SOCIAL MEDIA

12 June 2014

Avoid Student Loan Debt!

My parents told me 3 things from when I was a very young age: 1. I was going to college. 2. They would not be able to pay for my college. 3. I would not go into debt while I was in college.

I'm not sure if you can tell how much I really, really, really hated wearing a cap and gown. I attempted to convince the people I sat with during graduation to join me in a protest against caps and gowns and take them off, but they thought we might not be allowed to graduate if we did that so I conformed.

It's possible that this was a brainwashing technique, and if so, it's one that worked well. I've heard too many of my friends say with resignation, "I already know I'll still be paying on my student loans when my own kids are in college!" and I've seen too many teens already setting themselves up for financial distress with reckless decisions regarding where they want to go to college--I want to say that if you are willing to compromise in other areas, that it IS possible, even in today's world of extremely high tuition, to go to college without incurring debt that will follow you the rest of your life.

These are the strategies that I think are the most helpful:

1. Go to a community college.

Or get as many college credits as you can in high school. Community colleges tend to be far less expensive than state or private universities. This is one of the strategies my brother and sister are using, they've already finished their first two years of college debt-free at a CC--it's true that the educational standards may not be as high as at an elite school--but your degree will be from whichever 4 year university you graduate from, and I'm sure future prospective employers will not be digging through your transcripts to see whether you took English 101 at a community college or at a state university. 

2. Get as many scholarships as you can.

As much as I try to hide it, it turns out that I'm a nerd. Not the wears-fake-glasses nerd, a real one. I scored in the 99th percentile on my SAT and ACT exams (yeah, I took both) and my tuition and books and college fees were completely paid for through a combination of several academic scholarships that required me to have a GPA above 3.75 throughout college (I graduated with a 3.989--because of one professor who said "I don't give As" and gave me an A- instead. I'm still a little bitter.).  I was blessed, and definitely hit the jackpot where scholarships were concerned, but you don't have to be a geek to earn valuable scholarships. There are scholarships for just about anything you could think of! Angel also had a significant portion of his education paid for with scholarships--none of which were academic, but were based on other factors such as his major (nursing) and the fact that he was a 1st generation college student. Many scholarships you have to apply for individually, and it takes time, but its worth it!

3. Work

As nice as it may sound, you do not need to devote all of your times to classes and socialization as a college student. Part-time jobs abound--and if you can work at your college, all the better! I put gas in my car working as an "ironing girl" (that's what my employer called me) and tutoring philosophy, religion, and business students. Angel cleaned on-campus apartments and worked as a receptionist in our college health center. My sister is paying her way through college right now working as a manager at a screen-printing shop. My brother is doing the same thing by working at a hat kiosk at the mall and tutoring math students. The jobs aren't glamorous, but they're experience to put on your resume and money for that tuition bill.


4. Cut living costs

When I attended my college, the cost of living in the dorms and eating in the dining halls was something crazy--$8,000 a year, I think. My scholarships didn't cover that, so my grandparents took me in for the first 5 semesters of college till I got married, and I brought turkey and cheese sandwiches to school every day for lunch (post-college: I no longer eat sandwiches). My younger brother and sister live with my other grandparents right now so that they are able to attend school--sure, their basement bedrooms with curtains for walls might not sound as cool as an apartment of their own...but they don't pay rent. It's amazing how much more money you can save or put toward tuition when you live with people who love and support you enough to not charge you fair-market rent price. This strategy can also work if you're trying to pay off loans you already have--Angel moved back in with his parents for a year and a half after college. Of course, you might PREFER to be independent...but if you're blessed with loved ones who are willing to host you, you need to consider how much your preference is worth...and let me tell you, it's not worth getting into debt for a preference.

5. Get a practical degree.

This is not the most popular opinion these days, but here it is--do NOT go 100K into debt to study an arts subject that you're really interested in when you know that factually, you'll be lucky to get a job making 30K a year in that area. If you can go through college without debt and know that you'll live just fine on a smaller income, go ahead, study what you love--but if that's not the case for you, read books in your spare time about the things you're interested in, and  go for a degree where you know jobs exist. I am immensely proud of Angel for choosing this option. He didn't choose nursing because he'd wanted to be a nurse since childhood and had lofty dreams and romantic visions of being a nurse....he chose nursing because he was pretty sure he wouldn't have the patience for anything more than a bachelor's degree, and he also knew that jobs in the healthcare industry are steadier than most and that he could support his family with that degree. (If Angel would have studied what most interested him, it would have been philosophy. See why I'm glad he chose to be practical?)

