10 Ways To Go To College Debt-Free And Graduate Without Student Loans

Going to College Without Debt

Student loans cripple your future savings power. Graduating college is already one of the most expensive times in your life between getting an apartment, graduation, moving, and transportation. Paying off thousands in student loan debt leaves many people living paycheck to paycheck.

This millennial mamma learned the hard way regarding going to college. While my student loan debt wasn’t as large as many people’s, it was significant and set my retirement savings and ability to build wealth back a few years.

I’ve learned from my mistakes and will implement these options when it comes time for my son to go to school. College isn’t the path for everyone but if you do decide to go, there are many other options besides the traditional student loan route. It is possible to go to college debt-free if you plan ahead and are open to untraditional options.

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1) Earn College Credits In High School

Take electives at community college or take APs that will transfer. Some school districts have partnerships with the local community college for dual enrollment. By the time of high school graduation, you could already have an associate’s degree. These college courses are discounted or free in some areas.

AP classes are another option for getting credits in high school. Depending on the college, students who received a 5 on their AP exam may have those general elective credits count for their degree. If you have a lot of credits that will transfer you may be able to complete your bachelor’s in 2-3 years.

Female College Student

2) Apply for A LOT of Scholarships

Make applying for scholarships your part-time job. I’m not talking about applying for 5-20 scholarships. Apply to 1,000 or more. Even if you only have 80% of the qualities they’re looking for in an applicant, it doesn’t hurt to apply.

Look at local companies in your area when finding scholarships. Many of the smaller local scholarships aren’t marketed as widely and take a little more digging to find. Check the places your parents work as well since they will sometimes have one for employees’ families only.

Scholarships of a lower monetary value usually have fewer applicants since people think it’s not worth the effort. If a $500 scholarship only takes 20 minutes to apply for and you get it, that’s a great return on investment. Far more than you make spending that same time at a retail job.

The PSAT Matters For Scholarships

Most people think of the PSAT as the practice for the SAT. They also think that it doesn’t matter and may not even do preparation for it. Besides, it’s the SAT that matters, right?

Wrong!

The PSAT is the National Merit Scholarship qualifying test. That means if you don’t do well on this test, your chance for a National Merit Scholarship is gone. The top scores become National Merit Finalists and are awarded scholarships. The PSAT score cutoff for National Merit varies depending on which state you live in.

PSAT scores are also used as a qualifier for the National Hispanic Recognition Program which looks great on college applications.

3) Negotiate With Financial Aid

Call the financial aid department before accepting admission into a school to see if they can do better. As students send back rejections to a school, financial aid packages that were set aside for those students no longer need to be held for them.

Tell the financial aid office how much you love their school and would love to attend. Respectfully explain how a different school offered a better aid package but you would prefer to attend their school if they can match it. I’d estimate you have a 50%-50% chance of this working.

Planning college savings

4) Work A Part Time Job

Work while in school. Get a job with the school for maximum schedule flexibility. Research has shown that students who work part-time while in school have higher GPAs. The benefit drops off if they work more than 20 hrs a week though. Having a job while taking classes makes the student better at scheduling their time. There’s no room for procrastination when you have a full-time class and part-time work schedule.

Getting a job on campus has other benefits as well. The scheduling is more flexible and accommodating to taking classes. A job as a Resident Assistant may not require much effort aside from being on duty some nights. During the time you’re on duty you can usually get classwork done. Being an RA could take care of room and board costs.

On-campus jobs allow the school faculty to see you under different circumstances.  They could see how hard of a worker you are and be more likely to choose you for research positions or internships. You’ll be shown in a different context than the hundreds of other faces they see in the lecture hall. It’s a perfect opportunity to impress them.

5) Get A Useful Degree

I can’t stress this enough. Really think about what job you can get with your degree. While you may like studying history or English, it’s not going to be worth taking out $70k in student loan debt if career prospects are $50k/ year jobs.

If you are interested in a field with low paying prospects, get your major in something more marketable and minor in your passion. Then you can create your own pathway to your chosen field but aren’t limited by your specified degree.

6) Save In A 529 Plan

A 529 plan is a tax-free savings account.  After-tax dollars can be contributed and all of the earnings are tax-free as long as they’re used for approved educational expenses. Think of it as an educational Roth IRA but you don’t have to wait until you’re 59 ½ to access it.  

Looking back at all of the toys I received as a child, I wish about half of that had been saved and put into a 529 plan. Gifts as small as $50 would have time to triple over 18 years to $164.  Factor in larger numbers and you’re talking about some serious growth.

Some states even offer state tax benefits for contributing to a 529 plan.  If you don’t live in one of these states, it is worth checking out a highly rated plan in a different state to contribute to.  

If you hadn’t planned on saving money for your child to go to college, keep in mind that each family will be assigned an EFC amount based on a calculation from the government. This is the Expected Family Contribution number that all college aid is based on. Use this calculator to see what yours will be. So regardless of whether you saved, the government is going to expect you to be able to contribute that much before offering need-based help.

Empty college classroom

7) Choose Untraditional Schooling

You’ve probably heard about the student loan crisis. Currently, there is over $1.5 trillion in student loan debt. The few loan forgiveness programs have not been paying off loans like promised either.

Better options are to go to school part-time or consider trade school. Part-time school allows you to have a full-time job that cash flows the courses you’re taking. If you followed suggestion #1, you may even have a lot of credits out of the way.

Trade schools are a great option as well. Most require two years of education. Some have a paid apprenticeship afterward before becoming fully licensed in the trade. These schools cost far less than a 4-year college, take less time, and are fairly outsource-proof. A 529 plan can be used to pay for trade school if they have a Federal School Code.

8) Join The Military

This is a great option for an expensive degree like a doctor or lawyer. Check out the Army or Navy for JAG info. ROTC and military academies are other options.

For an undergraduate degree, there are a few ways to do it. You can join the reserves and go to school full time. You can also enlist and do school part-time/online using the GI Bill. If you already have a bachelor’s degree and join, you can use the GI Bill to get a master’s degree.

9) Find Paid Internships

Similar to suggestion #4, a paid internship is an income that helps cover the cost of school. Many internships happen over the summer but sometimes they’re offered during the school year. This is a good option if you’re close by since there’s less competition during the school year.

A great place to find internships is your school’s student services department. Department bulletin boards may sometimes post about internships for that major. Reaching out to a department head or favorite professor are good leads.

Female college intern

10) Partner With A Company

Partner with a company that will pay for your school as a part of their benefits package. Nursing is an in-demand career that some hospitals are helping pay for schooling. Pharmacy school hopefuls should check out this program.

If you’re looking at getting into the tech side, there are many jobs that don’t require a computer science degree. Some coding bootcamps offer job guarantees that are worth looking into.

Overall Thoughts

While college is expensive, there are still many ways to lessen the financial burden. If you still need to take out student loans, I caution you to keep the amount low and in line with what is realistic to pay off in the field you’ll be entering.

For many job sectors, the name of the college doesn’t matter as long as you have the degree. Going to a less expensive school combined with the above tips can get you through college without debt.

I’d love to know in the comments how you paid for your college.

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Steffa Mantilla

Budgeting & Debt Payoff Expert

Steffa is the founder behind Money Tamer. After paying off over $80,000 in debt through budgeting, she now teaches families how to get their own finances in order. Steffa’s background in operant conditioning and behavioral husbandry has given her an understanding of motivation and motivators. She uses this training to help people understand the reasons “why” behind their money behaviors and how to successfully change them. You can learn more about her here.

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