In a few months, I will graduate with my 4th college degree (!). I’ve never had a student loan of any variety nor did my parents pay for my college tuition. I graduated from college debt-free. You can do it too!
Several family members and other real-life acquaintances have asked me for advice on how I stayed out of debt while pursuing educational opportunities, so I decided to do a blog post about it even though this doesn’t quite fit with my usual themes. I’m not an expert on funding your college education; but, now that I’ve finished 1 associate’s degree, 2 bachelor’s degrees, and almost 1 master’s degree–I think I may have a few words of wisdom for others who are just starting on the journey.
There’s no secret to graduating debt-free. All it takes is a commitment to do so. You absolutely CAN graduate from college without debt. It is not an impossible dream. Student loans are an optional part of life, and you can opt to not have them. There is no reason to go into debt for an undergraduate degree, and most graduate degrees can be earned without debt too.
Here are my tips for graduating from college without debt:
1. Don’t Ignore Tuition Rates.
Many people think tuition is tuition. They know there is a difference between tuition at an ivy league university and a local trade school, but they often fail to realize that there are pretty wide differences among other schools as well.
Here are the per-semester tuition and fees at several Utah universities for a freshman student who is a Utah resident and takes 14 credit hours of classes during the 2014-2015 school year…
LDS Business College: $1,530
Snow College: $1,694
Salt Lake Community College: $1,734
Dixie State University: $2,145.50
Utah Valley University: $2,393
Brigham Young University: $2,500
Weber State University: $2,591.67
Utah State University: $2,781.54
Southern Utah University: $3,069
Western Governors University: $3,035 – $4,395
University of Utah: $3,710.96
Neumont University: $8,000
Westminster College: $15,182
An aside: I excluded from this list any university that does not have their tuition and fee schedule publicly posted on their website. Because of this, places like University of Phoenix, Stevens-Henager, and Columbia College are left off. If a school is not forthcoming about their tuition–what else are they hiding? I refuse to attend a school that feels the need to hide their tuition rates. That seems akin to multi-level marketing ploys.
The most expensive school on the list above is nearly 10x the price of the least expensive school. That means one semester at Westminster could pay for your entire degree at SLCC, your books, and possibly food too.
Price is certainly not the only thing to consider when you’re selecting a university; but, price SHOULD be considered. It’s like a car: when you buy a car, you definitely look for something that is safe, reliable, and hopefully looks decent too. But does that mean you buy a $28,000 car when you are 18 years old and earn $11 per hour? No. There are $3,000 cars that will accomplish the same purpose.
The same financial principle applies to a college education. You do not get a pass on being financially responsible simply because you are in college. You cannot toss reason to the wind and just pick whatever school you feel like. Life doesn’t work like that. Pick a school that is in your price range. Often that will mean staying in-state for college.
2. Higher tuition doesn’t equal better education or more personalized attention.
“I need to go to xxxx because the class sizes are so much smaller and I’ll be able to have more opportunities for mentoring from my professors.” -Lots of potential students, and admissions advisors
My associate’s degree is from Weber State University, a public university. While there, I never had more than 12 students in a class that required hands-on learning (like a lab). My major-specific lecture classes usually had between 20 and 30 students.
My first bachelor’s degree is from Brigham Young University, a private university. The class sizes at BYU were slightly smaller than they were at Weber. I typically had about 20 students in classes geared towards my major.
Did the general education classes at both universities have more students? Absolutely! Everyone who has been to BYU knows the joy of American Heritage. That was a BIG class. I think there were about 450 students in my session. However–hallelujah is all I have to say about that! I didn’t want a personalized, individual learning plan in order to understand the concepts of basic American history, especially since American history has little to do with my actual major or career. Plus, there were less than 30 students in the lab portion of American Heritage. The lab period was taught by a TA and allowed more personal review of the confusion-inducing topics.
The classes where I really needed more focused attention–the classes in my major–all had appropriately small numbers of students at both universities, public and private. In my informal discussions with friends, colleagues and family members, the same has held true for many different universities across a wide-range of locations, majors, and tuition charges.
3. You don’t need a degree from a big name school in order to get a great job.
Is a business degree from Westminster REALLY going to be 4x better than one from the University of Utah? Is it going to give you 4x the opportunities and 4x the income-earning potential? Absolutely not. Note: I have nothing against Westminster. If that’s where you want to go to school and you can do so without debt—go for it!
Did you choose your accountant based on what school he graduated from? Probably not. How about your child’s 3rd grade teacher? Your physical therapist? The engineer that drafted the road in front of your house? The nurse that cared for you after a colonoscopy? Odds are, most professionals that you chose to hire or interact with are chosen based on their reputation in your community, years of experience, quality of work, personality, and overall skill. Having a degree from a prestigious and/or high-priced university does not mean that you will have more wealth or success than someone with the same degree from a community college.
4. Apply for every scholarship you can find
Scholarships are great. The bulk of the expenses for my first two degrees were paid for by scholarships, and I will be forever grateful to the many organizations that provided financial support for my education. Tip–If you want scholarships, get your Girl Scout Gold Award. It’s like an Eagle Scout. But better.
