After 10 years of working in higher education, I can tell you that the number one concern on everyone’s mind regarding college is money. Colleges need more of it. Students don’t want to pay for it.
If you’re going to a public college or university, chances are your graduation present will be $16,300 of student loan debt—at least! That doesn’t sound awesome, does it? Debt from private college is even more.
But what if you don’t want all the student loans? Is it even possible to make a four-year college degree affordable without them?
Here’s everything you never wanted to know about affording college without loans.
The cost of college is rising
It’s not just your imagination. College costs are going up. Fast. In fact, the average cost to attend college in the U.S. is over $35K per student per year. That’s 3x what it was 20 years ago. To compensate for the rising costs, many people are taking out private student loans with variable interest rates that end up costing way more than they first appear.
College education is still worth it
Believe it or not, enrolling in college isn’t necessarily a bad plan during economic ups and downs (mostly downs).
Look at the Great Recession: Total college enrollment grew by over 18% from 2006 to 2011. That included first-time freshman, returning, and non-traditional students like adult learners.
Why do people do this? To make a better wage and avoid layoffs. People with bachelor’s degrees earn 67% more on average than those with just a high school diploma. Plus, the unemployment rate is cut almost in half.
The million-dollar question is how to make it affordable because we really don’t want it to cost a million dollars! (Imagine the interest on that student loan...yikes.)
Strategies that help
The first and most obvious thing that people think about is applying for a student loan. But there are so many other options. Colleges and organizations give away tons of free money every year in scholarships, grants, waivers, and reimbursements. That’s money you don’t need to pay back!
There are also many things you should do before you get to college, and during, that will impact your overall college costs. Decisions you make about where you attend, what classes you take, and which amenities you skip all play a role. Plus, consider whether you can work while you attend.
Debt-free ways to pay for college
Take advantage of cheap (or free) college credits
It might seem impossible, but many students these days are entering college for the first time with sophomore class standing. That’s because they’re getting college credit at the same time as their high school classes or getting credit for knowledge they already have.
High enough test scores in Advanced Placement (AP), CLEP exams, or even dual credit classes will save costly college tuition later on. For example, the average college class costs more than $900 — but a CLEP test only costs $85.
And let’s not forget that once you’re enrolled in college, typically full-time students can take 12 to 16 or 17 credits for the same price. So if you can, take a full credit load every term to maximize your tuition dollars.
Get a GED for free
A high school diploma or GED (or equivalent) is required for most college admission. If you need to get a GED and pay for it out of pocket, it ranges from $0 in Connecticut to $300 in Bermuda.
Before you shell out any dough, no matter which state you live in, check to see if you qualify for a government program to pay for yours. They may even pay for your classes at a community college, which you could later transfer to a four-year degree program. Visit your local American Job Center to find out eligibility.
Avoid the fees
Those who receive government assistance or whose family income meets certain criteria might qualify to waive their SAT or ACT testing fee.
You can check your eligibility at the SAT website or ask your high school counselor. And while you’re at it, you should also consider asking if you qualify for fee waivers at every step of the way (i.e., application fees, enrollment fees, etc.).
Visit for free
Many colleges offer free visits that include meals, and some may even provide travel reimbursement or discounts. So ask your admission counselor what the visit includes and what they will pay for.
Ask about open house days and overnight “try-out” weekends. Ask about discounts for visitors and free merch. And don’t fork over money unless you absolutely have to.
Get your transcript for less than $10
One thing colleges usually ask for is your high school transcript and a college transcript for any college credits you’ve taken. So you should order your transcript(s) as soon as you can, have it delivered electronically (if you can), and triple-check the recipient address, so you don’t have to re-order it.
While the average cost of a transcript is $5 to $10, some schools don’t charge any delivery fees for paper transcripts for walk-ins. Making your order(s) well in advance will help you avoid costly overnight fees and fees for multiple copies.
File your FAFSA®
Yes, you do need to file the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). Go to the official government website to file (www.fafsa.ed.gov/
) or download the app for Apple or Android. It’s free.
