It really wasn’t that long ago when you could work your way through college and escape with no debt.
Now, the debt-free college experience is reserved for only a small group of students from wealthier families.
And while student loan debt may be a prerequisite for college grads, the amount of debt doesn’t have to be overwhelming.
How to Finish College With Less Debt
In a past life, I was a college admissions representative and an academic adviser. I’ve seen all kinds of students with all kinds of financial situations. The ones that finish college with less debt are the ones that do these things.
Consider starting at a community college first. Get your general degree requirements out of the way, and then transfer to an affordable four-year university. This is a great way to keep your costs down and your final degree will come from your four-year school.
Focus on the skills, not the job. Many students start college with a particular job in mind. Don’t focus on career trends. Don’t do this. Instead focus on the area of study you want to learn. Focus on the skills you will acquire in the program you choose. You’ll change jobs many times in your lifetime. Get an education that will allow you to adapt to those changes.
Follow a detailed course plan. Do not go to college to “figure out what to do” because that is a very expensive way to go through college. Start college knowing exactly what your goal is, and you’ll be able to stick to taking only the classes you need.
Triple check your adviser’s or counselor’s advice. College advisers are humans. They make mistakes. No one cares as much about your education as you do, so meet with your adviser, heed their suggestions and triple check that you are on the right path. A simple overlooked item on a transcript or a missed course can cost you thousands of dollars. It’s okay to ask a lot of questions along the way. You’re protecting an important investment in yourself.
Get all the scholarships you can. Scholarships are free money. All you have to do is spend the time to apply for them and then keep your grades up. There are scholarships for just about everything imaginable, so if you’re a champion bowler from Iowa, you may find some free money for school. Avoid any scholarships that require you to spend money to get money. Those are a scam.
Research the terms of your student loans. If you must borrow money for school, shop around for the lowest interest rates and best terms. See if you qualify for federal student loan programs, as they often have good rates. If you borrow money from family members, be sure to put the terms in writing, so that there are no hard feelings later on.
Find deals on college textbooks. Students can easily spend $1,000 a semester on textbooks if they’re not careful. Learn how to find free or cheap college textbooks, so that you don’t have to borrow the money for them.
Keep your living expenses low. If you can live rent-free with a family member, do it. Do the math to see whether it is cheaper for you to live on campus or whether you should find some friends and share an apartment near school. If you can, try to avoid borrowing money for your living expenses. Cook at home, plan your meals, and eat on the cheap to cut costs.
Do your homework and do it well. You are paying good money for your college education, so don’t waste it. Go to class. Do the work. Do your very best. Do not flunk classes and do not withdraw from classes. If you’re stuck, get help. Talk to your instructors, find the tutoring center, or create a study group. Your hard work will be noticed by future employers. You do not want to be paying for your mistakes the next 10 years.
Make school your number one priority. I have seen students sacrifice their grades and their health for part-time jobs they insisted they had to have to get through school. But mostly, those part-time jobs just paid for socializing and spring break. (The exception to this would be jobs that pay your college tuition.) Jobs can create an incredible amount of stress that prevents you from doing your best. Work as little as possible while you’re in school so that you can get focus on getting good grades and make time to participate in extracurricular activities. Those extracurricular activities help you form important networks for finding jobs later in life and show employers you’re well-rounded.
Push through college as quickly as you can and still get good grades. My husband and I worked our tails off to complete our college degrees in less than 4 years. My husband earned his master’s degree in just one-and-a-half years. How? Taking very full course loads and summer courses. Tuition goes up every year and the debt accumulates, so the quicker you can get through and start that money-making career, the better off you’ll be.
A college education can provide you with an incredible learning experience and access to jobs you may not otherwise be able to get. It’s an investment, but it doesn’t have to be financially devastating.