Student loan debt has become the bane of the millennial generation. The internet is ripe with memes showcasing the brutal impact tens of thousands of dollars of debt continues to have on so many young adults. But student loans are the only option for affording higher education, aren’t they? Or…is it actually possible to attend higher education without student loans?
Higher Education Without Student Loans? It’s Possible
This article was written by our staff writer, Kerah Kemmerer.
As a high school student, I, along with many of my peers, was indoctrinated with the message that student loans were the only way to afford higher education – and that said loans should even be considered “good debt.”
Although I never really felt comfortable with the idea, I eventually caved and signed the dotted line. After hours on the phone with financial aid, I ultimately bought into the concept that it must be the only option since everyone I knew I was doing it. Sad, right? I think we all know how following the mantra “everyone else is doing it” usually works out.
So, if I had it to do over, here are all the ways I would pay for my higher education without student loans. Yes, it is possible.
1. Take AP tests or community college classes while in high school
AP or Advanced Placement tests can save so much time and money when pursing higher education. Taking these tests while in high school enable you to opt out of taking an entire course that you already have mastery over. This enables you to get ahead on some college credits and saves time and money in the long run by enabling you to graduate sooner.
Think you would benefit more from actually taking the class? Sign up for college courses in the evening or during the summer to get ahead on some perquisites that you can later transfer to your school of choice. While more pricey than the AP test route, it’s still a fraction of the cost of private university tuition.
2. Apply for more scholarships
Applying for scholarships takes persistence and dedication. In fact, if you prioritize this option like its a part-time job, there is a pretty good chance you will majorly reap the rewards of your efforts.
There are several websites where you can begin your search:
Be sure to check out this article from Simple Dollar to help you avoid any potential scams.
Also, don’t forget to check in with your school of choice and ask what sort of scholarships they offer and how you can apply. My first year of undergrad, I found out I was eligible for nearly $5k in new student scholarships. One of those was awarded simply for knowing an alumni of the school. Always ask the financial aid office to explore all options for you – that’s their job!
Finally, some companies offer scholarships or tuition reimbursement for employees and their children, along with community, religious or civic groups. Don’t be afraid to start asking around your local arena to learn what’s available (and that others might not know about).
3. Attend community college for the first two years
Want to attend higher education without student loans? This is the biggie. Do NOT take it lightly.
Tuition fees are significantly lower at a community college and you can often find one near enough for a local commute. In addition, most four-year degrees require nearly two years worth of pre-requisite and required classes classes anyway. You can save a ton of money by paying as you go through community college and transferring your classes for credit at a four-year university.
Be sure to do your research first. If you have a pretty good idea of which four-year school you will attend and your projected major, make sure to get your hands on a degree completion plan. This plan will outline which classes you will need and give you a better idea of where to focus your time and energy for a simple course transfer. If you still aren’t sure, work with an admissions counselor to decided which classes you should take and which you should wait on.
Related: Top 10 Tips for College Students
4. Take online courses to accelerate earning a degree (or take your time and pay as you go)
Many, many universities are offering accelerated online courses at a lower tuition rate than in-class. It was not uncommon to find my fellow classmates taking online courses in addition to their on-campus classes to accelerate the pace of earning their degree.
Online courses can be done anytime, anywhere and could even enable one to work through the summer to cut a four-year degree in half. Courses are often 8-weeks rather than the traditional 16 weeks, and many schools now make it possible to earn your entire degree online. This eliminates commuting, room and board and other on campus fees and frees up more time to focus on earning an income to pay for these courses as you go.
This is probably one of my biggest regrets. While I had a great arrangement schedule working every break and every summer, (Saturdays included), as a teller at a local bank, it really ended up being a waste of my time. At $8 per hour, I earned an average of $320 a week BEFORE taxes. After paying for gas, car insurance/maintenance, food, cell phone, some room and board at home, and textbooks, I had little left over to actually apply to anything school related.
In retrospect, I would have made significantly more money:
- cleaning houses,
- photographing weddings, and
- working as an event staff member…
…all of which I did AFTER I graduated with my burdensome student loan debt!
I kick myself when I think of how I could have been doing all of that the whole time and staying ahead of the game.
The moral of the story is that it’s difficult when first starting out in the job force because most people won’t pay much for workers without experience. I say, create your own work opportunities and get the experience in the process. So long as you are an honest and hard working individual, you will come out ahead.