6. Don't go to college at all.

College IS a good idea for a lot of people, but not for everybody, and while it may seem like it, it's not the only way to get a steady job. There are much more inexpensive options which will provide you with skills: getting licensed as a cosmetologist or a CNA, apprenticing to become a mechanic  or electrician or plumber--those are just a few examples of practical jobs that don't require a 4 year bachelor's degree. You could get licensed in one of these professions and use the above-minimum-wage income to help you pay your way through college afterwards (many CNAs use this route). Or, if you like your job, are skilled at it, and earn enough to live on--realize that even though it may seem like it these days, college isn't the only option. Actually, when I think about it, quite a lot of my favorite people in the whole wide world don't have a college degree...that "piece of paper" can offer up job opportunities, but it doesn't automatically make you any more well-rounded of a person.

6. Make paying off loans a priority.

If you already have loans, obviously most of this advice doesn't apply to you. But simply know that the pay-back schedules that they give you don't mean that you can't pay off your loans faster if you so desire. Angel graduated from college about 23K in debt, even after scholarships and working, so he  promptly moved in with his parents, worked a lot of extra shifts and holidays, paid way more than the minimum monthly payments, and was out of debt in less than 1.5 years. Even though Angel had college loan debt, he says that he "got lucky" and was one of the few for whom taking college loans is better than not taking loans. Everything lined up right for him--if he hadn't taken loans, he wouldn't have been able to attend college at all. He did take the loans, actually finished college (many people with student loan debt don't actually finish their degrees but of course still have to pay), got hired right out of school into a job which paid a good salary, and, at the time, was a bachelor without family obligations and had parents who were very happy to have him living with them. Sometimes loans ARE the best or only option, but those cases are not as common as you might believe.

31 comments :

  1. This is a great post! Of course, it would have been more helpful to me 8ish years ago. My student loan debt is absurd. My parents never went to college and didn't know anything about Financial Aid, they just supported my dream of going to the private, Christian college of my choice. So the only financial aid/student loan advice I got was from my college's admissions office. Clearly, that worked out well for me. :(

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  2. I had about 25k of loan debt, which we've since paid off. I am honestly glad I lived in the dorms and experienced that with my friends, so it was worth it to me, I guess. But I think a lot of people think they HAVE to go to college immediately, when really community college for a few years is a great, inexpensive option for some people. And the. If you do have debt when you graduate, work to pay it off quickly! Budget and save, and you can make a dent.

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  3. My loans suck. Like a lot. Going to school online is so much more expensive (which doesn't even make sense). I have this bad feeling my kids and grandkids will be paying off my loans, ugh.

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  4. Community college is a great option for a lot of people, but serious word of caution: know EXACTLY what courses you need to take in order for them to transfer to the university of your choice. I have far too many friends who spent two years of time and money in community college, only to find out that just a semester's worth of courses counted toward their degree at the university. So they spent two years of time and tuition at community college, and then at least 3, if not 4 years and tuition at the university making up for wasted courses. All in all, they ended up with more debt and more time in school overall because they weren't careful. Don't ask your CC advisors what courses will count, go straight to the university advisors and find out from them.

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  5. Totally agree with this! I lived at home and had a 75% scholarship! I would not have gone to college if I'd had to take out massive loans. You are very smart (and so are your parents)

    Also, your grades sound like my Mom. She was second in her graduating class.

    I didn't study at all in college and graduated with a B average, so I'm happy. (I was soooooo lazy then....)

    My husband did what angel did. He graduated with a TON of loans, moved home, worked a ton and paid it all off in 2 years. Lucky husband :)

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  6. Great tips. I did much of the same and both my husband and I graduated without debt. I have told my children pretty much the same thing your parents told you. With 4 kids there is really no other option than for them to work hard, get good grades and help shoulder some of the bills.

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  7. Great advice!!! It took me 3 years of extreme budgeting to pay off my student loans. Having a practical degree, starting at a community college, and working through school were all choices that I am happy to have made. I hate to think of how much I would have owed if I wasn't constantly thinking of ways to save money.

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  8. I couldn't agree more with this post, Rachel! While I believe every person is different and will desire different college experiences, I see this problem first hand working at a university. I'm in awe at the amount of loans students are graduating (or not graduating) with. At some point, you have to stop for two seconds and think "Will my degree be worth this?" Sometimes it's not and I would think it would be better to face this before acquiring 100K in college debt.

