stupid for "downgrading" to community college. I thought they were stupid for paying thousands of dollars to go to a four-year college to take the same general classes I was enrolled in for free.

In May, I finished my first year at Atlantic Cape. I am a biology major with a 3.84 GPA. This past semester I finished with A grades in all five of my courses. Some might think I only achieved this because courses at community college are easier than at universities, but I could not disagree more. Most of the professors I have had are masters at their subjects with an immense amount of experience and would not tolerate students who slacked off. I earned my grades because of the amount of work I put into my subjects.

Thus far, I have in total paid just over $700 to go to college (NJ Stars does not cover the cost of textbooks, most of which I found on Amazon). My high school classmates who have gone to both in-state and out-of-state universities have paid from the "low" end of $20,000 up to an outrageous $70,000. Those numbers make me cringe. Even if I did not receive a scholarship, I would only be paying three to four thousand dollars each year.

I plan to transfer to Rowan University in the fall of 2016 after getting my associate's degree in biology. I also plan to spend as little money as possible at Rowan. NJ Stars has a follow-up program, NJ Stars II, which grants a scholarship to students who maintain at least a 3.25 GPA at their two-year institution. Between the NJ Stars II program and other academic scholarships I have received, I estimate I'll pay around $7,000 a year at Rowan University. With the path I am on, I expect to graduate in 2018 from Rowan with a bachelor's degree in biochemistry, having paid less than $20,000 to do so.

When my friends graduate in three years thousands of dollars in debt, I will have nothing to pay off. I have great pride in being a student at Atlantic Cape and wish that more students in high school would consider enrolling there.

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