How to Go Through College Debt-Free
College degrees open up doors of opportunity, but at a high cost for many students. Around 69 percent of college attendees took out student loans in 2018, as CNBC reported, and graduates finished their programs with an average of $29,800 in debt. As daunting a picture as those statistics paint for many, there is a glimmer of hope in them too.
Per those statistics, approximately 30 percent of students went through college without taking out any student loans — and most of those students probably weren’t from high-wealth families. If you’re headed to college or already enrolled, it is possible to earn a degree without taking on any debt. Here’s a strategy on how to get through college debt-free.
1. Get an Early Start on College Courses
If you can get an early start on your college degree by taking some courses prior to enrolling, you’ll have an easier time managing your finances later on and likely spend less overall on your education.
First, managing cash flow during your years of full-time study will be easier because you can take a lighter course load in certain semesters. You can use the extra time to study for especially hard classes, or you can spend it working to earn a little extra cash. Of course, your tuition bill also won’t be as high during these semesters, which further aids your cash flow.
Second, many courses and college-credit programs that are available prior to full-time enrollment cost less than a full-fledged class. For example, taking AP classes and many online courses cost less than classes taught on campus. Look into these while you’re still in high school or the military, and you could see significant savings.
If you decide to take courses prior to enrolling at a particular school, it’s best to focus on general classes that most schools require all students to complete. This helps ensure you’ll see a return on the time and money invested in these courses.
2. Select a Public School in Your Home State
To get the lowest possible tuition, select a public college or university that’s in your home state. Public schools offer in-state discounts, and these discounts can amount to tens of thousands of dollars in savings over the course of a degree program. They’re so substantial that you might even want to spend a year living in a different state to become a resident there if you have your heart set on a particular public university that’s not near your home.
Importantly, going to a public college or university doesn’t relegate you to a second-class education. All states have fine, respected schools, and some public schools are among the most revered programs in the country. The University of California, the University of North Carolina and the University of Texas are all public schools, and Cornell University and the University of Pennsylvania are two Ivy institutions with public colleges that offer in-state tuition to residents of their respective states.
3. Consider a Local College or University
While attending an in-state college or university will help keep your tuition bill lower, it doesn’t do much for your room and board expenses. And, these are significant expenses. Students at public four-year schools spent an average of $10,800 during the 2017 – 2018 academic year on housing and food.
To keep these costs as low as possible, consider attending a local college or university so that you don’t have to pay for lodging during the academic year and can get a smaller meal plan. You’ll still have to eat and might need to rent an apartment if a family isn’t nearby, but you probably can keep the school-year room and board expenses well below the $40,000-plus cost that most students pay over four years.
4. Find Out Whether Family Members Will Help Pay Tuition
Asking family for money is usually an awkward conversation, but it’s one you need to have if you’re going to responsibly budget for the college years. As soon as you begin looking at colleges, find out whether any family members plan on helping you pay tuition. This is essential information as it can impact what you can afford and your ultimate school choice.
5. Exhaust Any Benefits That Are Available to You
Of course, you want to take full advantage of any benefits programs you qualify for. Sometimes, it’s even advantageous to structure your course load in a non-traditional way if a program will pay for more of the tuition. For example, you might want to complete a four-year degree in five or six years if you have an annual tuition reimbursement allotment.
Depending on your current situation and activities, there are several benefits programs you could potentially qualify for. Some of the more common ones are the:
- American Opportunity Tax Credit
- Lifetime Learning Tax Credit
- Tuition Assistance from a Military Branch
- Post-9/11 or Montgomery GI Bill
- Other Military-Sponsored Programs
- Employer-Sponsored Tuition Reimbursement
There may be still other programs you can qualify for, so you should explore the possibility with any group you’re connected to.
6. Complete the FAFSA to Apply for Financial Aid
No matter where you go to school or what financial position you’re personally in, make sure to apply for financial aid each year. Also, your application ought to be completed by your school’s deadline to ensure you’re considered when funds are awarded.
At most schools, the need for financial aid is determined using the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. This is a long and comprehensive application that takes some time to go through, but the time is well-spent as it frequently results in at least some financial aid.
Also, don’t assume you won’t get financial aid because of your personal finances or family’s wealth if you are well-off. Instead, apply and let your school’s financial aid office determine whether you qualify. The application process costs nothing except some time, and you might be pleasantly surprised.
7. Apply for Additional Scholarships
Whenever you have time, actively seek out and apply for scholarships. Apply to both internal (from your school) and external (from other groups) scholarships, and submit an application to everything you qualify for so long as you have time for the application. It doesn’t matter if a scholarship is for a full-ride or only a few hundred dollars, as every little bit you get through scholarships helps and is money you don’t need to pay back.
8. Plan on Working During the Academic Year and Breaks
Once you’re in college, plan on working both during the academic year and your school breaks. The money you earn will help pay for tuition, room and board, and other expenses.
Making your way through college debt-free isn’t easy, but it is possible. If you’re determined and follow these steps, you stand a good chance of graduating among the 30 percent that doesn’t have any student loans.