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Getting Through College with Minimal (or no) Debt

ACC student holding jar of money

There are many discussions that come up when you make the decision to begin higher education: what school are you planning to attend, what are you going to major in, what careers do you want to pursue. A question that undoubtedly also comes up is how you are going to pay for your education.

If you were lucky, your parent(s) or guardian(s) started saving money away anticipating that you would decide to navigate the college route, but even if that was the case, we cannot foresee what costs will unexpectedly arise during life’s journey. An option many of us have turned to is student loans, but with an ever growing student debt crisis impacting the lives of graduates, loans should be seen as a last-ditch option. So, assuming that we try to remove loans from the equation, what other ways can we afford to attend school while still being able to afford our living expenses, and not end up heavily indebted, if indebted at all?

Attend A Community College

Since you’re reading this, you’ve likely already taken this step or are considering it. The average cost of tuition and fees at community colleges are approximately a third to a half of what you would be paying at a public university, and far less than if you attended a private one. Community college programs vary by institution, but most if not all have options for students who want to transfer to attain a Bachelor’s degree or get training to enter the workforce. It is also becoming more common for community colleges to offer select Bachelor’s degree programs, such as in Emergency Service Administration and Nursing, which you would pay the less to obtain.

Consider Your Location

This factors into your expenditures both for the cost of education and for living expenses. Colleges that are located in rural areas tend to be cheaper than those in urban areas, but of greater importance is your residency status; students who have residency in a state, or in certain cases a region, will pay anywhere between two to three times less than students from out of state. That can amount to saving tens of thousands of dollars each year, just for attending a college that is local. As far as your housing needs go, you’ll need to weigh that factor based on where you are and what’s available. If you have the option to commute from your parent/guardian’s home and aren’t being charged rent, prioritize that. Otherwise, determine your costs for commuting, renting, food, and toiletries, and choose a location that doesn’t cost too much which you’ll feel safe in.

Live Thrifty

Cutting back on certain daily expenses can help to prevent going into debt. Look for sales and specials at grocery and clothing stores, opt for thrift stores over department stores, cook your own meals instead of eating out, and limit buying non-essential items. If you can do something for free that you’d otherwise pay for, do so. Lastly, if you can make do without a vehicle, use public transportation or a bicycle as your primary mode of transportation; many schools offer deals on public transportation or include them in their fees, and using a bicycle can be your way of getting exercise instead of going to the gym.

Avoid Credit Card Debt

Assuming you have at least one credit card, there are some things that you should know about using it that can help keep you out of debt and boost your credit rating. Try to avoid spending over your credit limit and not paying your balance on time; this can rack up late fees and negatively affects your credit score. Make a budget of your weekly and monthly expenses so that you know how much you are actually spending, then allocate the money not being used for necessary expenses towards making payments. Set up an alert system that tells you a couple of days in advance when you have a payment due. Avoid using your credit card for frivolous spending, and before you use your card to make a purchase, make sure that you actually have the money so that you can pay the fee on its due date.

Apply For Financial Aid via the FAFSA

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is how you apply to get financial aid from the state and federal government in the form of grants (which don’t need to be repaid), loans (which do need to be repaid), and work study funds (to get an on-campus job and earn money) in order to pursue your education. There are requirements though, and not everyone will be eligible. First, you need to demonstrate that you are in need of funds by showing that your expected family contribution is less than the cost of tuition. You then have to be registered with the Selective Service System if you were assigned as male at birth, maintain satisfactory academic progress, be a U.S. citizen, national, or eligible non-citizen, have a valid SSN, have earned a high school diploma or GED, and you have to certify that you are not in default on federal student loans, owe money on a federal grant (this is rare, but can happen based on three circumstances), and will use the aid only for education purposes. You also cannot be found guilty of the sale or possession of illegal drugs while federal aid was being received; in most cases, this is a cut and dry issue, but since Colorado is one of a growing number of states to legalize marijuana, which is still considered a Schedule I substance by the federal government, know that there is a risk of losing FAFSA eligibility if you get a drug conviction for its use or sale. Whether you think you’re eligible for aid or not, go to FAFSA's website to fill out their form; you may be able to get funding you didn’t know you were eligible for.

Apply For Scholarships

Like FAFSA grants, scholarships are a form of financial aid that you can earn without repayment. They can be awarded for academic achievement, athletics, creativity, and community service, and there are scholarships specifically geared towards women and minorities in general or of a specific ethnicity. Make sure that you satisfy any requirements needed to maintain your scholarship, such as annual renewal, minimum GPA, or having full-time status, so that you can continue to receive these awards. Scholarships, along with grants, can be applied towards on-campus housing, so if you’re able to attain enough funding through them, you can potentially eliminate the bulk of your living and tuition expenditures at the same time. Check with your school to see what scholarships are available for the program you’re enrolled in.

Take Your Time

You aren’t required to take on a huge class load to get your degree. While Associate and Bachelor’s degrees are often referred to as 2- and 4-year degrees, you don’t need to earn them during that strict timeframe. Taking fifteen credits or more per semester can be a drain both on your wallet and yourself, and the time that you aren’t in class or doing homework can be spent working to earn spending money, socializing and networking, or for recreational activities. If you need to maintain full-time status for a scholarship or housing, the minimum number of credits to take per semester is usually twelve.

While higher education can be one of your greatest expenses, it is possible to get through it without indebting yourself for the rest of your life. You don’t have to do it right out of high school, you don’t even have to do it at all, but when you know that the time is right to do it, make the conscious decision to do it on your own terms. Remember that you are earning your degree for your own betterment, because the outcome is something that you want for yourself.