Graduate Debt-Free

There was a time that I didn’t have much of an 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! 

graduate student loans debt

That was before I learned that 85 percent of all 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 land a big-bucks cushy job and pay back $200,000 really fast. 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. 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 couple in Nebraska who between them have $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, 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. 

The secret to graduating debt-free is to use every strategy imaginable to get the price as low as possible so you can pay as you go.

Take AP classes. Take all the advanced placement 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.

Community colleges. There are excellent two-year colleges in every area of the country. Lower-division prerequisite courses can be taken at the community college level at cheap tuition rates, then transferred to the college or university of choice for the third and fourth years. That means two more years to save up for the more expensive finish.

State colleges and universities. Most four-year state schools offer an excellent affordable education. Our older son graduated from a prestigious California state university. He lived at home and graduated debt-free.

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. 

Grants. A grant is a flat-out gift and there is no requirement to repay. The most common is the Pell Grant, money from the federal government to assist low-income undergraduates. Learn more at

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.

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 a period of time upon completing your residency.

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.

If you are a junior or even a sophomore in high school, start searching now. And even if you’ve already started college, there are lots of scholarships 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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20 replies
  1. Christin42
    Christin42 says:

    I tell my high school Freshmen to start an academic resume. They need to list all academic honors, all offices held, all clubs, sports, and community volunteering. Many universities offer scholarships for leadership and community work. Having the resume ready will help students plug in to scholarships.

  2. lisette
    lisette says:

    Sounds like one inportant thing is to be very sure of your career choice before spending money on college. And if you want to be a sahm, dont go to college, get a trade or a work at home business.makesure that the career you choose will earn a high enough salary to justify the expense of college.

  3. Jim
    Jim says:

    I worked my way through college. I worked full time and took a full course load. It’s not easy, but I graduated with no debt. If you make up your mind to do it, you can do it.

  4. lisette
    lisette says:

    There are a couple of schools, like College of the Ozarks and Berea College, that require work on campus but charge no tuition.

  5. Kim
    Kim says:

    I worked nights at my local university about a year and a half ago, for two and a half months as a night cleaner. I wasn’t taking university courses at the time, but if I had wanted to, there is no way I could have gotten a discount on tuition, since I wasn’t working for the university, but for the company they had a contract with. I don’t know how many other universities hire other companies to do the work that a bunch of students, or students parents would happily do just to get the discount on tuition, but it can’t just be the one in my city. Maybe my situation is different. But it seems to me that getting a job at a university or a college where one of the perks/benefits is free or discounted tuition is not as easy as it seems, or as it used to be.

  6. Daisy
    Daisy says:

    When my husband was in college, he worked as many as three part time jobs, I worked fulltime. We watched our money and lived very frugal. No eating out or rarely(McDonalds was a treat), bagged lunches, making do with what we had and no paid entertainment. We had a small child and paid child care every week. Clothing was worn till it couldn’t be worn..faded and patched was common.
    When he graduated from college it was debt free. It wasn’t easy but we did it. It is absolutely amazing what a person can do if they make up their minds to “just do it”.

    We purchased a prepaid plan for our grandson when he was a baby. He starts college this fall. He doesn’t have to worry about tuition, his is already paid.

  7. dholcomb1
    dholcomb1 says:

    not all colleges/universities accept AP classes for credit, and if they do, they may only accept the credit if the student received a 5. Each AP test costs anywhere for $75-$125–cheaper than a college course, but a waste of money if the credits are not accepted.

  8. Shotts-Flikkema
    Shotts-Flikkema says:

    I agree with everything stated, however, it is too late for many. I would like to find out what is available for those who already have loans or scholarships for juniors and seniors in college who would like to decrease the debt WHILE THEY STILL CAN. Any tips would be appreciated!

  9. Angela
    Angela says:

    My daughter is currently a junior in college and has worked really hard staying debt free while attending college. I am so proud of her. I guess Mary Hunt has taught me well and I in return taught my daughter well. So well that she is using the surplus from her scholarship money to buy her first used car with cash. Thank you Everyday Cheapskate!

  10. Marie
    Marie says:

    From a parent of three college grads…our suburban high schools (we live in a large metro area) are so heavily slanted towards college-prep courses with the expectation that kids go to a four-year university (minimal) and anything less is second-rate, that the option of attending technical or trade schools is rarely talked about and certainly not encouraged. Don’t let peer pressure–or school pressure–keep you from investigating these options, particularly if your child has any interest or aptitude in programs these schools offer. I succumbed to the pressure and did a disservice to our youngest son. There are great careers and good salaries available to graduates of these programs, at a fraction of the tuition cost. I wish all high schools (at least in our area) would remove the stigma of not attending a traditional four-year university. Sadly, the burgeoning student loan debit might be the crisis needed to make changes.

