Today, everyone is trying to get ahead by going to college, but few consider the implications of graduating with student loans. At the same time, eighth-graders start to study for their SATs, 10th graders are looking for summer internships, and 11th graders look to take as many AP (advanced placement) classes as possible, all to get a leg up in their college career. We place such an emphasis on a college education, but in reality, how important is it? Do you need a degree to get a job, or can you pull a Mark Zuckerberg?
Initially, you might think earning a degree is necessary, maybe even mandatory, to obtain a respectable job. While yes, a degree is hugely respected, it might not be required, depending on your career goals.
In this article, we’ll look at the college degree from a 360-degree view, starting from the planning stages, to picking a worthwhile program, to paying for it without getting a student loan.
Do you even need to go to college?
If you are looking to enter the medical or engineering field, yes, you almost definitely need a degree to be competitive. However, if you’re looking to break into the business world, be warned it will be a hurdle for you to overcome, but you might be able to get a great job without a degree! You might have a great connection who is willing to look past the fact that you don’t have a degree and who will take a chance on you because of your impressive skills and experience.
There are some jobs out there that don’t require a college degree at all. For example, there are two month “coding boot camps” that places you in a job right after completion. Or, you can look at getting your real estate license age of 18 (depending on the state).
It could be that four years of college tuition is not possible right now given your financial situation, and with all the warnings you’ve gotten surrounding student loans, you’re nervous about taking them on. Continuing on that train of thought, you might reason that skipping college is the smart move. While you might be right in the short term, in the long run, a degree may help you get higher-level positions and higher salaries.
Listen, it makes sense that seeing a sticker price of $70,000 a year for college tuition scares you off. However, if you prepare for and utilize your time at college correctly, you might very well be able to graduate debt-free and reap the long term benefits of a college education.
Related read: How Hard is Medical School
Like with anything in life, you need to know your goal before embarking on a journey, and college is no different. Before even stepping onto campus, you need to know in your mind not only the dangers of student debt but the steps that you (yes, you!) are going to take to minimize your debt. And, if you ever want to become financially independent, being debt-free is key!
Student debt isn’t “chill” – it is literally like taking a 40-pound rock and putting it on your back for the foreseeable future. You want to avoid it at all costs as it can create a never-ending debt spiral! Lucky for you, there are MANY ways to get a college education and make the most of it without putting that boulder on your back. It all begins with having a plan.
Make a plan to graduate without student loans
The biggest problem with college students is that they are so busy planning how to get into college for their entire lives that they forget to plan what to do once they get there.
Starting in as early as in tenth grade, you need to start thinking about how you plan on paying for college. Do your parents have a college fund or 525 plan set up for you? If not, are they willing to contribute to your tuition? If so, how much? What’s your dream school, and how much does it cost? Do they offer a specific program that you are interested in? What major are you interested in? Do you plan on graduating early?
Having answers to these questions will allow you to start taking the necessary actions to ensure you are making the most of your upcoming college years.
Take action in high school
Simply put, college is too late to start thinking about how you will avoid student loans. Once you’ve begun putting together a college plan (or what you think might be a viable plan, no commitment needed yet!), start taking actions to make it a reality.
If you know you won’t qualify for financial aid and want to try for a merit scholarship, make sure to keep your grades up and score well on the SAT/ACT. Get involved in extracurriculars to beef up your resume and make you “stand out” to admission officers. If you are lucky enough to be talented in a specific sport, try getting an athletic scholarship.
Maybe your plan entails graduating a semester or year early so you can slash your overall college costs by 25%! Maximize your high school years by taking as many Advanced Placement (AP) classes as possible, which, if you pass, transfer in as college credit for many universities.
If APs are too stressful for you to balance with the rest of your classes, consider taking summer classes at your local community college. While not the most exciting summer option, it’s an extremely inexpensive way to earn credits, get closer to graduating early, and save on tuition.
Start saving for college early
When it comes to saving up for college, so much is out of your control. It wasn’t up to you whether your parents or grandparents put away money the day you were born for your college fund, or whether someone set up a 525 plan for you.
What is up to you is whether you start saving and investing throughout high school to help pay for your tuition. Don’t get me wrong; this is hard! When I babysat through high school, I would make $50 and immediately run to the mall with my friends to spend my “extra” money. Being smart with money is a mindset. Intelligent spending and saving habits need to be instilled young. Start by making a budget today using a free app, like Mint, or just your notes app on your phone. Keep track of how much you are making and how much you want to be saving. Your journey as a budget queen starts today!
When you’re a teenager, money doesn’t have a purpose beyond the here and now. But if you know that taking on even one more shift at your part-time job will save you from a life of student loans, you will be so motivated to push yourself. It goes the same way when it comes to spending; skip that latte when you’re 16 to save yourself from debt at 21.
Saving is only half the story. The other half is investing your savings young to give it as much time as possible to grow before you need to pay your tuition bills. Do NOT invest your money in risky stocks or bonds to “make quick money” because this is the college education you are messing with – keep it low risk with a low-cost S&P 500 ETF.
No matter what you do: DO NOT TOUCH IT! Do not tap into the fund for the newest collection, your Black Friday order, or even your mom’s holiday gift! Know that this money is off-limits for anything other than college.
Choosing a the right school
Choosing a school is stressful – there is too much to consider! You want a top school in a great location, preferably with prestige. Sometimes it’s easier to pretend that price isn’t a factor, but I recommend a reality check. Choosing a school should be the biggest factor.
