After years of high school education, many young students are anxious to jump into their college degree programs. Yet before they can open the door to their learning, they must figure out how they can pay for it. Many are quick to sign up for student loans without thinking of the far-reaching consequences. Getting through college debt-free is always a better choice, and here are some tips to help you achieve that.
Understanding the Scale of Student Loan Debt
“Student loan debt is a huge problem in America. According to the Federal Reserve, in the third quarter of 2020 the student loan debt average had risen to $1.7 trillion. That is a staggering amount of debt for the community to carry.” – Professor Zach Falcon, Vice President of Hybrid Learning at Unity College
And the number is growing. In the first quarter of 2006, the first year the metric was recorded, student loan debt was much lower at $4.8 million.
Wrapping your head around that large of a number can be challenging, but consider this: Based on current projections, the average American student will graduate with $35,000 in college debt. Because of the effect of the interest rate on these loans, that amount can take up to 30 years to repay. Taking on student debt means spending your entire young adulthood, and much of your middle-age years, repaying those loans. Clearly, if at all possible, it makes more sense to avoid student loan debt rather than starting off on the wrong financial foot.
Understanding the Appeal of Student Debt
If student loan debt is such a big problem in the United States, why do so many students get caught in the trap? Student loans seem like a good idea when you’re starting the college journey. They give you the money you need to pay that bill, and often some additional money for your living expenses. You don’t have to start repaying them until after you graduate, so it can seem like a free pass. Yet once you graduate, you are trapped in years of paying down that debt.
Strategies to Avoid Student Debt
So, what can you do to avoid the student loan debt trap? These strategies work and will help protect you from these problems.
1. Embrace Hybrid Learning
The rise of online education has created a unique option for today’s college students, especially through hybrid education. Hybrid learning takes the advantages of online education—flexibility and affordability—and merges it with occasional on-campus classes and experiences. This structure ends up being far more affordable than in-person learning for many students, while still providing an occasional on-campus environment that can round out the overall educational experience.
Even when the per-credit costs are the same, the flexibility of a hybrid program can significantly cut down on costs that aren’t always associated with learning—from childcare to transportation expenses. In addition, you enjoy greater flexibility with most hybrid programs because classwork is often asynchronous. In other words, instead of structured class times that you need to attend, coursework can be completed at times that are convenient to you. This allows you to work more hours and get income to pay for your college education.
Unity College has a number of hybrid degrees and programs, and our hybrid students take out almost 50% fewer loans than traditional students. This is an excellent strategy for reducing your college debt load without sacrificing the quality of your education.
2. Determine to Pay Cash for Your Education
One of the best strategies to ensure you don’t go into debt with your college education is your own personal determination. If you determine from the outset that you will pay cash for your degree, it will force you to look for those opportunities to lower your costs (such as hybrid learning models). This may mean that your education takes longer, or you find some affordable summer school options to get some credits out of the way. And it will also mean that you start saving long before you head to school. But making this determination early will help you stay on track, even when the temptation to take on debt is strong.
3. Choose Schools Carefully
The cost of your education will depend largely on where you go to school, so shop around a bit. A public, in-state, four-year college, for instance, will cost far less than a prestigious university education. If a private school degree is more in line with what you need, you will find quite a bit of variety from one school to the next. Similarly, a school with hybrid learning options will often be a more affordable choice. While you shouldn’t make your school choice based on cost alone, it is definitely a factor worth considering.
4. Transfer Credits
If going to a state or community college isn’t the right path for you, you can still take advantage of the lower costs from these opportunities by transferring credits. Taking your general ed classes at your local community college, even starting when you are still in high school to get some credits as dual credit for both high school and college, then transferring them to the university of your choice can help you lower the overall cost of your education. You can use the same strategy to knock out some general ed courses more affordably in the summer term at your local community college. Make sure you check on transfer requirements before going this route and choose only those classes that you are confident will transfer.
5. Apply for All Aid You Can
Be sure to apply for scholarships and grants you might qualify to receive. First, fill out and submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The FAFSA determines any aid you qualify for on a federal and state level, and many private or school-based scholarships and grants start with the FAFSA to determine eligibility. Then, look at private organizations you may be connected to in the community or through professional organizations, including your parents’ work, and apply for anything you qualify for.
6. Test Out of Courses
For some of your general ed courses, you may have the option to “test out.” By taking the College-Level Examination Program (CLEP) exam for classes like basic math or English 101, you can get college credit for the knowledge you already have without having to take the class.
While there is a cost for these exams, it is much lower than the cost to take the class. Study hard in high school and use that knowledge to test out of your college-level courses.
7. Work On-Campus
Another option to help lower the cost of your college experience is finding on-campus work. For instance, if you become a Resident Advisor in your college dorm, you may receive discounts on housing and food while at school. This lowers your costs significantly, so you can put more of your money toward your tuition costs. Work-study programs provide the option to work on-campus for reduced tuition costs.
8. Take on a Part-Time Job
If on-campus work isn’t a good fit, then consider taking on a part-time job. Surprisingly, students who work part-time are actually higher academic achievers in college than those who don’t. Working part-time in school will give you money for tuition while also helping you learn to manage your time more efficiently, so you achieve better grades. That said, this strategy only works if the money goes toward your tuition, not your college fun.
9. Discuss Repayment Plans
Talk to your college about their repayment plan options. Rather than paying upfront for your education, you may be able to enter into a repayment plan that spreads your tuition out over time. This is interest-free, so it’s a much better option than most student loans.
In conclusion, navigating the complexities of financing a college education can be daunting, but it’s crucial to prioritize financial wellness and make informed decisions to minimize the burden of student loan debt. By implementing a combination of strategies such as embracing hybrid learning, seeking out scholarships and grants, working part-time, and exploring alternative financing options, students can significantly decrease or even eliminate the need for student loans.