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17 Ways to Pay for & Afford College Without Student Loan Debt

Attending college, while not essential, can give graduates a financial boost that will benefit them throughout their lives. The U.S. Census has determined that the average college graduate makes $19,550 more per year than the average high school grad.

Furthermore, the Pew Research Center stated that even after deducting time spent not earning money while in college, as well as the associated costs, the average college graduate earns a whopping $550,000 more than a high school graduate over a 40-year career.

Clearly, the financial investment of going to college and getting a degree is worthwhile. Yet, the average college graduate also leaves college with $23,000 in student loan debt, which can be a heavy financial burden to bear!

However, it does not have to be this way. Using innovative strategies, a student can graduate from college without thousands of dollars worth of debt.

Preparing in High School

1. Take AP or IB Level High School Courses

Many high schools offer advanced placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) courses that allow students to earn college credit for taking the course. These are usually available to high school juniors and seniors. These courses are much more academically demanding than standard fare high school classes, but the benefit of earning college credit while still in high school can’t be denied. A student who takes a few AP or IB courses a year can easily shave a year off their college attendance, which makes these courses worth several thousand dollars in college savings.

To qualify, a student typically has to earn a high grade (A or B), receive a written letter of endorsement from a teacher, and do well on the exam. Qualification requirements will vary by school and program.

2. Take College Courses While Still in High School

While attending high school, some students choose to simultaneously take a college course or two. This is possible at community colleges that don’t require students to have high school diplomas to attend. You may also be able to take college courses online.

This can be a great option for students who may not qualify for AP courses at their high school, but still want to get a jump-start on their college education. By taking a class or two at the community college during two high school semesters, a student can eliminate one semester’s worth of general education requirements. If the student is transferring to a large university, this could net a savings of several thousand dollars.

Choosing a College or University

3. Live in a City That Offers Free College Tuition

This is hard to find, but it is possible. In Kalamazoo, Michigan, there is a program called the Kalamazoo Promise that guarantees payment of tuition and fees for a bachelor’s degree or 130 credit hours (whichever comes first) to all students who live in Kalamazoo County and attend all four years of high school at a Kalamazoo public high school. Graduating high school seniors have up to 10 years to begin their college education and receive the scholarship.  There are 15 Michigan universities and colleges, as well as 29 community colleges, that honor the Kalamazoo Promise scholarship.

Other cities offering their own promise scholarships (though many for lesser amounts) include Peoria (Illinois), Rockford (Illinois), El Dorado (Arkansas), Denver (Colorado), Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania), New Haven (Connecticut), and Detroit (Michigan), Muskegon (Michigan), and Jackson (Michigan).

4. Attend a Free College

Yes, you read that right: There are some colleges in the U.S. that are completely free. You will only pay room and board and living expenses, as tuition and fees are covered by the college.

BusinessWeek compiled a list of 10 free colleges. Most have an estimated tuition value of $15,000 to $35,000, and the acceptance rates range from as high at 40% to as low as 7%. Some of these colleges, such as College of the Ozarks, require students to work on campus for several hours a week. Several are liberal arts colleges, but many have a specific focus such as engineering, music, or naval engineering.

5. Attend a Community College First

Many recent high school graduates are eager to attend a university, but attending community college can be a good option for the first two years. Community college costs are thousands of dollars cheaper per semester than the expenses of most universities.

In addition, community college courses are much smaller than large university lecture halls, and can provide you with more personal attention when taking your prerequisite classes.

6. Attend a More Prestigious University

This seems counter-intuitive, but often the more prestigious colleges, while more expensive, have more funds available from wealthy donors. When I prepared to transfer to a four-year university from community college, I chose between a local division one university and a Big 10 university.

While I thought it would be more financially feasible to attend the division one university because it had a lower tuition rate, it turned out it would have actually been more expensive. Why? The Big 10 university had many donors with deeper pockets, and therefore could offer me more grants and other aid outside of student loans.

However, weigh the different options unique to your own situation. Local state universities offer reduced tuition rates to students who have established in-state residence, so they may be a better option for you financially.

7. Apply for the Honors Program

If you have a strong academic record and high ACT or SAT scores, consider applying to the honors program of the college you will attend. I was a member of the honors program at the community college I attended, and the program paid all of my tuition, fees, and books for two years!

Requirements vary from school to school. In my case, I had to write an essay and have high test scores and a high GPA. An interview was also required. Because most programs pay full tuition, they are very competitive.

Getting Funding for Your Education

8. Earn Scholarships

Many parents who are unable to save for their children’s college education hope their child will get a full-ride academic or athletic scholarship. However, these scholarships are highly competitive.

While students should certainly apply for the full scholarships, they should also look at smaller, lesser known, and less competitive college scholarship opportunities. Qualifications may be based on background, ethnicity, locality, and desired area of study, among others. And because such scholarships tend to be much smaller, they can be less competitive. Earning three, four, or five of these smaller scholarships can make a serious dent in tuition!

