FASA application, diploma cash illustrating graduating college debt free

8 Strategies to Graduate College Debt-Free

There was a time when I didn’t have much opinion on paying for college with student loans. That was before the advent of e-mail and thousands of messages, all with a similar subject line: Help! I’m drowning in student loan debt! 

FASA application, diploma cash illustrating graduating college debt free

That was before I learned that about 85% of college graduates do not end up working in their major. That was before I heard from Jim P., who took all the student loans he could get to pay for college and law school. He assumed he’d quickly land a cushy big-bucks job and pay back $200,000. The fifth time he failed the bar exam, he gave up on being a lawyer. But the debt goes on.

That was before I met Peter K., who became a chiropractor on borrowed funds. Guess what? He couldn’t stand the profession once he got into it. Now he’s teaching high school math. Too bad teachers don’t make enough money to service $160,000 in student debt. But the debt goes on.

That was before I heard from the Nebraska couple with $60,000 in student loans. They were going to be teachers. Then the baby came along, and the teaching position didn’t. It’s all they can do to keep food on the table now that the family has grown to five. They’ve exhausted all their deferment and forbearance options. Their monthly payment is twice the house payment. The stress has all but blown that family apart. But the debt goes on … and so could I, but I think you get the point.

Here’s the problem with student loans: Life doesn’t always turn out the way we plan. Stuff happens, minds change, and life takes unexpected turns. But student debt goes on and on and on.

It’s not as if student loans and big credit card balances are mandatory graduation requirements. You don’t have to borrow your way through college. It is possible to graduate debt-free, but it does take a lot of work. And you’ll have to buck a financial system that encourages students to take the easy way out by diving into a lifetime of debt.

Here’s the Secret

The secret to graduating debt-free is to use every strategy imaginable to get the cost as low as possible so you can pay as you go. That could mean working two jobs while carrying a full load every semester. It may mean working spring break, winter break, Christmas holidays, and every summer. The definition of college does not include “a life of ease.”

You will never regret working harder than you’ve ever worked in your life for four years, then graduate knowing your degree is paid in full.

You will always regret that you chose to live it up free and easy on student loans for four years, graduating legally obligated to spend the rest of your life paying for it —and not just the amount you borrowed, but twice as much or more. Does anything about that make sense to you?

1. Start college while still in high school

Take all the free advanced placement (AP) classes you can in high school to help knock down college tuition costs. Plan it right, and you can enter college as a debt-free sophomore with one year paid in full.

AP classes require students to take a rigorous test at the end of the class. You can qualify for one to two semesters’ worth of college credit if you score well. You may also get a bump in your grade point average (GPA).

Many local community colleges partner with many high schools to offer dual-enrollment classes. You’ll get college credit without extra testing requirements if you get a C or better in the class.

2. Community Colleges

Every state offers two-year colleges, typically referred to as community colleges. This is the place to get all your lower-division prerequisite courses at cheap tuition rates that will transfer you to the college or university of choice for the two final years. That means you’ll have two more years to save up for the more expensive finish.

3. State Colleges and Universities

Most four-year state schools offer an excellent affordable education. Our older son graduated from a prestigious California state university with a degree in film. He lived at home and graduated debt-free. Oh, and did I mention Jeremy Hunt he has gone on to win numerous awards, including an Emmy!

4. Work for the School

Many colleges give discounted or free tuition to employees’ family members. There are lots of non-teaching jobs on a big campus. I’ve heard from many parents who left their regular employment to work at the school their college students would attend. Others took the bold move to relocate to that area to become a university employee with a respectable salary including a basket of benefits.

5. Grants

A grant is a flat-out gift of money to be applied to tuition, with no requirement to repay. The most common is the Pell Grant, money from the federal government to assist low-income undergraduates.

6. Work-Study Programs

Under a federal program, work-study provides on-campus jobs for students. There is no requirement to repay the money even if the student does not graduate.

7. Military

An excellent education is often a benefit for students willing to enlist. For example, the military will put you through medical school if you enter as an officer and agree to stay for some time upon completing your residency.

8. Apply for Scholarships

All kinds of scholarships go un-awarded every year. Many are not based on need but rather ability, even ethnic heritage. But don’t get suckered into paying a service $800 or more to do what you can do yourself: search! As a general rule of thumb, if a scholarship or a scholarship-search service asks you for money upfront, it’s probably a scam.
Start searching now if you are a junior or even a sophomore in high school. And even if you’ve already started college, many scholarships are available for your last years. Check out these free scholarship search sites:


Question: Got student debt? Now that you’re on this side of your education, do you have any advice for students and parents who have not yet made life-long decisions on how to pay for college? 

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10 replies
  1. kathny says:

    All great advice. I worked in the financial aid office of a college for several years, and it was heartbreaking to see incoming freshmen with so much debt before they even started classes, because of student loans. I am a firm believer in community college for all of the basic courses and transferring to the “dream school” after that. You’re paying a fraction of the cost for the same courses and can still get the degree with the fancy name on it. While at community college, work your butt off and save as much money as you possibly can! College websites usually have links to scholarships and grants that are available to their students. Also, check with the parent’s employers to see if they have any scholarship programs. Many large corporations have scholarships or grants for employees’ children, and even places like Burger King have a scholarship program! Check organizations in the chosen field to see if they offer anything, and finally, check with your local Chamber of Commerce. Many of them offer college scholarships as well or have links to local businesses that offer them. I knew a couple of students who challenged themselves to graduate debt-free. They each spent a lot of time searching for, and applying to, every single scholarship and grant that was available. Happily, both of them succeeded and graduated from an expensive college, completely debt-free! Yes, it can be done!

