Entertainment, Health and Lifestyle

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 email and thousands of messages, all with a similar subject line: “Help! I’m drowning in student loan debt!”

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. 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.

It’s not as if student loans and significant 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 takes hard 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 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, and 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 with a legal obligation to spend the rest of your life paying for it. Does anything about that make sense to you?


Take all the free 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.

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.


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 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.


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 has gone on to win numerous awards, including an Emmy?


Many colleges give discounted or free tuition to employees’ family members. There are lots of nonteaching 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.


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. Learn more at Finaid.org.


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.


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.


All kinds of scholarships go unawarded every year. Many are not based on need but rather ability or 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 scholarship search sites:

— finaid.org

— collegeboard.com

— fastweb.com

— freschinfo.com

— salliemae.com/planning/scholarships.html

— myscholly.com

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Mary Hunt

Mary invites you to visit her at EverydayCheapskate.com, where this column is archived complete with links and resources for all recommended products and services. Mary invites questions and comments at https://www.everydaycheapskate.com/contact/, "Ask Mary." Tips can be submitted at tips.everydaycheapskate.com/ . This column will answer questions of general interest, but letters cannot be answered individually. Mary Hunt is the founder of EverydayCheapskate.com, a frugal living blog, and the author of the book "Debt-Proof Living."

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