You can find information regarding such scholarships through your parents’ employers, school guidance counselor, local bookstores, churches, and, of course, the Internet on sites like CollegeData’s Scholarship Finder. One detailed source is “The Ultimate Scholarship Book“. It’s also a great idea to contact schools you’re interested in for a detailed list of scholarships they offer, as well as outside scholarships their students have received.

9. Have Your Employer Subsidize Your Education

There are plenty of employers who will pay several thousand dollars of your education per year, up to a full tuition reimbursement. This is not limited to full-time work workers, as many employers also offer tuition reimbursement programs to their part-time employees.

Some employers give you the benefits as soon as you begin working; others require that you work for a full year before receiving college reimbursement benefits. Following graduation, some companies require that you remain as an employee for one to three years after you receive your degree.

Some companies with this benefit include J.M. Smucker Co., Google, Bank of America, Boeing, and UPS. If you are already employed, you can contact your human resources department to see if this is an available benefit and what you have to do to qualify. Furthermore, searching the Internet for employers that pay for employees college education will turn up quite a list.

Work and Service

10. Work While In School

Work study, part-time jobs, and even full-time jobs can hugely offset the costs of higher education by allowing you to pay for some or all of your living expenses instead of taking out additional student loans to do so. Even getting a part-time job will help offset many college costs including buying used textbooks.

In this day and age, paid internships or summer jobs for college students are hard to come by. But if you can find one, this may be one of the most efficient ways to both make a little money, gain credit for your chosen degree, and boost your resume. Although they are few and far between, if you can find a paid internship in your field, snap it up and know that you are being a fiscally responsible student.

11. Work at the College

Many colleges offer their employees substantial tuition discounts. When I worked at a community college, I could take any class for just the cost of the fees and textbooks – all tuition was waived. If you don’t mind waiting before jumping into your education, why not apply for a job at a university or community college? You could find jobs for high school graduates in food service or custodial service.

Secretarial jobs are another option. Many schools offer tuition discounts to both their full-time and part-time employees, so if you are fortunate enough to live near a school with such a policy, you could work part-time earning a degree and likely graduate debt-free.

12. Have a Parent Work at the College

In addition to the employee, colleges generally offer direct relatives of employees tuition discounts. If your parent works at a college, much of your tuition will be waived.

My aunt was a stay-at-home mom until her youngest of nine children was in school. Then she went back to work at the local university, and more than half of her children eventually attended that college and paid very little for their education. They were able to graduate free of debt and were not saddled with heavy student loan payments.

Be sure to double-check, though. Most colleges list their tuition incentive programs on their websites, so that is the first place to look.

13. Join the Military

Once your military service ends, you are given 10 years to use your GI Bill benefits. The GI Bill pays all college tuition and fees for those attending public universities and colleges, and for those attending private colleges and universities, the limit is $17,500 per year.

In addition, the military reimburses you for housing expenses while in college. To earn this benefit, you are required to have been on active duty for 90 days. There is often a stipulation that you served for three years and were honorably discharged.

In School

14. Take More Credits Per Term

If you are paying full-time tuition, most colleges do not differentiate between 12 credits and 21 credits. Check with the college of your choice to see if they charge a flat rate for full-time students.

If you want to reduce the expenses associated with your college degree, taking as many credits as possible is one of the best ways to graduate early without paying any extra money in tuition.

15. Attend Summer and Winter Terms

Often, summer and winter terms of school cost less than those in the fall and spring. As an added bonus, the classes are accelerated, sometimes shortening your tenure at the college of your choice by allowing you to take more credits in less time.

16. Attend Online Classes

Most traditional universities now offer at least some coursework online. This can be an economic boon to students for several reasons. Online courses reduce your transportation and housing costs, and may allow you to work full-time while obtaining your degree. This can also be extremely helpful for nontraditional students pursuing further education while taking care of their families.

Although every student learns differently, modern technology has made online learning an effective and money-saving tool that can greatly reduce the costs of your degree. See this list of the best online colleges and accredited online degree programs.

After Graduation

17. Work in Public Service

If you made it to graduation and are having difficulty paying back your student loans, consider giving back to your community and your country. Working in a public service capacity may merit loan forgiveness after 10 years under the College Cost Reduction and Access Act of 2007.

Final Word

The cost of higher education can be overwhelming. Many students graduate with a heavy debt load and uncertain job prospects – yet it doesn’t have to be this way. Even if you’re not eligible for large scholarships, with some creativity and a little hard work, it is possible to afford college and be debt-free.

What other ways would you suggest students pursue to avoid accruing student loan debt in college?

Melissa is a former college instructor who recently quit her job to be a stay home mom with her three children ages 7, 2 and 1. She is a personal finance writer for several online publications, and she blogs at her own blog, Mom's Plans, where she documents her family's journey to live a fulfilling life on less and Dining Out Challenge, where the motto is, "Never pay full price to dine out again." She enjoys cooking, writing, reading, and watching movies.