  2. Elizabeth Harris says:

    One of the good military options is to join the National Guard which also has tuition reimbursement, but is not a full-time career like joining other military services. Another option is to look for colleges that have a cooperative program – summer is counted as a semester. One semester in college, one semester working. The college will link the student up with a “real” job with a good salary for the working semesters and usually that business will pay for the semester the student is in school – a win-win for everyone. The student graduates debt free WITH real work experience that matches what employers are looking for. Another strategy is to get a degree din a technical field at a community college that will give you a higher paying job than minimum wage when you graduate so you can pay your way through for your last two years. At the same time, finish your basics – English, math, history science, and humanities to get all lower level classes complete before transferring.

  3. Tiana says:

    If your family can afford it, homeschool! When your student hits high school level, you can reach out to your local community colleges to see what programs they have for dual credit homeschoolers. Both my boys did this and they were able to knock out two years of basics (English, History, Science, Math) … based on my oldest son’s community college grades and his SAT test scores, he earned almost a full ride to a local private 4-year college who valued that he was a homeschooler. We paid the what the scholarships and grants didn’t cover as we went along because we were able to set up a payment plan. He also worked. My youngest son, after the dual credit community college, decided he did not want to continue so he went to welding school instead which is super affordable. He earned a few grants and again, with a payment plan, we paid as we went along. Oldest son still has a few thousand in federal student loans and has been paying them down, even while COVID has halted the interest. He should be debt free in a year.

  4. Donna Rutledge-Goulden says:

    The only thing that worked for me were grants. I couldn’t get a job due to being a lifelong wheelchair user. People wouldn’t hire me, but I did get a job in my chosen field of teaching. I subbed for 3 years and then when I earned my credential, I finally got a job after putting in 20 job applications, experiencing silent discrimination in 2 interviews( The admins at 2 of these interviews desperately looked around the room hoping for any candidate, but me. When they realized I was the candidate, their eyes dropped to the floor and they wouldn’t make eye contact.). I went through both interviews, held my head up high, knowing I wasn’t going to get the job. A week later, I had an online interview and positioned myself so my chair couldn’t be seen. This forced the admins to see me. I was offered the job the next day. When I went for onboarding, that’s when they saw my disability. I work at a well established charter school in CA. making significantly more than other districts in my area. I work with students who haven’t had the best luck in a traditional setting, I am seen as an asset to my team and students. I have 82,000 in loans, but have applied for loan forgiveness for public servants and will work until my body no longer allows it. Without the loans, I would never have reached my lifelong dream, and been a burden on society. I am 56 and in my second year of teaching! I love being able to help students who struggle and will continue to do so until God calls me home!

  5. Cally Ross says:

    Our SW Missouri area is blessed to have College of the Ozarks, A.K.A. “Hard work U”, where students work on campus and graduate debt-free. Every area should have a C of O.

  6. Susan B. says:

    I totally agree with every single item in your above post, but I have a couple of things to add. First, if you are lucky enough to live in a state (Florida, for example) which has a state lottery-funded scholarship program to pay for tuition to that state’s colleges and universities, make sure you work with your child to fulfil the requirements (such as community service and meeting a particular GPA) to obtain that “free” tuition scholarship. Also, if possible, invest in a 529 college savings plan when your child is young (preferably right after they are born!). Some states also have a prepaid college plan where you can lock into a future college education with current-day college prices. You will save tons of money if you invest in that. Also, I cannot emphasize the importance of trying for private scholarships – you can get a lot of tuition help with them. I am the mother of two girls currently in college, one who graduated high school in 2018, one who graduated in 2021. Both are currently attending the University of Florida and are pursuing engineering degrees. We started preparing for the scholarship process when the first one was in 9th grade, and the result was when they graduated high school my older daughter was awarded $17,000 in private scholarships, and my younger daughter was awarded $48,320 in private scholarships. With the combination of the Florida Bright Futures scholarship assistance and the Florida Prepaid college plan and the private scholarships, my oldest daughter will be graduating debt-free this December with a 4-year engineering degree, and my youngest daughter will have enough momey to not only get a debt-free bachelor’s degree but will also be able to get a master’s degree debt-free (if she wants). It is important to emphasize that this money does not just fall into your child’s lap – it takes planning and a lot of work – but it can be done!

  7. Elizabeth Harris says:

    Parents should NEVER borrow money under their own names to pay for their kids’ college. Loans for college are not dischargeable, even in bankruptcy. Many, many parents have mortgaged their retirement and their futures trying to pay for their kids’ “dream” colleges, and often the kids did not even finish. Senior citizens with college loans will have their social security checks garnished. If a parent is borrowing in his or her own name to send a kid to college, that kid is going to a college that is TOO EXPENSIVE – DON’T DO IT! The ROI on finishing college is very poor – fewer than 50% of kids who start college finish in under 6 years. Parents owe their children love, a roof over their heads, and daily necessities until age 18 – they do NOT “owe” them a college education!

  8. Elizabeth Harris says:

    Scholly is one of the best scholarship search engines as it can tailor scholarships to a student’s particular profile. Also, keep in mind that the financial aid for the student entering college in 2023 is based on the family financial profile by Dec 31 of THIS year – fill out the FAFSA this fall to get a head start on what the family contribution is expected to be.

  9. Elizabeth Harris says:

    You missed one of the best strategies: take CLEP and DSST exams and apply to colleges who accept passing scores (generally 50) for college credit. Build on what you learn in high school and use the prep materials at Modernstates.org (free) and rack up college credits for general education courses. That way you can use your tuition dollars for the courses that lead to your employment. Students can also self study for very little money through Coursera on-line courses that result in certifications to get better paying jobs while in college. Employers today don’t want to know what classes you took in college, they want to know what you can DO for their companies! (I am a recently retired high school teacher and community college part-time professor and I’ve helped hundreds of students minimize college costs using these strategies.)


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