Go to College Without Borrowing a Dime

Student loan debt can ruin your young adulthood. Use these tips to find an affordable education. (Hint: It might even be free.)

Does the idea of going into debt for your education scare you? It should. The average debt for the class of 2012 was $29,400, according to the Institute for College Access & Success.

Even so, getting some kind of degree or certification is vital. According to financial author Liz Weston, a college degree today is what a high school diploma was 60 years ago. “Meaning: the bare minimum for staying in the middle class,” writes Weston.

But don’t let that scare you. Take a hint from Money Talks News founder Stacy Johnson when he talks about ways to avoid student loans in the following video. Listen to his encouraging words, then read on for some specifics.

You should be passionate about your education. But be dispassionate when narrowing down which school you’ll attend. The average cost of tuition and fees (but not housing – more on that in a minute) for the 2013-14 school year was:

  • $30,094 at private colleges.
  • $8,893 for state residents at public colleges.
  • $22,203 for non-residents at public universities.

Quite the price range, isn’t it?

Sure, you’d love to be able to obtain a diploma from College A, a “name” school on the East Coast. But if your own state has College B, with a good reputation for your field of study, remember that you won’t be paying nonresident tuition or having to fly back and forth.

Thinking locally

And if College B is less than an hour away? Get yourself a reliable used car and commute. That’s a hassle, to be sure, and not as much fun as living on-campus. But dorms can add anywhere from $9,500 to $10,830 to your total bill each year, so it’s worth the sacrifice. (Hint: Future You will be very glad that Current You didn’t take out an extra $40,000 in loans.)

When it comes to tuition, don’t get hung up on the annual projected cost provided by your university of choice. Factor in grants, scholarships and any other resources, such as money you’ve saved or that a parent or grandparent has promised. This will reduce some of the sticker shock.

On that note: The college you choose will send you a financial aid letter. Be sure to read it very, very carefully. A Reuters article called “Don’t Get Fooled by Financial Aid Letters” points out that colleges often mix gift aid (which doesn’t need to be repaid) in with loans (which certainly do).

“I am still hearing from parents who think an award letter with a $5,500 federal Stafford loan and a $20,000 federal parent PLUS loan is a free ride,” said one expert interviewed by Reuters.

Colleges may not include all expenses, e.g., listing only tuition and fees. They may “front-load” gift aid, i.e., give more the first year than in subsequent years. The total aid offered (including loans) might not cover a student’s total expenses, but this can be hard to spot if all the expenses aren’t included.

Such letters also won’t include the costs of:

  • Getting your student there and back (airline tickets or the cost of the drive) several times a year.
  • Things your scholar needs to bring along, e.g., extra-long dorm bed sheets.
  • Incidentals that Mom and Dad usually provide, from cold medicine to new shoelaces.
  • Spending money – your son or daughter is going to want snacks, entertainment and the occasional bowl of pho with friends.

Trimming the tab

Research college scholarships, all the way through school. There’s money out there, but you won’t find it unless you look. For great sources, see “5 Ways to Score Scholarship Money.”

While you can’t count on getting money this way, you might luck out in a big way. As a broke divorcee in my late 40s, I went back to school to earn the degree I didn’t get as a young woman. I made it my business to apply for every funding source I could find – and while many didn’t come through, the ones I did get added up to four years of schooling without me paying a dime.

You should also work at least part time during your education. (I did.) Yes, it’ll be hard sometimes. Get organized and get over it. An on-campus job would be ideal, especially if it’s in your field of study. Think how this will look to future employers: You worked your way through college vs. sitting around expecting handouts. It also shows you’re good at time management.

Or forget the job and work instead to graduate early. Go to college during the summer and/or take extra classes during the regular school year. Note: Some schools offer three-year bachelor’s degree programs. The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities maintains a list of at least some of these schools.

Another great way to reduce the cost of your education is to spend two years at a community college and then transfer. (Just be sure that all of your credits will transfer along with you; see the College Board’s MatchMaker to find schools with such agreements.) Remember: The diploma will say that you “graduated from School of Choice,” not “started at community college and finished at School of Choice.”

Get creative

More tips for keeping costs down:

Earn pre-college credit. Take one or more College-Level Examination Program (CLEP) exams and start school with credits under your belt. The tests cost $80 apiece, so don’t do this unless you’re pretty certain of your knowledge; you can take a sample test at the CLEP link. And if you’re still in high school, take Advanced Placement (AP) courses and then pass AP exams for credit. There’s an $89 fee, but that’s cheaper than paying for a college class.

Live off-campus. Find some other responsible students and split a place. The emphasis is on “responsible.” Don’t room with folks who plan to turn your shared home into Party Central.

Go to a free college. Yep, they really do exist; see FinAid.org’s “Colleges With Free Tuition” for a list. Note that generally only tuition is covered. You’ll likely have to pay for room and board, and you might also be required to work. But again: free tuition!

