The average college student will take out more than $20,000 in loans to help finance his or her education. Let that soak in for a minute; then keep reading.
I watch co-workers, friends, and relatives struggle to pay off their loans and think to myself, “Why did they do this to themselves in the first place?” Maybe they thought they had no other choice but to go into serious debt years before they would even make a dime off their college education. Sure, student loans seem innocuous enough–they have low interest rates, and they can help you go to that dream college you otherwise couldn’t afford.
Well, it’s time for America to stop dreaming about putting themselves into more debt and start realizing the truth: There is absolutely no need for anyone to take out a dime in student loans to get a good college education. In fact, the number of ways you can get an inexpensive or free college education are so numerous that anyone can afford to get a degree without even considering going into debt for it.
Ten Ways to Get A Debt-Free College Education
- Do well in high school. You can skip the rest of the list and never have to worry about being able to pay for college if you just follow this one rule. Most people simply don’t make the connection between high school and college. They may be two completely different stages of your life, but how you do in the first directly affects your experience in the second. If you want a free (or nearly free) college education, it’s as simple as starting four years early. Study hard in high school, ignore the temptations of being a wild and crazy teenager, and realize that colleges will give you a full education at little or no cost to you if you simply prove you are worth it in high school. This is what I did, and my college paid me to go to it.
- Find scholarships. Even if you ignored #1, this doesn’t disqualify you from getting your hands on free money for college. There are foundations and colleges just waiting to give you the free money you need to help you get your degree. Thanks to the internet, finding them is as simple as Googling for “scholarships.” Be careful to avoid scholarship scams, but you can do that by simply keeping this in mind: do not pay anyone (not a person, not a book publisher, no one!) to find you scholarships. If they can find them for a fee, you can find them yourself for free.
- Take college classes in high school. Not to sound hypocritical, but high school is a waste of time. There is absolutely no reason for high school to last more than two years, and many students and colleges are starting to realize this. That’s how programs like the Early College Initiative came to be. Through this and other similar programs, you can take some of that time you’d waste in your last couple years of high school and instead use it to take college classes–often for free!
- Take tests, not classes. I don’t like tests, and you probably don’t either. But if you can set aside your dislike of tests for a bit, you can skip dozens of college classes just by taking some simple standardized tests offered by the College Board. At just $60 a test, these College-Level Examination Program (CLEP) exams can help you save thousands of dollars on those pesky general requirement courses. While I haven’t taken any of these myself, folks I’ve talked to who have all agree that CLEP exams are the easiest and cheapest way to take a major chunk out of your college career.
- Have mom and dad pay for it. Beg to them, guilt them into it, or blackmail them with that honeymoon video of theirs you found in the closet. Do whatever it takes to get your parents to pay for your college education. Even if they don’t have the cash on hand, let them take out a loan on their home equity to pay for your education. It’s a far better option for a set of employed parents to take on the debt than it is for someone under 20 who won’t have a comparable job for years to do so.
- Work for it. More and more students are taking part-time jobs to help pay for their college education. The important part of this is not to settle for some pathetic minimum-wage job. Look for higher-paying jobs on campus, or work nights and weekends waiting tables. Just be careful to monitor your work-school-life balance so that you don’t end up flunking your classes. If possible, avoid having to work by choosing another option, or work full-time during the day and take classes on a part-time basis.
- Forget four-year; think two-and-two. Just because you get into a four-year college doesn’t mean you should start in one. In fact, if your high school grades aren’t enough to earn you scholarships to help pay for that four-year college, you should strongly consider getting your first two years done at a community college. Around here, community college classes are easy to transfer to four-year institutions, and they typically cost less than half the equivalent course at a state college. Remember, you’ll still have the same bachelor’s degree in the end, but knocking out the first two years at a community college could save you a year’s worth of four-year-college tuition or more!
- Get done in three years. If you or your parents have enough money to pay for three years of college, then you should strive to finish college in three years. Of course, this means you’ll be taking one or two extra classes each semester, so you shouldn’t think about holding a job at the same time. Since many colleges only charge a flat rate to full-time students, you’re essentially in an all-you-can-eat situation after your first four or five classes each semester. And when you take into consideration the tuition hike you’d see between year one and year four, your savings by skipping that fourth year are even greater!
- Live at home. Unless you’re planning to major in something highly specialized like Forensic Journalism or Fire Eating, try to find a college close to home that has what you want. Then you can cut your college costs in half by living with your parents. Don’t worry about how “uncool” this may seem because I promise you that you’ll think carrying thousands of dollars in debt your first day out of college is even more uncool.
- Be a frugal student. Plenty of students already get through four years of college eating nothing but ramen noodles and M&Ms they find on the ground, but there are plenty of others who load up on another kind of debt–the 20%+ APR credit card kind–living it up on weekends. Forget the dining out and kayaking trips when you’re in college. Save them for when you’ve earned them: after you have your degree in hand and no debt in your pockets.
And some reader contributions…
- Work on your SAT scores. John points out that some colleges will give you an automatic scholarship if you meet their SAT guidelines, and higher scores can mean more automatic money for you.
- Marry a college graduate with no debt. My wife suggested this one. If one person in a marriage is already out of college, has a good job, and managed to get there without carrying any student loans, it should be much easier for the other person to complete his or her college career with a bit of help from the spouse.
- Hit up your employer. How could I forget this obvious one? Thanks to MoneyDummy for reminding me about it. Tuition reimbursement is a more common job perk these days, but be sure to review your employer’s policy since there may be limitations on eligibility.
- Look for family at a college. MoneyDummy also suggests cashing in on spouses or other family who may work at a college. Even non-teaching positions are sometimes eligible for discounts they can pass on to family members.
I left a couple of notable alternatives off the list, but I have good reasons for not including them. Here they are anyway so you can make the decision to use them for yourself.
- AP exams. The College Board’s other big time-saving exam, the Advanced Placement (AP) exams saved me a whole year of college. So if that’s the case, why am I advocating that you not go the AP exam route? Quite simply, they’re often not worth the time and effort. For example, take the AP U.S. History course I took in 10th grade. That course was, without fear of hyperbole, the hardest course anyone will ever take in the history of all education. Sure, every single one of us in my class nailed the AP exam, and I never had to take a history class in college because of it, but I easily spent 600 hours on assignments and studying for that class. Compare that to the U.S. History course my wife just finished taking at a community college. The cost may be very different (currently $82 for an AP exam vs. $300 for the community college class), but she got an A in that class and didn’t spend more than 50 hours in class, working on papers, or studying for the whole semester. Instead of busting your brain taking AP classes in high school, take the regular or honors version of the class and opt for the cheaper and easier CLEP exam instead.
- Military service. You can go to college for free by either attending a military academy or receiving a Reserve Officers Training Corp (ROTC) scholarship. These options may be good for some, but they come with service requirements that can hinder your career goals. Of course, being in the military is an admirable career goal of its own, so don’t let me stop you from pursuing this path.
Do you have another great idea to help students avoid the burden of student loans? Comment on this post or send it to Punny Money.