9 Tips to Graduate College Without the Chains of Debt!

graduate debt freeWith the costs of college tuition and living expenses skyrocketing, I hear a lot of people, particularly teenagers in high school, talk about whether it is possible to graduate from college without incurring any debt.

The truth is, despite the rising costs recently, it is possible for someone to obtain a degree without burdening themselves with student loans.

I myself was able to pull it off due to a combination of planning, saving, and generous assistance from family and relatives.

In order for it to happen, though, someone has to make it a priority, not merely wishful thinking or an afterthought. Avoiding debt in higher education requires thoughtful consideration and strategic decision-making.

To help out, here are a few things I learned along the way which could be of use to those who either are about to embark on their college journey or have children or younger siblings who have a few more years before they have to worry about it.

1. Get a job ASAP

I got a job as a sophomore in high school working as a birthday coordinator (yes, that was the actual title) for a local recreational place near my house. I then got another job as a clerk at the local grocery store and worked continuously until the week before I left for my first day of college.

Getting a job as early as possible is important not only because it helps pay towards your college, but it also teaches you skills which you help be successful in college. For example, my senior year I ran on the cross country and track team in addition to my grocery clerk job. This meant I had to be up at around 6 a.m,. , leave home at 7 a.m. in the morning, finish cross country practice at 5:30 p.m. and not get back home until 10 p.m.

To survive, I had to be organized and efficient with my time. I had to learn how to cram in study sessions in between lunch breaks at work or before school and sports practice.

The discipline I had acquired from that really helped me my final quarter of college, when I was working as the news editor for the university student newspaper while also taking 22 credits.

2. Save, save, save

When I first saw money trickle into my bank account, there was a terrible temptation to spend some of it. Occasionally, I did. After all, it seems as though you can afford to spend small amounts, especially when the number rises into the thousands of dollars.

The problem is it’s an illusion. Although your savings may seem like a lot, remember it’s going to pay for several years of college amounting to tens of thousands of dollars. You will need every penny.

After deducting a small amount of your paycheck for tithing and expenses, tuck the rest of it away in a savings account and don’t touch it. It won’t accumulate much interest, but you will be less tempted to spend it there, especially if you love your debit card. I made the mistake of making lots of small orders on Amazon.com, thinking I wasn’t spending much, until I counted up the total spending and realized how much it actually turned out to be.

Don’t let spending creep up on you by avoiding unnecessary purchases.

3. Take as many Advancement Placement classes you can where you have a realistic chance of passing the test

While in high school I took three separate AP classes, all of them social studies-related. And I passed all three tests and got college credit for it.

There was a reason I didn’t bother in math or science; I was terrible at both. Today, there is a strong push, depending on your school district, to take AP classes, and even more pressure to take the test. Don’t listen to anyone except yourself on this. As Dirty Harry said, “a man’s got to know his limitations.” Know yours. Take only the AP classes where you either have the time to study or the material comes easy to you and you won’t have trouble with the test.

I say this because when it comes to college, the test is all that matters. If chances are you won’t pass the test, you risk taking a class where you won’t receive any college credit, and all the hard work and studying will only take away time you could have dedicated to your other classes.

By taking AP classes, and passing the tests, I freed myself up from several requisite courses which, in addition to other decisions, enabled me to graduate two quarters early.

4. Do running start for the last two years of high school

This was one big regret of mine from high school. I never took running start, and looking back if I could have I would have done it in an instant. Aside from some extra costs, it is essentially two free years of college that also count as two years of high school. When you eventually go to the college of your choice, you will have two years already completed, freeing you up to pursue other courses. The downside to this option is that it will separate you socially from the rest of your high school peers, but if you’re participating in a sport of other extra curricular activity this won’t have as much of an impact. And frankly, sparing yourself two years financially of college is worth the juvenile social drama.

5. Be realistic about the colleges you can afford

I do say this with somewhat of a side note: this is for people who are interested mainly in obtaining a degree with incurring debt and don’t have a specific college in mind, or their financial capacity to afford it is the highest priority. If you aspire to attend a prestigious private university or Ivy League school, where the costs are substantially higher, or your career involves an extended education, i.e. doctor, lawyer, master’s degree, it becomes increasingly contingent upon your financial background and the scholarship money/financial assistance you receive if you still want to graduate debt free.

