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How to Go to College Debt-Free


Education is an important milestone to kick off your career, but college tuition is no longer affordable for many families. As tuition costs have increased, people have become more reliant on student loans to offset their higher education costs. Fortunately, in addition to loans, there are some strategies that could help you get through school without a heavy debt burden. Here are six common ways to go to college debt-free or minimize your student loan debt.

For more help figuring out how to pay for college — or send your children to college — without going into debt, consider working with a financial advisor.

1. Apply for Scholarships

Finding and applying for as many scholarships as possible can be an effective way to reduce the cost of attending college. Certain scholarships are merit-based, meaning that you earn them through outstanding academic or extracurricular performance. Others are tailored for specific groups or available through certain employers.

While finding scholarships may seem overwhelming, a few different resources can help with the process, including your high school’s guidance office, college financial aid office and the U.S. Department of Labor’s Scholarship Search tool. Local businesses or community agencies may also offer scholarships for students, so look into those options as well.

2. Take College Courses in High School

If your high school allows students to take college courses and earn credits, consider taking advantage of this opportunity. Whether it’s the right option for you will depend on your situation, but earning college credits while in high school could help shorten your college career, thus reducing tuition costs.

Keep in mind that some colleges offer college credit for Advanced Placement or other advanced courses from high school, while others simply allow you to place out of lower level classes. Both can save you money.

3. Attend Community College

Starting out in community college instead of a four-year university is also a great way to cut costs. Consider taking your core classes at a local community college before eventually transferring. Once you transfer to a four-year school, you might have enough college credits to start as a junior.

While there’s a cost to attend community college, it typically isn’t as much as what you’d pay to attend a four-year school. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) estimates the average cost of annual tuition at a two-year public college is $3,900, compared with $9,400 for a four-year public college. Keep in mind these are just tuition costs; they don’t include any fees or the cost of essentials like books and supplies.

4. Choose an In-State Public University

how to go to college debt free

If you decide community college isn’t the right path for you and would prefer to start at a four-year college, consider an in-state public university instead of a private university in another state. While tuition at a four-year public school averages $9,400 per year, the NCES estimates tuition at private universities can cost up to $37,600. Again, these numbers only reflect tuition costs – not fees, books and supplies.

5. Work During College

Many colleges offer work-study programs for students, which can be a decent way to earn some extra money and offset tuition costs. Your student could also seek out part-time employment off campus. While working part-time on or off campus is unlikely to generate enough earnings to pay for the entire cost of college, it could help alleviate some of the burden of tuition and fees. Just make sure to talk with your son or daughter about how much is reasonable for them to contribute from their earnings, as they may have additional expenses like car maintenance or cell phone bills.

6. Live at Home

Perhaps unsurprisingly, living on campus or in an off-campus apartment costs a lot more than living at home with family. Education Data estimates that the annual cost of living on campus in 2022 is around $11,557 at a four-year public college, and off-campus apartments cost around $10,941. If your student chooses to live at home for the duration of college, that will result in over $40,000 worth of savings. Living at home might not be their preference, but it can be a smart choice from a financial perspective.

The Bottom Line

how to go to college debt free

There’s no getting around it: College is expensive. But earning a degree still holds merit in the workplace and could help increase your earning potential. Fortunately, certain strategies can help you minimize or eliminate the burden of student loans. Applying for several scholarships, earning college credits early, opting for community college first, attending a public four-year school, working during college and living at home could significantly offset the cost of tuition and fees.

Financial Planning Tips

  • A financial advisor can hep you prepare to pay for college. Finding a qualified financial advisor doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with up to three financial advisors who serve your area, and you can interview your advisor matches at no cost to decide which one is right for you. If you’re ready to find an advisor who can help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.
  • If you’re a parent, start saving for your children’s education early, perhaps using a 529 plan.

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