Completing your FAFSA helps colleges determine your Expected Family Contribution (EFC), aka your financial need. Higher financial need could help you qualify for a higher financial aid award.
Hint: The federal government gives out $125 billion in grants, federal student loans, and work-study funds. And lots of colleges use the EFC to determine need-based eligibility for institutional scholarships.
Apply for grants and scholarships
The average amount of federal grant money given per student rose 60% in the last decade. The Pell Grant — which awards up to $6,495 for 2021-2022 — is just one of the possible aid offers in financial aid packages for eligible students. You should also look into private scholarships from a local community nonprofit or credit union.
Unfortunately, scammers may try to take advantage of would-be college students in their scholarship search. Arm yourself by only looking for aid from reputable sources like the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), state higher education departments, the U.S. Department of Education, and the official FAFSA website.
Get a job during college
Many college students work while they’re in college to offset the cost of attendance. Work-study jobs are technically considered financial aid. These funds provide jobs for people with financial need to work part-time, usually on-campus (e.g., admissions receptionist, tour guide, TA).
Other job opportunities include on-campus employment and part-time jobs off-campus. On-campus jobs usually flex with your class and break schedule, but they tend to pay only minimum wage.
Off-campus jobs are less understanding of your needs as a student, but you can get higher pay. Plus, they could lead to higher-paying jobs.
Choose the right degree for you
Choose an accredited program that you’re well suited for and that will support your lifestyle and goals. The “great salary” of being a doctor won’t be so great if you hate the science classes, fail out, and have to repeat coursework.
Pro tip: Withdrawing from or repeating classes might not be covered by scholarships or grants.
A good place to start exploring potential careers is My Next Move
. The website lets you search by job or industry (like health). Once you select a specific career, you’ll learn the necessary personality, skills, and typical degree. You’ll also see whether or not the job has a bright outlook as well as the median salary. After doing some research, you might opt for something other than a four-year degree.
Pro tip: Compare the median salary to the future cost of any student loan repayment.
Get employer tuition reimbursement
Half of all employers offer some assistance for education. See if you qualify for tuition assistance through your employer (or even your parents’ employer). Companies including Home Depot, Starbucks, Amazon, Wells Fargo, Publix, Verizon, Walmart, and Target advertise tuition assistance.
Save up first
The more you can save up beforehand, the better off you’ll be. Look into 529 college savings plans, Coverdell ESA, mutual funds, a Roth IRA, or a custodial savings account. If all else fails, high-yield savings account with at least a 0.50% APY is also a good option.
You can estimate the cost of attending college by using their Net Price Calculator. But besides tuition costs, there are other expenses you may need to plan for, depending on where you attend.
|Expense (4-year college)||Typical cost|
|Tuition||$20,471 per year|
|Room and board||$10,216-11,945 per year|
|ID card||$5-50 per card$5-50 per card|
|Orientation fee||$50-300 per first-time student|
|Lab fee||$150 per lab|
|Textbooks and supplies||$1,240 per year|
|Parking||$40-2,500 per semester|
|Student clubs||$50-2,500 per year|
|Athletic or “campus spirit” fee||$500 per year|
|Health and wellness fee||$70-90 per semester|
|Transportation fee||$136-175 per semester|
|Laundry||$150 per semester|
Pros and cons of going the “no loan” route for college
- Interest won’t accrue while you’re busy studying.
- Having no loan payments will free up funds for essentials like a mortgage payment later on.
- It might make you more conscious to spend less while in college.
- Skipping out on an opportunity to establish a credit history.
- It puts you in danger of paying expensive credit card interest and overdraft fees.
- It might cause you to opt out of investing in a potentially lucrative career.
The bottom line
The national student debt crisis is all over the news, and the cost of college is going up, up, up. So it makes sense that you may want to avoid student loans for your college degree. Luckily, there are tons of ways you can make college more affordable without loans, from getting CLEP credit to scholarships and part-time jobs. The less debt you take on, the more funds you can free up for your future self. Just make sure you don’t overcommit your credit or debit cards, and plan other ways to establish a positive credit history.