Collective student debt has reached $1.7 trillion, with over $37,000 average per borrower. One million new people default on their student loans every year. What was earlier considered a "good debt" that would pay itself tenfold spiraled out of control and became an albatross weighing down the entire generation.
The pandemic and the unemployment that closely followed might have aggravated the problem yet definitely didn't start it. The debt became significant enough for Federal Reserve to notice it back in 1999 when it hit $90 billion. Now it's second only to mortgages and is a major cause for concern. As Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, Executive Director of NextGen America, recently said in a statement advocating loan forgiveness, "Too many Americans of all ages are suffering under the weight of crushing student loan debt. This burden is felt especially deeply by Black and brown Americans, and it's long past time for us to act." Will 2021 become the year when this burden is finally alleviated? At the very least, it looks promising but still remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, regardless of how much debt will be erased, history tends to repeat itself. While the issues that have led to this sorry state of affairs linger, new students are at risk of being saddled with crippling student debts. Tuition fees continue to grow. Since the eighties, they have tripled for private colleges and quadrupled for public ones. That causes more students to take loans and inflates the loans themselves. Today, more than 70% of bachelors leave their colleges carrying back-breaking debt – with an ever-growing rate at that.
However, that third of all graduates who manage to graduate debt-free weren't all born into money. Some of them fought tooth and nail for their financial independence – and although evading the loan might not be easy, it's definitely a worthwhile endeavor. That is why we decided to take a page out of the book of those lucky few debtless and share it with you.
Before You Go To College
The first steps to your unencumbered future you can take while still in high school dramatically improving your financial outlook.
Find affordable college
This one is probably the most serious thing you will have to do. Find a college you can afford. Look at the colleges within your state since they offer significantly lower prices for in-state students.
Consider colleges with "no-loan" programs that allow their students, if not entirely avoid, then at least dramatically lower the loans they take. True, you will have to meet specific financial criteria. You might also be required to contribute as a part-time employee within your school. However, it will fund your education, give you valuable experience that comes in handy when looking for a job after graduation, and protect your future.
Also, scan the lists of colleges where graduates have the least debt. According to US News, these schools are spread all over the states, so it's worth checking if your intended school has made it to the list.
All this doesn't mean that you shouldn't shoot for the stars and apply to prestigious colleges. Try your best. After all, eight of the Ivy League schools are need-blind. However, you must have a grounded backup plan.
Transfer from a community college
If you still pine after a degree from a prestigious school, you can cut the price tag in two by doing your core classes in a two-year community college program. These two years will costs you just a fraction of a semester's tuition at a private school. After that, you can transfer to your dream college for the unique courses it offers.
Consider dual placement
Better still, you can benefit from a dual-enrollment program. It will allow you to take college-level classes at your local community college while still in high school. Those courses usually cost half the tuition costs or less. Sometimes they are entirely free – yet the college credits you earn can be transferred and save you up to two years of tuition. The caveat is that there is no guarantee that the college you have chosen will accept the credits or count them towards your degree, so you should talk with your counselor before enrolling.
Take advanced placement courses
The advanced placement program was created by College Board – an organization that gave us the SAT. It prepares students for an AP exam, which can qualify them for college credit if their score is high enough. Another perk you get from both dual placement and AP classes is that, as a rule, schools weigh them higher than regular high-school classes when they calculate your GPA, giving it a significant boost and increasing your chances for scholarships and admissions.
Apply for scholarships
Funding your education through scholarships is a lot of research, paperwork, and interviews. However, this is more attainable than most students think. The majority have only heard of some famous full-ride scholarships available for exceptionally gifted students. However, it's only the tip of the iceberg. With a little tenacity and time put into research, you will find a wealth of scholarships you are eligible for. Don't neglect to apply for small scholarships and grants – little and often fills the purse. As Jean Chatzky, CEO of Her Money, advises: "You need to start with research (a scholarship matching tool helps), make sure you look like a gem online, fine-tune your applications including putting the time into your essay, and cast a wide net by applying to as many as possible."
While in College
If you are already enrolled, there is not much you can do about all of the above. However, you can still do many things to reduce your student debt if going to college without a loan is not an option.
Lower costs of living
Of course, it's easier said than done, but if you put your mind to it, you will see many opportunities. If you decided to study locally, you might consider living at home and commuting, which is less fun but saves you oodles of money in room and board. Plus, endless parties sound great in theory, but you may change your mind pretty fast when the party in question is in the room next door, and you have to study.
For commuting, rely on public transport or bicycle instead of a car. Insurance, gas, parking, and repairs crop up to a hefty sum. In contrast, most colleges have a deal with local transportation companies and provide free or significantly reduced fares to their students.
Stay on the lookout for student discounts and freebies. For example, you can have Windows OS and MS Office programs for free as a student. Carry your ID around and claim student deals as they come your way – from free drinks to theater tickets.
After tuition costs and room and board, textbooks are your biggest expenditure. The price of print textbooks almost doubled in the last ten years, so heading to your campus bookstore to spend hundreds of dollars on something you will only need for a year or a semester might not be the most frugal idea. Look for used books online or hire hard copies from companies like Amazon and Chegg. Better still, opt for free, open-source eBooks when it's possible. Sites like OpenStax, FreeBooks4Doctors, Textbook Revolution, and Open Educational Resources Commons have vast libraries available to anyone.
Submit credit hour overload petition
A four-year program in most colleges is calculated based on the standard 15 credits per semester. However, if you request permission, you can enroll in up to 21 credit hours, which will allow you to graduate a year earlier. Of course, such an academic load is not for the faint-hearted. It also doesn't pair well with employment – if you want to keep your sanity after graduation, that is. However, it is an option. If you feel like your time in college could be more intellectually stimulating, why not save some money along the way. Plus, if the load becomes too much, you can rely on the occasional assistance of a writing helper.
Take online classes
Many online course platforms like Coursera, Udemy, Udacity, and EdX allow earning credits that can be transferred to colleges. Online courses cost much less and offer you the flexibility to fit them into your schedule. If you work to fund your education, that is a big consideration. Often students lose credits they could have earned within a semester because of scheduling conflicts. Online courses may help you solve this problem.
Look for sources of income
Apart from scholarships (I hope you are still applying), you have an option of a part-time job, paid internship, or work-study position at your school. Taking any of those is a crucial personal decision. You should definitely prioritize your study, sleep, and wellbeing. However, if you have some time you could invest in earning a buck, go for it. As a compromise, there is also an option of summer jobs in hospitality, farming, or outdoor recreation coaching.
Remember, I said it's a personal decision? That's because it involves some trade-offs. You probably won't have the same college experience as more financially secure students who will spend their four years partying, traveling, and socializing. Yet some of your peers will do all that on the borrowed time – and money. Weigh your financial freedom in the future against this freedom today and choose wisely.