If you are a high school student, make a job out of applying for scholarships. There are TONS of scholarships out there, and they are much harder to come by once you enter college. You don’t need stellar grades or exotic humanitarian experiences to get scholarships. You just need to apply to everything you can find. Look for scholarship opportunities from local groups: service-based clubs, professional organizations in your desired field of study, and retail stores. Every $500 or $1,000 adds up. The counselor at your high school who manages scholarships needs to become your new BFF. Give particular attention to local scholarships rather than the huge, national ones. Never pay for a “scholarship service” online. You can find what you need for free. When I was a junior and senior in high school, I spent several hours each week applying for scholarships and it paid off in a huge way.
Be sure to apply for scholarships at your selected college too. You can combine community-based scholarships with school-specific ones. As a bonus, if your scholarship money exceeds the cost of your tuition and fees for the semester, some schools will mail you check for the excess! I had several semesters at BYU where they mailed me a check with excess funds, and then I was able to use that money for groceries and rent.
Always keep in mind the total cost of attendance, not just the amount of the scholarship. Just because you received a scholarship that covers 3/4 of the tuition doesn’t mean you can afford to attend that school.
5. Work doesn’t interfere with school.
You need to work while you are in school. Yes, you really do. You can work and still get good grades in your classes. This will mean that you don’t get to watch TV and you probably won’t know the latest and greatest on Facebook; but, those are small sacrifices to make. I have had a job continuously since I was 16 years old, including several years of working full time and going to school full time. There were also other, more scholastically-intense, semesters where I only worked 10-15 hours per week during the school year and then 40-60 hours during the summer. You CAN work and go to school at the same time. Just decide that’s what you’re going to do, and then do it.
Finding a job that works with your school schedule is hard, but not impossible. A good place to start is the on-campus employment office for your university. They often have flexible positions or ones with early/late hours available for students. You won’t find the perfect, flexible job on your first day of searching; but, keep looking and you’ll find one that will suffice. It doesn’t need to be your dream job, it just needs to be something ethical that pays you money. My jobs during college included delivering mail, being a secretary at 5 am, working as a teaching assistant for political science classes (not my major), cashiering, and being a nursing assistant for home health patients. Unless you are in medical school (not pre-med, actual medical school), get to work! Even a part-time job at minimum wage will give you money towards the cost of your school and living expenses, and having actual job experience (of any variety) will help you find future employment.
6. Take advantage of tuition reimbursement
Many employers offer tuition reimbursement. If you are looking for a new job, tuition reimbursement is definitely a benefit to seek. A quick Google search will bring up many nationwide stores that provide tuition reimbursement for their employees. It’s not uncommon for smaller, more local employers to also offer tuition reimbursement. My 3rd and 4th degrees were largely financed by my employer because the degrees are in a hard-to-recruit field.
Be sure to read all the fine print about the tuition reimbursement plan before signing up. Many tuition reimbursement programs require you to work for the company for a period of time to “pay back” the money they spent on your education. For example, my employer paid about 50% of my yearly tuition, and then required me to work for them for a year for each year that they financed. This was fine with me because it’s a company I plan to stay with for a long time. However, the work requirement may not be worth it if you are earning a degree in a field that your current employer can’t support.
7. Pay Attention to Textbook Prices
Textbooks can be frightfully expensive. The required textbooks for the first semester of my associate’s degree program cost more than my tuition did. It was a nightmare. The price for the (used) books at the bookstore was just over $4,750. I was able to use eBay, local classifieds, and online bookstores to find the books for a total of $2,200. I ended up keeping one textbook that was worth about $250, and then sold the rest for about $1,500 when the semester was over. Strategies that I used for other semesters included sharing with a friend, checking the book out from the library, not buying the textbook at all, and buying a previous version of the textbook.
When the semester is over, immediately sell your textbooks. The longer you hang on to them, the less money they will be worth. I started out with selling my textbooks to the university bookstore, but gradually found that I could get more money online so I ended up selling most of my textbooks on eBay.
8. Cut Money Everywhere You Can
Buy clothes at thrift stores, repair the hole in your shirt sleeve rather than throwing it away, stop eating fast food, cook your own dinner, live in a reasonably-priced apartment that is shared with roommates, turn off the lights when you leave a room, cancel your Netflix and Hulu Plus subscriptions, use public transportation or walk, don’t go on vacation, stop buying overly expensive gifts for friends and family members, find low cost entertainment options, and do anything else you can to spend less money.
You really can graduate from college without debt, even if you have little to no savings beforehand. It’s not a pipedream. Is it difficult? Yes. Is it worth it? Absolutely yes! Being able to start my professional life without debt has been a huge blessing to me. It’s pretty easy to live on a meager income when you’re a college student because many other students are in the same boat. After graduation, it becomes significantly less appealing to be eating rice and beans for dinner every night. In the words of Dave Ramsey–“live like no one else so that later you can live (and give) like no one else!”