A Debt-Free College Degree? Yes, It’s Still Possible

Chances are your Facebook feed is lined with cute pictures of the first day of school. And everywhere you turn, there’s a back-to-school promotion. Too bad there aren’t any sales on college education.

Quite the opposite, in fact. The average cost of tuition, room and board at American four-year colleges has more than doubled in the past 20 years, while the Consumer Price Index rose only 35 percent.

With average costs at $11,970 (public 2-year), $20,770 (in-state public 4-year), $36,420 (out-of-state public 4-year) and $46,950 (private 4-year) per year, it’s no wonder Americans carry a larger student loan debt burden than ever. About 44 million people are on the hook for over $1.48 trillion in student loan debt. For perspective, total U.S. credit card debt is “only” $860 billion.

If you or your college-bound child want to avoid the average $35,000-plus debt burden on graduation day, here are 10 ways to reduce or eliminate the need for student loans:

Make the Grade

The higher a student’s high school grades and SAT/ACT tests are, the more attractive they are to any college or university. And the better they can compete for scholarship dollars.

Apply for Scholarships Early and Often

You don’t have to be in the National Honor Society to earn a scholarship. But unless you can score touchdowns or baskets at will, don’t look for a full ride either. Even great grades or test scores doesn’t automatically mean a scholarship. Scholarships come in all shapes and sizes. Scholarships come from the school you’re pursuing, from countless foundations, churches, companies, individuals, even crowdsourcing. And scholarships can be anywhere from a few hundred bucks to several thousand. Getting a scholarship is as much about effort as it is merit. Talk to high school guidance counselors, conduct exhaustive internet searches, and apply, apply, and apply some more. Many scholarships go unclaimed simply because potential students don’t take the time to apply.

Get the Grants You Deserve

Schools, states and the federal government give out grants based on your financial need. Unlike scholarships, grants are based primarily on a student’s need. According to The College Board, undergraduates at state universities receive about $5,000 in grant money and about $17,000 at private schools. It’s all determined by the income reported on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. Federal Pell Grants are the most common, yet sometimes billions of dollars of this money goes unused! Many private grant opportunities also exist.

Work It Off

Many public and private institutions offer work-study programs to eligible students (based on the FAFSA). Basically, they involve working part-time somewhere on campus in exchange for part of the tuition bill. The amount earned can’t exceed the work-study award for the year, also based on the FAFSA. If work-study isn’t an option, look for another part-time job. Websites such as QuadJobs and WayUp point students to college-friendly jobs such as babysitting, tutoring and dog walking, as well as work related to their studies.

Live Off Campus and/or Commute

With the room-and-board portion of college averaging around $11,000, it makes sense to look at schools where a student can attend from home. “Home” can mean a parent or other relative’s dwelling or one in close proximity to the school. As of July 2018, the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the U.S. is $1,178. Twelve months with a roommate at $7,068 is a better deal than $11,000 for nine months on campus.

Join the Military

The Post 9/11 GI Bill makes it possible to receive a college education free of charge, including housing. The only stipulation is a minimum tour of active duty. Serving your country can produce a debt that can never be repaid to you, but the GI Bill is an incredible deal from a financial standpoint. Plus, if you can apply your military training to your college degree, you’re likely looking at a better resume than the average non-military college grad.

Get an Employer to Pay You Back

Tuition reimbursement programs are a great way to pay for some or all of your education. Granted, these are perks available mainly to employees of large companies. However, consider that a barista at Starbucks can work for a year or two after high school and get thousands of tuition dollars reimbursed while they work and attend college.

Go the JUCO Route

You might miss out on frat parties or dorm life for a couple of years, but knocking out the non-major prerequisite college courses at a two-year community college can save around $20,000, plus several thousand in room and board if you live at home.

Stretch It Out

Who says you have to complete a degree in exactly four years? Future employers couldn’t care less. All they want to see is the degree, not how long it took. If it takes you eight years of attending school and working to pay it off as you go, you’ll still have a $35,000 head-start on the average person in your graduating class.

Choose a Cheaper School

Harvard is Harvard. But is Southwestern State better than Northeastern Tech? If admission is gained at schools of more or less equal prestige, go with the less expensive option.

Getting through college without going into debt isn’t as easy as it used to be, but it can still be done. It just takes work, determination and smarts—all of which are qualities you’ll need to go with that degree anyway.

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