From the get-go, I selected colleges I could afford based on the amount of money I had saved, would make during the summers in-between school, and other financial assistance I received from my family. Depending on your circumstances, i.e. scholarships, financial assistance, family finances, you may have a greater range of colleges to attend than others.

For me, it was mostly confined to in-state public universities, so my options were somewhat limited. The university I ultimately chose, Eastern Washington University, had one of the lowest tuition rates in the state (tuition has spiked since, though). But I was realistic about what I could afford.

If you’re in college

6. Try to work a part time job during the school year

This is easier when you’re attending a college located within a larger city, where more jobs are available, but if you can, try to find some way to make money while you’re at school. Thanks to Craigslist, you can often find part-time or freelance work in your region, or apply for one after the school year starts. You can also apply for jobs at the university you attend. One popular job at my university for students was working in the library. Others tutored or taught music lessons.

This is beneficial because working year round, rather than merely during the summer, will help even if it’s confined to the weekends or a few hours in the afternoon each day. It can be difficult, though, for those with greater academic loads or more rigorous courses.

Additionally, if the job happens to give you career-related work experience, it’s two birds with one stone, so to speak.

7. Take classes you have to take to graduate, not ones you want to take

Most universities have a list of requisite courses you’re required to take in order to graduate. Some of them give you flexibility as to the course. Others do not. I took lots of literature courses, such as Shakespeare or Western Literature, but they all applied to my general course requirements.

What I’ve found after college, however, is that many classes I took, purely out of my interest on the subject, were a waste. With the Internet, you can not only study the subject just as thoroughly for free on many websites, but you can also check out the required reading for the course, order the books online or from a library, and then study at your leisure. This certainly isn’t the most orthodox manner in which to educate yourself, but it will certainly save you more than a buck.

8. Cut costs any way you can

I know you’re supposed to “have fun” in college, but “having fun” shouldn’t bankrupt you. This is the time to be frugal and not get harangued for it. Shop at thrift stores where you can buy second-hand items for dirt cheap. When you shop for food, buy inexpensive, but healthy products like fruits, vegetables, and pasta. And stay away from the liquor section of the grocery store. ¬†Try to avoid things like cash loans. ¬†Instead, work additional part time jobs!

Some universities require you to live on campus for the first year which include their meal plans; if you can, avoid it. Generally speaking, their “meal plans” are the equivalent of a coal mining company “truck system.” Since they control where you spend your meal plan dollars, they can set the prices as high as they like.

If you are required to live in the residential halls, get the cheapest meal plan you can and shop for the rest. When purchasing books for classes, there are dozens of ways to either avoid the eye-gauging prices at the university bookstore or paying for them at all. for the first two quarters my freshmen year, I had to buy only two full-priced books; the rest were either borrowed or the earlier edition, which is usually 10-20 percent of the original price.

If you aren’t required to live in the residential halls, be willing to settle for less than you’re accustomed to at home when it comes to your living situation. After living in my (Beta Theta Pi) fraternity house for two and a half years, I moved into a slightly renovated miner’s shack from the Great Depression after finding it on Cragislist. It was 300 square feet. No insulation between the single board walls. The temperature never got above 60 degrees even with the electric baseboard heaters on day and night. When the temperature outside dipped down to near zero degrees, I woke up in the mornings with frost on my side of the walls stuck to my blanket.

Was it a sultan’s palace? Not really. But it was cheap and a monthly lease, which is exactly what I needed. I wouldn’t recommend this for 99 percent of people, but if you can find a cheaper place with less amenities than usual, give it a thought before you turn it down.

9. Pray about your decisions before you make it, and keep praying

This is something I really didn’t do until my last year of college, and I very much regret, but before you make major decisions about what school to attend and what career to go into, the best thing you can do is to pray about it.

As a Christian, your life isn’t just about what you want, but what God wants, and often they are not the same. For example, you may wish to attend a certain college or get a certain degree, but God could have other plans for you. Or, they may be the same. The only way to find out is to pray about it.

I regret not praying over it because after I chose which university to attend I got anxious about whether or not I had made the right choice. I also know people who were dead set on graduating from a certainty university, only to find themselves, due to circumstances mostly beyond their control, end up elsewhere.

But prayer shouldn’t stop there. The desire to remain debt-free is biblical, so there is nothing wrong with asking God for help in that endeavor. Just remember to pray, not wish.

photo by smemon