Student loan debt in the U.S. has reached more than $1.2 trillion — including both federal and private student loans.
It’s no secret that college isn’t cheap — and the price of education is continuing to increase year after year. Federal student loans can be a great way for students to get help paying for school, but they don’t always cover the entire cost, and depending on the college, students are graduating with tens of thousands of dollars in debt — with no hope of paying it off anytime soon. And turning to private loans is even worse — as they typically come with much higher interest rates, fees for late payments and other concerning features that make them less favorable to federal loans.
So what’s the alternative? With a little research and extra hard work, there are ways you can pay your tuition bills without getting buried in student loan debt. It may make life a little more more complicated at times, but for many people, that can be a much better choice than getting stuck with debt for decades.
Ways to pay for college without student loans
There are tons of scholarship opportunities out there based on a variety of qualifications — academics, athletics, cultural and community experiences, background, location, desired major or area of study, accomplishments. If you get creative, you’ll find a lot of options available out there. For example, football scholarships aren’t just for football players, but some schools offer them to other members of the team like equipment managers.
High schools typically have resources for students to help them find scholarships they may be able to qualify for. Plus, there are tons of resources available on the Internet. Here are a few options:
- Collegeboard.org is not only for college planning — it also has an arm that focuses on scholarships called Big Future.There is a huge database of scholarships on the website, so it is critical to fill out as many details as you can in the profile that is used for searching.
- Fastweb.com is another great tool. Again, you need to create a profile in order to find the most accurate matches. You can then also see all the scholarships you applied for, or may want to apply to in the future. They also have ‘contests’ that you can enter monthly or weekly to win money.
- Niche.com (formerly College Prowler) can help you find colleges, as well as money. You have options to pick from what types of awards you’re looking for. This site also has some contests to enter.
- Moolahspot.com is not as robust, but does offer another choice. In the search for college funds, the more places you look, the better chance you have to get some extra dollars for your higher education.
2. Choose the right school
The cost of college can vary a lot depending on the school. Choosing a school that’s better for your budget can save you a lot of money in the long run, so it’s important to do a little research. Find out what kind of financial aid different schools offer, as some provide aid based on need, some offer free tuition based on academics, and others are free altogether.
Public schools are typically cheaper than private colleges, and qualifying for in-state tuition at a state school can save you a lot. Plus, there are now ways to qualify for in-state tuition at an out-of-state school — usually by choosing a certain area of study. Here’s more on how to do that.
3. Go to community school first
Clark Howard is a big fan of the idea of starting out at a two-year community college and then transferring to a state or other bigger four-year school where you plan to graduate from. And when you think about it, have you ever heard an employer ask where you started school?
You may not get the same sense of campus life when you go to a community college — like you would at a big public university — but you will get an education in what’s usually a more student-oriented environment than at a traditional college. Then after two years, you can transfer to a traditional school and end up with only two years to pay for — instead of four.
Read more: New ways to pay down student loan debt
4. Go with honors
There’s a new program that takes this route a step further. AmericanHonors.org will guarantee your admission to big name schools if you do the required coursework and maintain your grade point average.
The cost to go the American Honors route is about $3,000 a semester in tuition and fees. And while that is a bit more than community college, having that added layer of a big name school guaranteeing your admission down the road is pretty nice.
5. Work study
Student employment through the university is a great way to help you fund your college expenses. The Federal Work-Study program offers job opportunities to full-time and part-time students at thousands of schools across the country as a way to help finance their education. The jobs offered may also fit with your particular area of study, giving you some extra experience. When you fill out for FAFSA, make sure to check the box that indicates you’re interested in student employment.
Read more: Clark’s Student Loan Guide
6. Employer reimbursement programs
I love Clark Howard’s story of how he got a job with IBM as a bill collector, because he knew they would help pay for his master’s degree. He had to pay for his books and maintain a B average, or he wouldn’t get the reimbursement. So he worked his tail off and had the cost of his tuition covered for his master’s in business management!
Today, there are tons of different employers offering similar options. Chipotle, Starbucks and Chrysler all recently announced expansions of, or additions to, their tuition reimbursement programs.
Starbucks will pay half your tuition for the freshman and sophomore years. If you make it to junior year, they then offer full tuition reimbursement for both junior and senior year. To qualify, Starbucks employees are only required to work a minimum of 20 hours a week; there is no minimum length of service time required to qualify. Perhaps best of all, there is no handcuff requiring you to stay with the corporation after graduation.
Grants are typically reserved for students who demonstrate a certain amount of financial need. They’re offered by state and federal governments, as well as by private organizations and universities. Some are geared toward certain groups of students — such as those with a specific area of study or a unique trait like being a first-generation college student.
In order to apply for federal grants, you need to fill out the FAFSA. And do a little research to find out about other options that might be available to you.
8. Work during school
Working on the side throughout school can be a great way to cover at least some of your expenses. It’s important to balance working with your academics, so if you’re someone who can make both work, then go for it! Check out local community websites and job boards for opportunities in the area.
And for some more ideas, here’s a list of 26 ways to make extra cash!
9. Look at directional schools
In many states, you have a flagship state university and then you have ‘directional schools.’ A directional school is simply any school with a description of where it is geographically located in the name, like Central Michigan University, where Clark got his master’s degree. These kinds of schools tend to devote more of their money to classroom teaching, rather than to faculty research. They have higher efficiency and lower tuition.
So if you look at a directional school, you may save a substantial amount of money on education.