This year’s college graduates are leaving school with an average of $37,172 in student loans – up from $35,000 last year. This represents an all-time high for average student debt levels. And many students and families are searching for solutions to avoid becoming part of the crisis.
With the heavy push to secure a college degree combined with the rapidly-increasing cost of college, families are facing one of the toughest decisions of their lives: How to pay for college without being buried in student loan debt.
The good news? Paying for college doesn’t have to mean student loans.
In this guide, we’ll cover dozens of ways to find money, make money and lower costs for and during college, helping you secure a degree without the major loan bill that commonly comes with it.
1. Find Money
“Free” money that doesn’t require repayment and doesn’t charge interest is the best option for college funding, because you aren’t the one paying and you don’t have to pay it back. Some of these options have relatively specific requirements, but others are open to nearly any student.
Typically found via the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, grants are often based on financial need and do not have to be paid back. Some are also available based on your career path (i.e., if you plan to be a teacher or an engineer). According to research, billions of dollars of this grant money goes unclaimed every year ($2.9 billion in 2014 alone), so apply!
Scholarships and cash awards
Scholarships and awards can be awarded for nearly anything, and there are billions of dollars out there waiting for students to apply for it. Do you like horses? Video games? Volunteering? There are scholarships for that. Cash awards are more common for upperclassmen in college through associations and organizations, but they do not have to be paid back, either. Despite common myths, students can find scholarhips and awards even if they don’t have a perfect GPA or test scores or are not low income!
Veterans and dependents veterans have multiple options for free money for college:
- Tuition assistance: This is money that active military members can use while part of the military. Capped at $4,500 per year, it is a great way to start or complete a degree. The best part is it doesn’t take away from your GI Bill.
- GI Bill: This is given to military members who serve over 90 consecutive days and provides up to 36 months of education benefits. This benefit can also be passed down to dependents.
This is a relatively new method of earning money for college. But if you have family members or friends that want to help support your education, you can start a campaign to raise donations. Common platforms include GoFundMe and IndieGoGo.
Be sure to check whether the platform you use takes a percentage out of the total donations raised – some do, but not all. And, while donations of this kind are typically considered a “gift” and are not taxable, it’s always best to check about any tax obligations.
Employer tuition reimbursement
It is estimated that 60% of employers offer some sort of tuition reimbursement. Starbucks is a great example of this, as are Fiat Chrysler and JetBlue. It’s also becoming more and more common for companies to pay back some or all of their employees’ student loans. Additionally, if you want to go back for your master’s degree, getting an employer to pay for it is very common. Keep these benefits in mind as an option when considering employers.
2. Make Money
As much as students dread being told they need to work during college, there are many options for making money during school that are less painful than a full-time job.
When looking for a job in college, you should try to find one that:
- Is flexible
- Does not require late hours
- Offers a decent wage
- Has a positive work atmosphere
It’s an added bonus if your job allows you to learn about or get experience in a field you’re interested in. And you may not be able to find a job that has all these characteristics, all the time, but they’re good goals to start with.
Below are a few ways to make money that meet most of those criteria:
- Apply for a paid internship in your field
- Drive for Uber/Lyft
- Sell your notes (if allowed) – this varies by school and must be your own work
- Tutor in a subject you excel in
- Freelance in the field you’re interested in
- Host your house or aparment on AirBnB (if you live off-campus and it’s allowed by your landlord – make sure to check!)
- Babysit, pet-sit or house-sit for families in your town
- Write for online publications
- Sell old belongings you don’t use or need
- Apply for work-study jobs on campus
Don’t think that the standard 8 AM to 5 PM job is your only option – there are many unique ways to make money while in college. Try to be creative and entrepreneurial!
3. Lower Tuition Costs
The third way to graduate without student loan debt is to lower the cost of your education in the first place.
In general, students can reduce their tuition by:
- Attending college in-state
- Finding where tuition is lowest based on their major
- Pursuing a degree that offers extra scholarships or grants (such as STEM degrees)
Students can also reduce their tuition bills by reducing the number of courses they need to take in college.
High school students can:
- Take Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) classes for college credit
- Take dual enrollment courses to receive both high school and college credit at once
College students can:
- Take College-Level Examination Program (CLEP) exams to receive college credit without having to take the class. This is basically an AP/IB exam for college students.
- Maximize the amount of classes included in tuition. In many cases, colleges charge a flat tuition amount for up to 5 or 6 classes. If you take less than that, you’ll still pay the same amount. If that’s the case at your school, make sure to take the maximum number of classes possible, since you are paying for them anyway.
- Take general education (like basic history, English, math and science) classes at a local community college for a cheaper rate. Be sure to confirm that the credits will transfer with your advisor before signing up for any.
4. Reduce Expenses
Students can also lower the cost of their education (and minimize their reliance on student loans) by reducing their everyday expenses. Here are some quick ideas that can help you save thousands per year:
Here are some quick ideas that can save you thousands per year:
Leave your car at home
- This saves you money by cutting out common expenses such as gas, car insurance, parking passes, parking tickets, maintenance and much more.
Make your rent affordable
- Choose a more affordable dorm instead of fancier, more expensive options
- Live further from campus
- Have multiple roommates
- Reduce utilities by turning off lights, taking shorter showers and keeping the thermostat lower during cold months and higher during hot months
- Live at home for the first couple years
Reduce food expenses
- Opt to cook rather than eat out
- Prep meals in advance to have the convenience of eating out without the expense. If meal prepping seems stressful, just bulk cook one dinner a week to start.
- Utilize all the meals available on your meal plan! If you have a meal that is going to expire, go grab some snacks, drinks, fruit or other items that won’t go bad to keep in your dorm.
- Use coupons and/or money-back apps
Reduce academic expenses
- Buy used or older editions of textbooks: Many times you will find that the “new edition” is simply the same book with the chapters rearranged.
- Rent really expensive books: Renting is not always the most beneficial thing to do but if it’s a very expensive book that only has one edition, it may be a good idea.
- Buy books off a classmate that just finished the class
- Resell your books at the end of each semester
Student loans can’t always be avoided. But if graduating debt-free is a priority for you, it’s absolutely possible. And with average student debt burdens continuing to climb upwards, more and more students and their families are likely to be conscious of the impact student debt can have. Follow these strategies, and you will be able to reduce, if not eliminate, the amount of student loan debt you’ll need to take on for your college degree.