Melinda is a Junior at Clearwater Christian College currently majoring in Elementary Education. She is a finalist of the Student Debt Relief scholarship program, and needs your votes. If you like her advice on how to avoid student debt while attending school, please use the above social icons to like, tweet, +1, and share her essay across the social networks. The finalist with the most social shares will be awarded $2,000 to help pay for their education.
How To Avoid Student Debt
by Melinda H.
We’ve all been there before—that moment a talkative aunt or uncle, a prospective employer, or even your school guidance counselor says, “So, what are your plans for college?” My answer was always simple: “I can’t afford it.” I found I was quickly proved wrong by the vast array of resources available for people who seek to further their education. Making wise decisions about how you spend your time and money may just mean the difference between living your life under a cloud of debt and wisely managing your loans. So let me share just a few things I have done and will continue to do to keep that “cloud of debt” at bay.
(1) Don’t go to class. This seems counter-intuitive, but there are steps you can take to earn college credit before even stepping foot in a college or university. Before you register for your first class, examine the options you have for earning college credit without taking the class. Many juniors and seniors in high school, including myself, have taken advantage of special programs that allow “dual enrollment”—that is, attending college classes and accumulating both high school and college credit for each class. I had the opportunity to attend senior year at my local community college at a 50% discount. Taking AP classes at your high school is another great way to earn college credit for “high school work.”
If you’ve already graduated high school, you still can earn college credit without having to go to school. The collegeboard website recommends several great ways to “skip class,” including testing out of curriculum with exams such as the CLEP. The CLEP is somewhat challenging, but after a month of studying my topic diligently, I was able to pass it having paid only $120 in test fees and books; this is a great alternative to paying full price for a class.
Some colleges give college credit for military or job training that prospective students have had in the past. It’s important to note that different colleges do have different rules about accepting credits. You must check with your institution to see what programs they have available to grant credit. Some colleges have varying scores that they will accept for the CLEP examination, for example.
(2) Settle for “less” when choosing your school. Yes, that Ivy League school looks great on paper, but it doesn’t look so great on your credit score ten years down the road. Many fine institutions will accept transfer credits from your local community college, and once you have that bachelor’s degree, it’s not even really necessary to list your two-year college on your resume. In addition, community colleges have a lot to offer. Since they have more to prove, many community colleges offer competitive tuition, a supportive community, and work that is challenging in a positive way.
My local community college charges $100 per credit hour for county residents. Three years and 67 credits later, I am completely debt free and entering my junior year at my dream college. If I had gone right to my chosen college, I would have a lot more just in credit fees. I saved money on room and board by staying with my parents, and I benefited greatly from my parents. Community college is also a great way to “try on” various fields if you are unsure about what your educational goals are. On that note, it’s essential to have some idea what school you’re choosing for your four-year college. Some universities have more stringent rules about what credits they will accept for their degree programs, while other colleges actually have transfer agreements with certain schools.
(3) Take college as slow as you need to. The American dream tells us that we must have a degree by the time we’re twenty-two, but it neglects to reflect the cost associated with that goal. Often, it’s better to pace yourself through college in order to get a second job and level some of the costs of your education. Making career goals early can make a huge difference in where you find yourself working your sophomore year of college.
I was able to take classes in my field of education that permitted me to ditch my somewhat unpleasant retail job in favor a job working in my field making a great deal more money. If you take your time and pay off your debt as you accrue it, particularly that pesky interest on unsubsidized loans, you can cut that debt in half easily. In addition, there is extra time in your schedule for better performance in school.
(4) Be smart with your money. Simply making good choices with your money seems like an obvious choice, of course, but it’s incredibly effective. Exhaust all opportunities for free money, such as merit-based scholarships or government grants. By using your time efficiently for community service or doing the best you can with your schoolwork, you are showing to prospective employers and donors that you have big plans for your education, and you have the drive to accomplish them.
The money you do earn must be used wisely. Save money wherever possible—rent used textbooks online for a fraction of the cost, conserve gas by carpooling, and skip the morning coffee. Those saved pennies can add up to hundreds of dollars by the end of your college career. When you do need to borrow money, be smart about just what you can accomplish in paying them off. It’s not very wise to charge all your education and living expenses for four years and then think about how to take care of that cost posthumously.
(5) Find a job that will benefit you. This was my secret weapon for my final year of community college. During my second year of college, I found I qualified for a job working for the college I attended. I had not originally known of the college’s policy of waiving tuition for part-time employees who had been with them for a year. That final year of college, every penny of my tuition was paid for by the college because of my service. Many colleges offer similar discounts or waivers for faithful full-time or part-time employees and their dependents. On top of that, many companies encourage their employees to further their education by taking care of the costs for certain classes or even entire degrees. These companies wish to promote dedicated employees to improve themselves and are often flexible with work schedules to accommodate their employees’ attempts to do just that.
By thinking out of the box, you may find yourself with some interesting ways to pay for your education (or to cut down the cost of that education). That looming debt you always assumed you’d have to settle for in order to be an educated individual does not have to exist. So far I have skipped some classes by starting college in high school and testing out of classes, settled for what others deem “less” for my first two years of college, taken three years to do about two years worth of schooling, taken advantage of great scholarships by being diligent with my time and money, and found a job that paid for my most recent year of education. This upcoming year I’ll be taking out loans to pay for my college, but I have every intention of paying every cent before I graduate by taking similar measures for my final two years of college. Even if I’m not able to pay all my loans, I will have learned how to be smart with my money, setting a pattern that will surely allow me to pay them off quickly after I’ve graduated. So next time I’m asked that dreaded question about what my plans for college are, I’m going to answer, “I’m going to graduate debt-free.”