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  9. This is a great post! Way to go on all the scholarships! You're awesome!!

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  10. Such good tips Rachel! I really wish I was able to graduate debt free but I try to encourage the younger folks with these tips!

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  11. I was a nerd too, but most people don't know that. Did get me scholarships! There was an audible sound of shock when they announced over the loudspeaker that I was a national merit whatever the heck you get for the psats. I hid my nerdiness very well! But hey, gets you $$$.

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  12. Ha! I'm so with you on the GPA thing. I so didn't care about grades until I transferred from CC to my 4 year school. I got a 4.0 that semester and turned into a monster. I graduated with a 3.95 that I'm annoyed at myself about to this day because of one B - I'd had the professor before and didn't think the second class would be harder than the first. All my fault but ahhh! Regardless, it got me plenty of scholarships too!

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  13. That's funny that you posted this today because while I was sitting at the park with Melody this morning I TOTALLY said I was going to write a post about going to college. It'll probably be next week :) when I post it, I will link this page to it if that's okay because there's 2 sides to college. Go or not go....so on the "go" side, I'll link it to this page!

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  14. A lot of VERY good advice. Both my husband and I graduated from college debt free, and we are just so blessed. It's amazing how much freedom we have. We even just paid off our car, we have absolutely no debt, and I honestly don't plan on accruing any until we decide to buy a house. Our parents did help us with college, so in that sense we were lucky. However, I applied for over 25 scholarships in one summer and I received a fair number of them. I didn't work while at school, but I worked every Christmas vacation, several Thanksgiving vacation, every spring break, and every summer vacation. During school I worked every summer since I turned 16. Hubby also had some scholarships and he worked for our university's IT department to help with his tuition. Sometimes it felt like a pain to put in the extra work when classmates and friends were heading off to a worry free spring break, but now that I have no debt and am saving up for vacations and several of my friends are loaded down with debts they don't know when they will pay off, I know it was absolutely worth it. And I still had tons of fun while at school. In fact, I often wish I could go back, it was an amazing time of my life (although I'm more than thrilled with where I am now, too, so in truth I wouldn't trade it). One of the best things I ever did was apply for small scholarships. Sure, when there are scholarships worth thousands of dollars and scholarships worth hundreds of dollars, it seems like a no brainer to apply for the one worth thousands of dollars. But think about it. EVERYONE wants the scholarships that are thousands of dollars. There is a lot more competition. I still think people should apply for those big scholarships, but give some attention to the small ones. It's unbelievable how many scholarships worth $200 to $500 only have 3 or 4 people apply for them. And trust me, if you earn a lot of small scholarships, they add up to a lot of money. It's definitely worth it!

    http://howtomakehome.blogspot.com

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  15. These are wonderful tips! I graduated with almost no debt but Nate wasn't quite as money-minded when he was younger so he brought quite a large debt into the marriage. The thing is, though, that we make paying off debt such a huge priority that the loan company is asking us not to pay anymore for six months (so they can get more interest). Haha. And you better be believing that Nate's graduating Seminary without taking out any more loans!

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  16. Amen to that! I did my first two years at a junior college, paid for it out of pocket while working... It made a huge difference!

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  17. I love this post. I graduated last May (from a private liberal arts college) and have 0 debt. Scholarships covered most of it, but the rest was covered by money I saved working during high school (Dad made all of us put 40% of everything we made into a savings account). But, I am especially glad you added #6 in there. I think people are brainwashed into thinking you need a college degree to have a good job, but that's not true. You can go into a certified training program for manufacturing and then start a job only 6 months later at $40,000 a year. Then, the company will help you continue your education and get your degree if that's what you want. (Getting off my soapbox now.) All in all, great post!

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  18. Oh, how I wish I had been smart enough to listen to sage advice such as this in my younger years while in school… I was 20k in school loan debt when I met my now husband. At the time I was in school, I was a working full-time, going to school full-time single mom and was barely making ends meet for either, so I ended up dropping my work hours back to continue with school and taking out loans to cover me in the interim. It was hard. My parents and grandparents never went to college, so no one knew how to prepare me. Thankfully, my husband (who is the wisest/soundest financial personal I now know) had been saving his lunch money since first grade and paid off all of my debt after we were married. I joke that he purchased me from bondage, but it's kind of true. Without his generosity and support, I'd be paying on those loans for decades.

