How I Graduated College Debt-Free

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Graduation Cap

Going to college is expensive, but that doesn’t mean you have to go into debt to make it happen. Here’s how I managed to graduate college debt free.

I treated high school like a job.

I knew if I wanted to get into a good school, and earn enough financial aid to cover the cost, I had to work hard to stand out from the pack. So, I threw myself into my school work, and I participated in lots of after-school activities. When I graduated, I had a 4.16 GPA.

I took a bunch of AP classes.

Advanced Placement classes are wicked hard, but if you score well enough on the exam, it’s a way to earn college credit for your high school course work. I took five AP courses in high school, and earned enough credit hours to skip an entire semester of college. That saved me over $12,000!

I saved a couple thousand more by ditching my meal plan a soon as I completed my first semester. Since I had sophomore standing at that point, it was no longer mandatory.

I got into my dream school, but I didn’t go.

I toured lots of colleges when I was in high school, and fell in love with a school in North Carolina; but another school offered me a much better financial aid package, so that’s where I went. Going to my dream school just wasn’t worth going into debt. I’ve never regretted that decision – especially since I met my husband while attending my second-choice school.

I applied for every scholarship or grant that I was even remotely qualified for.

My high school had a scholarship room, and I practically lived in there my junior and senior year. If there was a scholarship or grant that I could apply for, I wanted to know about it. Filling out applications, writing essays and going on interviews took a lot of time, but I ended up earning tens of thousands of dollars in scholarship and grant money.

Once I was in college, I continued to apply for scholarships. Sometimes that meant applying to have scholarships and grants renewed, and sometimes that meant finding new scholarships to apply for. As a high school senior, I won a $1,000 scholarship from my dad’s employer. When I applied for it again in college, I was awarded their top prize, a $3,500 scholarship! Looking back, I think I received every scholarship or grant that I applied for in college. I’d say that was because not too many kids bother to apply for scholarships once they’re in college and because college transcripts are just more compelling than high school transcripts. Donors don’t have to wonder how you’ll do in college because they can see how you’re doing.

I had generous grandparents.

My parents couldn’t afford to contribute to my college education, but my maternal and paternal grandparents contributed a combined total of $20,000. My school was around $25,000 a year, so that was almost enough to cover a year of school.

I worked during college.

Or perhaps I should say I worked A LOT during college. At one point I had five jobs, and worked 80 hours a week, while going to school full time. It was exhausting at times, but it allowed me to cover books and living expenses without turning to student loans or credit cards.

I landed a job with tuition reimbursement.

When I learned that one of the companies I worked for offered tuition reimbursement for full-time employees, I immediately switched to full-time status. That earned me another $3,000 for school.

I moved off campus.

The college I attended required you to live on campus, unless you were a local resident. But they over-enrolled my second year, and didn’t have enough student housing to accommodate everyone. To handle the influx, they allowed a small number of upperclassmen honors students to move off campus. Thanks to those AP classes I had taken in high school, I had the junior status I needed to take advantage of this. I found a little house to rent in a quiet neighborhood, and said goodbye to the pricey boarding fees. This move saved me thousands, and gave me the private retreat that I craved.

I graduated early.

After crunching the numbers and determining that I had enough money to cover three years of school, but not four, I devised a plan to graduate a year early. Since I had all those AP course credits under my belt, and had always taken a full load each semester, I was already off to a great start. To further accelerate my studies, I took a few course overloads. You just had to pay the credit hour rate for any extra hours that you took. At the time, that was $625 an hour.

I also took four classes during summer school. One of those was at my college; one was at a community college; and two were at another university. Since the summer credit hour rate is usually half the regular rate, this was a cheap way to knock out 13 credit hours in a hurry.

And my plan worked. I graduated college in three years with two bachelor’s degrees and no debt to my name.

Did you graduate college debt-free? I’d love to hear how you did it.

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  1. Erin, this is a wonderful story of how perseverance and a plan can pay off. I did something similar in college and managed to get through without debts or family help. It was hard, but not a second of what I gained in college was wasted.

  2. My parents made me go to community college my first 2 years and pay for my own tuition, while they paid for my insurance/gas payments and let me live at home those 2 years. At first I hated it because all my friends went to university. Then I noticed how much debt they were in just to be “cool”. That got my gears going so I started working 3 jobs during the summer and one during the school/running season. I was able to continue running in community college which got me a lot of scholarship money. I then found a university that would continue to pay me to run and have a academic transfer scholarship. I also took advantage of my school offering a anything below 18 credits is the same tuition rate all year. (Anything over is the extra credit owed). Just so I could graduate on time.

    Now my peers are salty at me for graduating debt free and accusing me of getting it all handed to me.
    I worked my ASS off to get a big running scholarship, I worked my ass off to get a great Deans List GPA, and I worked my ass of during the summers to afford tuition on my own without help.

    It’s not my fault those peers choose to go to huge university to be in debt when they could’ve gone to community college for the same classes. Also not my fault they didn’t research into ALL colleges even the ones nobody has heard of before to see how much money is being handed out freely!

  3. Hi Erin: I’m responding to encourage “non-traditional” students (older folk) to go back to school. I dropped out of high school in 1969 and realized, at age 40, I wanted to find out what I’d missed. I discovered that if I worked for my local university, tuition for employees was a fraction of the cost for regular students. It took me several years to get a job at the university. My university was willing to allow employees to have flexible schedules (if their department approved) so I continued working while taking classes. It took me 7 years to graduate but when I did I had no student debt (it cost around $300 per term so since I was working I could “pay-as-you-go”). I had a wonderful time, and graduated in 2003. I am very grateful that my course work included computer science, anthropology, and Spanish. Instead of being stuck in the 1970’s, I have the same education as a 21-year-old who graduated in 2003. So, if you wish you’d gone to college, make it happen! It’s great!

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