Pay by the month. The potential to pay $1,888 each month for nine months doesn’t sound quite as scary as ponying up $17,000 per year. Many colleges will let you pay in monthly installments (possibly by automatic debit), according to Zac Bissonnette, author of “Debt-Free U.” Sure, that’s still some pretty major bucks. But grants/scholarships plus money from your part-time job plus whatever parents can kick in might add up to the monthly nut. Perhaps relatives who want to buy Christmas/birthday gifts could give cash toward the fund, too.

Apply to become a resident assistant. If accepted, you’ll get free room and board and maybe some other perks, too. But you’ll definitely earn it, e.g., you’ll be on call all the time and sometimes you have to be the bad guy. “Should You Be an RA? The Perks and Pitfalls of Life as a Resident Assistant,” on HerCampus.com, is a good reality check.

Work it off. Research college loan forgiveness programs such as the ones offered by the U.S. military and the National Health Services Corps. AmeriCorps has three programs that offer education awards and/or loan forbearance. Teach for America offers the potential for the same benefits (depending on program funding) plus the possibility of reduced-price master’s degree programs.

Not all of these tactics will work for everyone, but you owe it to yourself to try as many as possible. Imagine graduating with that average $29K of student loan debt (or, worse, with $50K) and not being able to find a decently paid job right away. According to the Millennials Civic Health Index, only 6 in 10 U.S. citizens ages 18 to 29 are working right now – and half of them are working only part time.

Forget the “dream school” hype. Will your guidance counselor be there to help you pay off your student loans in 2018? Don’t let your diploma be a millstone around your 20-something neck. Get smart, literally, by choosing an affordable education.

Stacy Johnson

It's not the usual blah, blah, blah

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  • Charity

    You mentioned that you tapped into funding sources. Would you mind listing them? I am an older grad student looking for funding for my advanced degree. Thanks

    • donnafreedman

      I’m afraid there’s no master list. I simply applied for numerous scholarships and also investigated local and regional funding. For example, I got a scholarship from the community college, a state grant from Washington and some money from American Mensa.
      Follow the links in the article to find information on where to apply for grants and scholarships. Good luck to you.

  • Sherrie Ludwig

    For children in 5th grade through 12th grade, the easiest (believe it or not) and best way to get more $ in scholarships is to earn good grades. Take the tough classes, get the tutoring in stuff you find hard, go to AP (advanced placement) classes wherever possible, and test out wherever possible to earn college credit ahead of your college years. Local community colleges will accept some high school students into their classes for credit. College freshman English is the same credit whether you get it from doing well on an AP exam, or from a community college, as it is in a classroom at Harvard (and a LOT cheaper!) In fact, you may get a better grounding in some subjects at a smaller local school than at a large, expensive university because the smaller class size and closer connection with the person teaching the class may help you learn better, and get help more easily if you need it.

  • donnafreedman

    I respectfully disagree about the “you’ll never have to work a day in your life.” The reason I (and some of my friends) became writers is that we love to write. But some days it’s darned hard work.

    • Y2KJillian

      I think Gars meant that overall, you’ll love what you do so much that even if it is “darned hard work,” you still enjoy it rather than wanting to quit or kill yourself. It was a figure of speech, not meant to imply you didn’t have to ever put in any effort.

  • AmericanInGermany

    Check out the 4 year College of the Ozarks. Here students literally work themselves through school – on campus.
    U.S. News and world reports rates them no. 1 in value for colleges in the Midwest:
    Here is the link to the admissions Website: https://www.cofo.edu/Page/Admissions.15.html
    My cousin, whose father had recently died and left little money, attended the then 2 year school back in the early 1960’s. He was shoveling coal before going to class early one morning when a well dressed man who contributed to the school appeared and introduced himself – Mr. J.C. Penney himself

    A few years ago, they gave admission preference to applicants from Missouri and adjacent states, but also admitted some students from other places. Their Website should have the details.
    I would recommend this to anybody except an atheist, because it is a protestant religious based school.
    This school is also known as “Hard Work U”, so lazy people will not be able to loaf.

    • donnafreedman

      That was one of the places listed under the “free tuition” link in my article. Definitely worth a look.

  • Jason

    It is also important to know that once you land your first job not future employer will care where you went to college. Don’t spend a whole bunch of extra money going to a big name school.

  • John Dallas

    Very enlightening article. What really caught my attention as an American in his 50’s is that a college degree is critical to being able to keep afloat financially. In fact, it doesn’t guarantee middle-class wages and thus a middle-class lifestyle. Rather, a college degree enables you to stay above the poverty line. Ask all the college grads who’re working in Starbucks and Targets. Another point: as a financial coach and counselor, I’ve decided it wouldn’t be to my longterm financial security to pursue a graduate degree (my dream) and in the process incur $50,000 in student-loan debt. For now, unless I can find scholarships (which seem rare for middle-aged grad students who have to work full-time during the day), I’m taking the certification route. That is, I’m racking up as many professional certifications in my field that I can. More credentials means more money. And I can deduct the these educational expenses on my tax returns. In any event, a very enlightening article. Thank you for it.

  • Y2KJillian

    Or…just be so darned cute that your mother pays 100% of your first four years, and your grandmother gives you $150,000 to pay off your law school debt! Gotta love it!

  • Sam Andrews

    The only thing worse than student loan debt is IRS debt.

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