Student loan debt has become the second largest consumer loan debt trailing behind only mortgage debt. The $1.3 trillion student loan debt crisis has surpassed auto loans and credit card debt in this country.
On average, the Class of 2016 has $37,172 in student loan debt. Everyone says, “just take out student loans” but then no one wants to talk about how to pay back nearly $40,000 in debt on a $40,000 salary. Not everyone gets a high paying job after graduation, and not every graduates. If you fail to finish, you still have to pay those student loans back. How then can you go to college? There are options. You might not like them, they may not be pretty but there are options to going to college without taking on massive debt.
Don’t Believe the Hype
This attitude or belief that says the only way to go to college is through debilitating student loans is a lie. It is possible to graduate in four-years, avoid or minimize student loan debt, and complete multiple internships to have employers chasing after you when you graduate.
Day after day you hear stories about millennials having buyer’s remorse over student loans. Graduates wishing they’d gone to a cheaper school, lived at home or saved money before going to college. They believed the hype and have since learned it wasn’t necessarily true.
Many graduates learned the hard way about how important graduating in 4-years is to limiting debt. Did you know it takes 59% of students six years graduate? How much more debt and loans are racked up by just not getting out on time? Download my free guide, 5 Tips to Make Sure You Graduate in Four-Years for more ways to save and learn how to now let that be you.
Option 1: Pick a College You Can Actually Afford
For high school seniors, this is the time of year when financial aid packages come out. With those packets also comes the realization that your dream school might be financially out of reach. If you are going to need more than the maximum freshman loan amount to attend, that school is out of reach. If you need a co-signer or a parent needs a PLUS loan, the school is o
ut of reach.
The most affordable school is the one you can pay for without loans. Look for scholarships like your life depends on it. Visit sites like, Collegemoneymaze.net to guide you in your scholarship search. There are scholarships for current college students out there too.
Option 2: Expand Your Search and Consider a Transfer
Apply to colleges you have never heard of. There are 4,000 colleges across the country. Many many small liberal arts college and public schools as well, offer generous merit scholarships that are not based on having a 4.0 GPA and a 1600 SAT score. Look beyond the brand name.
I graduated from two public colleges and I have also worked in college admissions at four private colleges. I’ve placed over 400 interns and newly hired grads with some of the biggest companies in the world. Success is based on you and your ability, not just the name on your diploma.
If you picked wrong and a struggling at your current college, considering transferring to a cheaper school or living at home and becoming a commuter. Transferring can be tricky. You have to make sure your courses will transfer to your new school and understand what you will need to do to graduate on time. It could mean taking 17-18 credits per semester so look into it throughly. It can, however be done.
Option 3: Start College Early
There has been a rapid increase in dual enrollment programs. Dual enrollment programs allow high school students to take college courses before they graduate. Students may complete a few courses or even graduate high school with an Associates degree from the participating college. The result could be major savings in college tuition. You will also be ready to tackle college level course work with a better sense of what you want to major in. Many colleges will still consider you an entering freshman making you eligible for freshman scholarship money. If your school offers this option, jump on it!
Option 4: Consider a Gap Year to Save Money
The number of students taking a gap year is also on the rise, the most famous example probably being Malia Obama delaying entry into Harvard for a year. People most often associate the concept of a gap year with traversing around Europe. If you can swing that, then paying for college was probably not an issue to begin with.
My version of a gap year on a budget is about doing a few internships and working full-time or part-time to save money. Internships can also help you develop a true understanding of what career you want to follow. Set a goal to save enough money to pay for at least your first year in cash.
Taking time off can also prevent changing majors multiple times (most students change majors 3 times before graduation) and increase focus and appreciation for working. You can even start a business without a college degree to test the waters of entrepreneurship before committing to that business major (and earn a few dollars).
In that gap year you may also start working full-time for an employer who can help you pay for school. Employers like Wegmans, Fed Ex, Starbucks and others offer scholarships to employees. When you look for a full or part-time job, take this factor into account and it could mean thousands of scholarship dollars in addition to your paycheck.
Even as a current student, if you are failing classes, finding yourself disinterested and not really motivated, a year off could do you good as well. Don’t just keep taking on loans to pursue something you don’t want to do. You have to know enough about yourself to know if you will return. Beware, if you do stop school, within 6 months you will have to start paying your loans back or try to put them into deferment for that time.
Option 5: Attending Community College is Not the Kiss of Death
My personal path involved attending a community college and earning an Associates degree before transferring to the State University of New York at Oswego. I’ve never been held back by starting my college career at a community college and living at home. Most people actually don’t even know I went to a community college. It’s where and how you finish that matters.
Was I disappointed that I didn’t go away like many of my friends freshman year, ah, yes but I got over it. Did I feel like the hard work of graduating with above a 3.2, being a two-sport varsity athlete, jazz band member with a lot community service hours was wasted? Yes, but I got over it. My parents paying cash for those first two years was something I couldn’t fully appreciate then, but do now.
I didn’t finish debt free but I who knows how bad it would have been if I took on loans for my first two years. I completed my BA and MS with $25,000 in loan debt, most of that coming in graduate school. So, I write this from a position of, “if I knew then, what I know now”.
Living at home and attending a public university is one of the most affordable paths to a degree.
Tuition at the time was $3,400 at Oswego (SUNY tuition is the same at all campuses). It is now $6,470 which is still one of the best buys in college education. Had I lived at home the last two years, my parents and I could have indeed paid $3,400 a year and I would have graduated debt free. Living at home rent free and attending a public university is one of the most affordable paths to a degree. Lesson learned.
Option 6: Remember Why You Are Going to College
I am a first generation college student. My father worked in facilities for Kodak for 20+ years and my mom had an in-home daycare. Yes, college was fun. I met my best friend and made life long connections. I was challenged, tried new things and learned new things.
At the end of the day, I went to college to create a future that would allow me to have a career, not a job. Which is why in the midst of my fun, I did eight internships which I detail in my book, The Internship Manual and worked a bunch of part-time jobs so that I could have enough experience for my resume.
How badly do you want to go to college and avoid big student loan debt? Get a job or two, sell stuff on Ebay, babysit, clean houses, get a $1,500 car rather than a car with payments and stop eating out all the time. Most people can find extra money in their budget when they stop and think critically about needs versus want. If college is a need, get rid of the unnecessary wants.
Doing these things won’t bring a $54,000 per year school within reach. It will, however, make a $6,500 public school while living at home a realistic opportunity.
Don’t loose site of the goal. Graduate college and start you career. Attending college is not a promise but a privilege. Make the wise financial and academic decisions today that will give you more options in your future.