  11. Jenn
    Jenn says:

    As an undergrad I worked as a resident advisor for 2 years, earning free room & board, plus a small monthly stipend. Despite this, I had about $15k of debt from my undergraduate degree (recently repaid in full). I got a job at a private university and earned my grad degree while working full-time. It was a horrible slog but I got through my program in 3 years debt-free. I work for a university still and academic snobbery is rampant: it is extremely difficult to get a full-time job at a university without at least an associate’s degree.

    Tax laws change continually and tuition remission may be considered taxable income in some years but not others (as happened to me). It was extremely painful to earn $24k but pay taxes on $40k. My take-home pay was pitiful and I incurred other debt (also recently repaid in full) to survive. But that’s another story!

    Washington State has a program called Running Start, which allows high school students to earn college credit while completing their HS degree. There are distinct advantages (financial) and disadvantages (graduating from college and having to pick a career at a very young age). Look to see if your own state has these opportunities.

  12. Divalosity
    Divalosity says:

    I agree with Grla. I went to an expensive private university myself. Thirteen years ago my tuition was about 26K a year and my school paid for all four years via a service scholarship that they themselves awarded me. Now since returning to school years later after a few economic bumps and bruises, I can barely get a $1000 federal loan for a technical college. But there are several ways to find “free” money out there. Keep your head up, grades up, take sound advice, and put the work in to find what you need. Good luck!

  13. Grla
    Grla says:

    As it happens, my college alumni group has been discussing a related topic, and it was noted that many state colleges have had their budgets cut to the bone in recent years, to the point where many have begun to favor applicants from other states and foreign countries who can afford to pay full freight because they no longer have the ability to offer much in the way of financial assistance. This means that talented students can actually find it cheaper to attend a heavily-endowed private college (even an Ivy) than a supposedly less expensive state college.

    The bottom line is that each student needs to stop worrying so much about he name on the door and concentrate on finding several schools where they will feel comfortable and do well in their studies, and then analyze the costs in light of their financial situation. Go ahead and apply to all of them and wait to see what kind of financial aid packages are offered before deciding. They might be pleasantly surprised.

  14. Holly Kerkes
    Holly Kerkes says:

    Here is another very important tip – if you are going to an out of state school and don’t have a full ride scholarship, hang out for a year and get residency! You can do this by just taking one class a semester and working (and saving money!) It takes a little longer, but saves you HUGE amounts on tuition!

  15. Connie
    Connie says:

    In our state (Ohio), students can actually attend college during their Junior and Senior years in high school (called post-secondary). They may take a full load of classes at the college or attend part-time at the high school and part-time at the college. They still reside at home and all the classes go towards their high-school credits as well as college at no cost.

  16. Beck
    Beck says:

    No student loan debt. One thing you can do to help is rent or buy used books plus you could even go electronic. Then sell them or return(if rented) them at the end of the semester unless it is in your major and you feel you need to keep it for a reference. If all your bookstore has are new books go online to or Barnes & Noble online you can find used books there. The markup on new verses used is unreal.

    If you can have your student cook their own meals in the dorm or apt. Meal plans are grossly over priced. I always tried to buy detergent, shampoo and other toiletries on sale so they had enough to make it through a semester. I sent food and drinks with them at the start of school as well. My kids both had scholarships which was a great help.

  17. Paige Laine
    Paige Laine says:

    CAUTION – lots of college do not award college credit for AP courses anymore. The trend over the past several years has been to allow exemptions, so that you can move into a higher level course as your first college course, but not give you credit hours. Make sure you check into the policies at the colleges you are considering before counting on college credit and incurring the cost of the AP exam. Taking an AP class is still a very valuable thing to do and in many cases, is helpful to the admissions process as it demonstrates your college readiness…but I’d hate for someone to read this and think they can expect college credit.

    • Emjay
      Emjay says:

      Yes, good advice. Also, schools often do not allow AP credit if the AP exam is not taken even though the student has taken the AP course. Further, many students find skipping college course work after gaining admission as sophomores makes the sophomore year coursework in the same type of course more difficult. Smart students PLAN for these eventualities. That’s key.

      • Concerned Mom
        Concerned Mom says:

        Since AP courses don’t really ‘count’ unless the student gets (usually) a score of at least 4 or 5, my 3 kids opted to take very ‘transferable’ courses (such as English 101) at a community college while they were in high school. They did this long before it became the ‘norm’; however, it allowed them to all ‘skip’ at least one year of college. The ‘Honors’ programs at some community colleges have their best faculty and a very rigorous program for a bargain price.

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