It is no secret that national student debt has reached crisis levels.
Just for the opportunity at a better life, students are amassing loans that amount to upwards of hundreds of thousands of dollars, which begin requiring repayment just six short months after leaving school.
For many, the imperative to pay back student loans causes severe delays in life development, preventing purchasing homes, growing families and other important markers of success.
So, if you are considering pursuing higher education, is there a better way besides assuming massive amounts of debt? Can you actually obtain a college degree without relying on student loans? The answer is: Yes, if you plan appropriately.
Step 1: Go to Community College
As prestigious as it might feel to go straight from high school to a four-year university, the truth is that you will probably be wasting your money. Most university degree programs include a number of pre-requisites and electives, which try to provide students with a well-rounded education. These extra classes might include mandatory science credits, math credits or English credits which provide only fundamental skill in these subjects and hardly contribute to the degree. Unfortunately, whether you pay for your university classes by credit-hour or by semester, these unnecessary courses will cost you money, time and energy.
It is much wiser to complete these courses at a lower cost through a local community college. Especially if you are planning to attend a university in your home state, community college credits almost always transfer one-to-one. You might start working toward completing community college credits in high school, or you can devote a year or two after high school to community college. Then, when you finally start paying university tuition, each dollar goes directly to upper-division courses that will contribute to your degree and boost your career.
Step 2: Apply for Aid
Student loans should never be your first recourse in paying for a university degree. There are so many other ways to cut the costs of college, any many are much easier — and much less financially devastating — to obtain than loans.
To start, when you apply to universities, you should inquire about available student aid programs. Most schools provide some sort of financial assistance to students with certain backgrounds, though the policies will vary from college to college. Most often, schools will cut their tuition costs for students of a particular socio-economic status, as long as they maintain their GPA above a certain level and/or take a certain number of credit-hours per semester. Schools can also offer grants and work-study programs, which typically require you to work for the school in some capacity.
Additionally, you should look into scholarship programs. In the U.S. alone, there are more than 1.7 million private scholarships and fellowships available, and there is no limit to the number of scholarships you can use to pay for university tuition. You might talk to your school college counselor for assistance in finding and applying to relevant programs, or you can use an online resource like this searchable list from the College Board.
Step 3: Save Like Crazy
It is possible to save up and pay college tuition out of your own pocket, especially if you have done the work of reducing your tuition costs through financial aid and scholarships.
However, paying for college will require you to draw upon savings. The sooner you gain a college degree, the sooner your degree can boost your earning potential, but that doesn’t mean that accruing tens of thousands of dollars in student loans is a good idea.
Instead, you should take a year or two to build your savings accounts for college before enrolling, so you don’t have to rely on debt to earn your degree.
To calculate how much you will need to put into savings, you will need to put together a budget for your college years. It might be useful to use a robust financial tool, like this budgeting software from Quicken, to ensure you don’t miss a critical category of expenses, like food or textbooks. Once you aggregate your expenses, you should consider whether you want to try to maintain a job while you attend school, which will provide you with additional income to lighten the toll on your savings — but which will also likely increase your stress and place additional demands on your time and energy.
Ultimately, how you decide to pay for college is up to you. Many students opt for student loans, which are easy to get and cover a number of financial bases. However, if you don’t relish the idea of starting adult life with debt, you can carve a different path for your academic career.