A huge plus if you start while in high school!
6. Never buy textbooks with loans. There are other options
Anyone who’s taken at least one college course has probably already figured out that not only is the textbook rarely, if ever, used, but using an earlier edition is usually more than sufficient for any classroom requirements.
You should be able to save some money and pay out of pocket for textbooks with these ideas:
- Split the cost of a textbook with a fellow student and share the book.
- Search for the book online rather than the bookstore (Amazon and Ebay are great places to start).
- Buy the book used, but skip the latest edition for a significant cost reduction.
- Rent the book from sites likes Chegg Books and Campus Books.
- Check the library or search for an online edition.
7. Ask for an installment plan on tuition
This one may be a little trickier depending on the school, but if you sit down and talk with your financial aid rep in person, you may be able to work out a payment plan that enables you to make cash payments as you go. Higher education without student loans IS possible!!
- Be sure to exhaust all your financial aid and scholarship options first and ask if any of the standard on-campus fees can be reduced or eliminated.
- Sign up for any available work study opportunities and show them how serious you are about avoiding loans.
- Do not let them talk you into one, because they will try very hard to do so.
8. Live off campus if out-of-state, or live at home and commute if local
One of the greatest expenses at any university is the cost of room and board. The average cost of room and board at a four-year university comes in at around $11k per academic year.
One way to significantly reduce this cost is to simply opt out. Sure, you may miss out a little on the dorm experience (which in my opinion is a bit overrated because sharing a room and viruses all year is not really my cup of tea), but what you will save in the long run will be huge!
If you have the option of living at home and commuting, choose this option! Or, maybe, rent a house with multiple friends and share the cost of living expenses.
No matter what option you choose, living off campus should take a significant chunk off the total cost of higher education.
9. Seek out on-campus work study jobs that help offset tuition costs.
Work study opportunities may not always pay the best, but usually what you are getting in exchange makes the arrangement worthwhile.
I was able to attend graduate school without taking out additional loans because I worked as a Graduate Teaching Assistant. Not only was my tuition covered, but I received a small stipend each month. No, it wasn’t enough to live on, but it kept me from sinking further into debt and provided some extra money to help compensate for some cost of living expenses.
Again, if you’re looking to attend higher education without student loans, talk to your financial aid rep and ask what sort of opportunities are available. There is often more available than advertised. I wish I had known options like this existed while in undergrad.
10. Reconsider your life path.
You may be one of those rare people who have always known that they would like to be a:
And that’s great! You know exactly where you are headed and what you need to do to get there. Others may have a general idea, but could take it or leave it.
One idea is to skip the route of traditional higher education and enroll in a trade school instead.
- Pick up electrical engineering,
- mechanic training,
- massage therapy, or
- beauty school.
In fact, here is an entire article on the pros and cons of higher education vs. trade school. A worthwhile consideration.
You may find you enjoy working in a hands-on industry more so than you ever realized. And if not – at least you gained some practical knowledge and had more time to decide what it is you would like to pursue.
There is no doubt that while the cost of higher education is significant, it is still a worthy pursuit. However, if you are looking to attend just to increase your job eligibility, you would be far better off focusing on whatever skill-set it is you hope to master.
Individuals with degrees are a dime a dozen and simply having that piece of paper is just not going to cut it anymore. Cut costs on higher education wherever you can, and focus your time and energy on working or interning in your career field of choice. Both are important, but the latter is what truly gets your foot in the door.
But what if I already have student loan debt?!
It’s not too late to strangle this beast!
If you already have student loans, PLEASE find a way to make interest payments while you are still in school. I paid nearly $20k in interest alone over the years and it is NOT worth waiting until they are due to pay that.
Related: How the Debt Snowball Really Works (with a Free Tool to Help You Get Out of Debt!!)
Also, these bad boys aren’t going anywhere so long as you are only paying the minimum payment. And trust me, when your minimum payment goes up to nearly $700 a month, that’s no joke. You will never truly be able to get ahead financially until you get rid of those student loans.
So what’s your story? Were you able to find a way around student loans when pursuing higher education? Did you take a different route? Tell us below!
AUTHOR Kerah Kemmerer
Hello! I'm Kerah. I'm a writer and personal finance enthusiast with a background in marketing. I'm also a wedding and portrait photographer, part-time RVer and a lover of simple and minimal living. Always up to some project or adventure over @krisandkerah on Instagram.