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Earning a College Degree Without Student Loans: Is It Possible?

Oct 18, 2010 Jennifer Williamson, Distance Columnist | 0 Comments

It is possible—you can graduate college without any student loans at all. And the benefits are enormous. Without student loan debt, you’ll have more freedom to do what you want after college—instead of being forced to take the highest paying job possible to pay off your debt. You could start a business, buy a home, volunteer, travel, or take any number of steps you might not be able to afford to take if you were stuck paying off those loans. To get out of college debt-free, however, you’ll need to plan carefully—and do a lot of research. Here are a few tips.

Figure out what you can pay per month or per year

If you’re like most traditional college students, your parents are helping you pay for college. Or you may be on your own. Either way, you’ll need to start by figuring out exactly how much you could realistically afford to pay each month toward your tuition bill. This might involve sitting down to have a frank talk with your parents—tell them your plan to graduate debt-free—or taking a hard look at your own finances. For most students, it will involve both.

Choose a cheaper college option

Grad with Cash

Graduating without debt isn’t easy. But it’s doable

Your guidance counselor probably told you not to think about tuition—the money situation would “work itself out” and you should go to the school of your dreams. Well, by “working itself out,” what he means is the tuition would settle on your shoulders as enormous student loan debt you would spend your whole life paying off. Think about that for a minute, and suddenly your dream school doesn’t look so fantastic.

Instead of getting sucked in by the promise of a perfect college experience, consider whether you really need to go to that prestigious college to meet your career goals. Unless an Ivy-league degree is absolutely necessary, choose a school that’s more affordable. Look into community colleges. Consider going to an in-state public school. Talk to your parents and consider what you can afford to pay per month without loans or help of any kind. Then choose a school that matches that budget. If they give you scholarships as part of your admissions package, so much the better.

Apply for as many scholarships as possible

There’s more to financial aid than the FAFSA. You may or may not qualify for federal Pell grants, but not all grants and scholarships are needs-based. Some award merit or exceptional sports performance or dedication and contribution to a certain cause. Check with organizations you belong to, causes you support, your parents’ employers—and chances are somebody will be offering scholarships for college to people with your background.

Get a job

Putting yourself through college might mean working when you’re not studying—but put in more work now, and you’ll have more freedom from loans later. Make things easier on yourself if possible by choosing a job with a lot of down time, so you can study while you’re at work.

Get an Associate’s degree first

Who says you have to spend four years in an expensive four-year institution? Instead, go to an affordable two-year school, earn an Associate’s degree, and then transfer to the pricey and prestigious four-year college to earn your Bachelor’s in just two years more. You’ll spend the exact same amount of time you ordinarily would to get a Bachelor’s degree at the expensive school, and you’ll get the exact same diploma as someone who spent four years there—but you won’t have the massive amounts of student debt to show for it.

Live at home

A large part of your college fees involve room and board. You can lower your college costs by skipping the cramped dorm room and the food. Instead, live with your parents. If your parents are amenable to this, it means a much lower debt load later—because you won’t have to take out loans to cover your living expenses.

Take Advanced Placement tests

Advanced placement tests can be a great way to reduce the amount of credits you’ll need to take. There are many different Advanced Placement tests administered by the College Board, in everything from History to Calculus.  If you achieve a high enough score, your college may waive certain required classes. This could save you money in credit hours.

Graduating without debt isn’t easy. But it’s doable—and for many students, it’s worth it. It might involve some sacrifices for four years, but for the decades afterward, you’ll be glad you did it.


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