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  19. my parents told me the same thing, and so i worked and worked and got a couple scholarships -- success. unfortunately, however, i got the least practical degree that the university offered....

    can't win them all :)

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  20. I was very lucky. As a Mormon going to Brigham Young University, I had very cheap tuition ($2500 a semester). I got scholarships and worked 25 hours a week. I also gave myself a budget and lived in an old apartment complex that my mom called very "ghetto". But now, my husband and I have both graduated debt-free!

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  21. Rachel this is a great post and that is so awesome you were able to graduate debt free, woot woot!! I have learned he hard way, hence our relationship with Dave Ramsey now ;) Learning the hard way definitely encourages us to differently when we have kids of our own too!!

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  22. This is really good, solid advice. My younger son wants to be a vet, so we're looking at a lot of school for him. He's already taking College in the High School classes, so he should start out with a year under his belt. We will be spending a lot of time researching scholarships as well. Thanks for all the helpful hints.

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  23. Great post!!! I can't believe how expensive college education in the USA is... it's crazy. I'm so thankful that our fees are more affordable! (ok, and the scholarships I had!)

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  24. Very good advice! I did my first two years at a community college. Worked two jobs and paid out of pocket. No loans, no financial aid. Now the next two years I did have to take out some student loans. But at that point I was old enough to qualify for financial aid. I used the loans to substitute living expenses and such. I'm happy that my loans are under $20,000.

    A girl I went to high school with graduated from Stanford. She owes more than $300,000, and is still unemployed. While I wish I had gotten out completely debt free, I think I did pretty well all together. Had I just gone straight to a four year, I probably would owe somewhere around $60,000-$80,000. That number alone is hard to even think about.

    My goal in life is to be able to send Little J to a decent school. I'm going to push hard for her to do the first two years at a community college and then transfer. Unless she gets scholarships. I guess we'll see what happens!

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  25. My friend and I talk about this a lot- neither of us want to have debt, but we both want to attend school. I have been thinking that community college for GE and then a transfer to a four year may be a good route for me. Thanks for sharing your tips! Alex

    tobebeautifulingodseyes.blogspot.com

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  26. Rachel, years from now I am going to have to remember this post. I did not go to college and experienced the difficulty of having great work experience, but few companies who care when you don't have that expensive piece of paper. Justin went to college, taking out no loans, and with great scholarships, only to have his papers get him no where. We talk a lot about what we will do with our children. It should be an interesting future, right? :)

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  27. I am graduating this summer and will have $0 in student loan debt! I started out at a community college and got my AA. Then, I changed my major to business and went back to the community college before starting at the University of Florida. I took all my classes online so that saved me so much money! I took longer than normal to get through college too, I'm 24 right now. Graduating with no debt is so do-able and completely worth it!

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  28. Love this post! As someone who IS in a lot of debt from college, I can say yes, yes, yes to all of these tips. Looking back, I would completely re-do my bachelor's + master's experiences. In fact, I wouldn't go at all! The areas that I love working in rarely make any money... 30-40K if you're lucky. If I had known then what I know now, I would have been one of the people who opted out of college.

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  29. This is awesome! I will soon be writing a post on how we tackled $42,000 of school debt in less than 2 years!!!! Tom was very fortunate to not have any debt. I did. In just a couple months we will be 100% debt free. Which will be amazing. I love #3 and #6. First off. I wish I would have taken the time to apply for scholarships. I felt overwhelmed at how much work they were and felt it was pointless for $200 here and there...but it totally adds up!!! Also, #6 I think that "trades" or technical schools should be and hopefully are becoming increasingly popular. I think companies should have the mindset if their employee is willing to learn and wants to pursue education that they should offer to help train them. Like, continuing education! Great post.

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  30. i'm going to impress upon my kid very early on that i will not be supporting him past the age of 18. after that, he's an adult and needs to be self-supporting like i was. i think when you do this early, kids will realize that they need to make smart decisions instead of willy-nilly picking expensive colleges because mom and dad can pay for it. they'll start running the cost-benefit analysis and make up their own mind whether or not going into debt is worth it.

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  31. I think it's great advice to pick a practical degree. As an academic advisor, it broke my heart to see students struggle with our GPA requirement and only graduate 5+ years later with a General Business degree. NOT GOOD. My degree was public relations, but I knew I had to do other things to make my BA more marketable. So I did three internships, had a part-time job and graduated with a 4.0 GPA. I always gave that advice to my students: go into your degree with your eyes open!

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