College is an expensive investment. The average cost to attend a four-year public college is $20,000 per year, including room and board.
When most people graduate, they have the debt to prove it, but it doesn’t have to be this way. You can invest in your college education and come out debt-free.
The preparation for going to college and coming out debt-free doesn’t start your senior year of high school.
It doesn’t even start junior year, when you’re frantically applying for the best colleges and scholarships.
It starts as early as freshman year, when you’re working to get your grades up and keep them up.
If you can maintain a good GPA, you’re likely to have more scholarship opportunities. High SAT and ACT scores can also help.
Study for the tests, take practice tests, and retake the tests if your score is lower than you wanted or expected.
Grants and Scholarships
To find the best grants and scholarships, utilize available resources. Make an appointment – or 10 – with your high school guidance counselor.
Let him or her know you’re interested in applying for grants and scholarships. They can help you find the best state-based scholarships and walk you through the application process.
Start with FASFA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), which provides over $150 billion in aid per year. Various amounts are given to people based on need.
Even if your family is well-off, you should apply. The worst that can happen is the government won’t give you anything.
Also, applying opens the door to receiving aid from your college or state. Some schools won’t consider giving you an academic scholarship unless you’ve applied for FASFA.
After you have applied for FAFSA, dozens of scholarships are available to you.
Obviously, you can get scholarships through your state and the different colleges you’re applying to, but there are scholarships for just about everything:
- Your major, including music, education, foreign language, chemistry, and math
- Single parents
Grants tend to be more need-based than academic-based and should not be overlooked. Federal grants are probably the most common type of grant, but they’re also available by state, major, minority, situation, or talent.
Before you accept any scholarship or grant, make sure you fully understand the terms.
For instance, if you accept a scholarship for education majors, but switch your major after a few months, what happens to the money?
Do you have to repay it?
Do you have to finish your first year in the program?
Make sure you know the requirements ahead of time in order to avoid any surprises.
Apply for scholarships and grants at least once a week. You’ll be able to get a good jump on your college career even if you don’t get a full ride.
Consider In-State Colleges
Most colleges charge in-state residents less than out-of-state residents. Typically, you have to live in the state where you’re applying to college for a certain amount of time (often a year) before you receive resident benefits.
Some states also have reciprocity with other states. For instance, if you live in Wisconsin, you can take advantage of the in-state price for schools in Minnesota.
However, if the field you’re interested in isn’t available at a school in your state, don’t settle.
Apply for grants and scholarships and see how much assistance the school will provide.
Also, apply to schools offering scholarships or free tuition for meeting certain academic requirements (assuming they offer your desired degree).
Choose Your Major Wisely
Changing your major every semester is a costly proposition, because you’ll pay for the classes, the time to attend the classes, textbooks, and any other materials it takes to complete the required school work.
In most cases, you will end up taking longer than four years to complete your degree, which will cost you significantly more money.
Even if you know what you want to study, take a class or two in your major as soon as possible.
You can change your major early on if you realize you’re not meant to stand in front of a crowd of high school students and teach.
Taking major classes right away will also reduce your load senior year, so you won’t burn out.
Plus, if you love your major, you will look forward to going to class every week.
Let’s face it: general education courses, while important, can be stressful, boring, and annoying – sometimes all at once.
Spread them out and you’ll have a variety of classes to look forward to throughout your college career.
If you don’t know what you want to do with your life, you have several choices:
- Take a few years off and make money
- Do something fun while you decide – travel to Europe or any other destination
- Attend a community college to get your associate degree and explore your possibilities
- Join the military
If you join the military as soon as you graduate high school, the government will pay for your room, board, and tuition whenever you attend college.
If you’re considering a career in the military and opt to go to college first, see if your school offers a ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Career) program.
You will be paid for being a member of the ROTC and possibly have the opportunity to line up a career post-college. The ROTC also offers scholarships.
Work in high school, during the college school year, and during the summer. Find a well-paying job or get two summer jobs.
Some local businesses hire high school students and give them a small scholarship toward college, with the understanding they’ll work at the business during summer break.
If you’re working, do not spend everything you make. Put a chunk of your money – say 50% – toward college expenses.
Working minimum wage for 15 hours a week (and roughly 30 hours during the summer and on holidays) for four years during high school will add up to a little over $12,000.
You will be able to afford fun activities with friends, but you’ll also be able to pay for a year or so of college out-of-pocket, or at least part of the cost.
If you have already have scholarship money, working will help with other expenses – books, car repairs, long nights studying at the local coffee shop, money for dates, or time off-campus with friends.
Working while enrolled in college will provide both a solid work ethic and allow you to save money for the following school years.
And even if you have a good job, you can look around for stuff to sell on craigslist to bank some extra spending cash.
If you’re not sure what you want to do once you graduate high school, work for a few years.
Since you’ll probably be living at home, you can save most of what you make and when you do go to college, you’ll be more driven than students younger than you.
You can also work your way through college by taking courses part-time and working full-time.
Yes, it will take longer to complete your degree, but you’ll have no debt, plenty of job experience, and a great work ethic.
Avoid Credit Cards
If you’re avoiding debt, it’s obvious you should stay away from credit cards, right?
Easier said than done.
Credit card companies target college students. You’ll probably receive several credit card offers within your first few weeks of school.
People who would have graduated debt-free (and plenty who wouldn’t have), end up with several thousand dollars in credit card debt (sometimes $10,000 or more).
If you know you’re going to have a hard time paying your credit card bill, or you don’t think you’ll be responsible, tear up the letter and send it back in the enclosed envelope.
They’ll get the message.
Talk to Your Parents
Even if your parents can’t pay for your schooling outright, they may be able to help.
If you’re willing to work and save your money for college, they may be willing to contribute a dollar or 50 cents for every dollar you contribute.
Take Advanced Placement Classes
If you take advanced placement (AP) or honors classes in high school, you can test out of lower level classes when you start college – giving you a leg up on your major.
You may also consider taking classes at your local community college while you’re in high school, especially if you know what you want to do. It’s a great way to save money and time.
Spend Your Summers Wisely
Use summers to work, participate in paid internships, or take classes.
Often, summer tuition costs less. Keep in mind financial aid may not cover the summer session, so there’s a possibility you will need to pay out-of-pocket.
Most students assume they’ll graduate in four years, but that’s true for less than 50% of students. Most graduate within six years.
By taking three or four courses (between 9 and 12 credits) every summer, you can cut out a full year of school – or more – and still make money.
You can also take online classes during the summer. Some of these are self-paced and some have weekly check-ins or virtual lectures you “attend.”
These classes often cost less and you don’t need to be on-campus, so you can save money on room and board.
If you’re not taking online courses through your specific college, be sure the credits will transfer.
You can graduate college without any debt. It will require hard work and effort, but it can be done.
At the end of the day, finding a career you love will be even more rewarding if you don’t need to spend the next 30 years paying off student loans.