When deciding where to apply, don’t assume you can’t look at private schools because of their crazy price tag – many times, private schools have more scholarships to give out!
Also – take advantage of your in-state schools, and get an instant 50% off sale on college just for living in your state!
If you can’t afford four years of tuition without taking out student loans, consider going to community college for a year or two and then transferring out. Where you graduate from is the only school employers will see, so don’t worry about how it will look to them. Doing so is a fantastic way to get a giant discount off your overall college tuition costs.
Ultimately, although it’s a HUGE downer, you should base your decision on where you can graduate debt-free. As a result, see who is offering you the most scholarship. If going to Harvard would require you to take out $200k+ of student loans and have a full ride to a state school, I recommend considering the state school. An ivy league diploma is NOT worth that kind of debt.
Always remember that although it feels like it in senior year, prestige is not everything. You can get a great job coming out of a no-name college. Employers are more concerned with your skills and experience than your college name.
Grants & loans
Let’s get one thing straight: grants and loans are NOT the same things. One is free money, the other is a type of debt.
When you fill out the FAFSA (which everyone should do in their senior year!), the government will decide how much financial aid you qualify for in the form of grants, loans, and work-study.
Grants are free money! The government will pay for part of your education with no expectation for you to pay it back. On the other hand, loans are the government lending you money to pay back after you graduate. Hang tight on the work-study – we’ll get into that in a bit.
Keep in mind that the FAFSA offers federal financial aid only, which is hard to qualify for. However, know that other opportunities exist for financial aid. Along with the FAFSA, apply for State financial aid and financial aid at your specific college. You might be surprised to see you qualify for some aid!
Lastly, know that there are dozens of essay competitions every year that allows students to compete for college scholarships. These are competitive and vary in scholarship amounts, but if you are a strong writer, why not try?
Choosing a college major
Ok. You chose a school. You received scholarships. Maybe you’re even in college – now what? Time to choose your major – which can be STRESSFUL. It feels like you’re getting asked to decide what single area you want to devote your life’s work too – it’s overwhelming at 18 years old! Of course, you should study what you love and what you’re passionate about, but you need to graduate with marketable skills to get the most of college.
Today, those skills are centered around coding and technical skills. It would help if you graduated from college by having taken at least one coding class, so you show prospective employers that you have those desirable technical skills. Make sure to graduate with as many “hard skills” (engineering, math, statistics) as possible, so you have what to show off to employers after four years of college.
Start thinking about where the world is heading, and see how you can fit that with your interests. If you love fashion, find the intersection between fashion and technology (Rent the Runway, Stitchfix, ThredUp) and see what skills you need to get there. A major isn’t everything; you can minor in a subject you love (like History or English) and still take a decent amount of classes to further your knowledge in that area.
Lastly, try to choose a major that has a “path.” Many times, students major in liberal studies without any idea what they intend to do after graduating. Doing so leads to confusion, stress, and ultimately more debt for graduate school because they don’t know what to do with their degree.
Working during college
Once you’re in college, you have four years (or less!) to find side hustles and do everything you can to pay off your education as you receive it. Lucky for you, there are SO many ways to make money in college – the opportunities are endless!
One of the best ways to make money in college is through a work-study program. Work-study is a type of financial aid that allows students to earn money through campus jobs on (or sometimes off!).
If you don’t qualify for work-study, you can still get an on-campus job as a teacher’s assistant, peer tutor, or work for the athletic department or the school libraries. Keep in mind these jobs won’t make you a lot of money – you’ll probably be paid minimum wage or close to it.
If you want to start making serious cash with a side hustle, look to babysit or tutor privately. Did you take a course and ace it? Students are taking it now, and need (and will pay some good money) you to tutor them. Post in your college Facebook group offering your services. You will be shocked by how much demand there is.
Or, look beyond your peers and start tutoring nearby elementary and high school students. Wherever you go to college, there are cities and communities close by that have hundreds of students just waiting for your help. Post in a nearby city’s Facebook Mom chat stating your qualifications and your services – you’re bound to pick up a few jobs!
Use apps like UrbanSitter and SitterCity to get high paying babysitting jobs around your area. Depending on where you live, these jobs can range from $18-$25+ an hour and many times require you to do your homework or watch Netflix in someone else’s living room while the kids are sleeping!
My favorite way to make money in college is by having paid internships, emphasis on PAID because unpaid internships are awful and should be illegal! Paid internships are Hannah Montana, giving you the best of both worlds – real-world experience and a paycheck!
Paid internships are competitive, so make sure your resume is updated and represents your skills and qualifications well. I’ve gotten most of my internships using online resources like Glassdoor, Indeed, and LinkedIn, but visit your school’s career center and see how they can help you secure an internship.
If you want more tips on making serious money in college, check out our “College 101” video which features advice every college student needs to know!
Out of the box ways to make money
Like I said earlier, the opportunities to make money during college are endless, including many out of the box ways beyond babysitting and tutoring.
You can get your bartender license and become a bartender at a nearby bar on weekends! Look for in-person focus groups happening near you, which pay upwards of $50-$80 an hour to hear your opinion on different matters. Or sell your old notes, books, or tests to current students.
You can start a business doing anything – haircuts, makeup, selling food, or even doing laundry for students who don’t want to do it themselves.
Take a minute and think about your talents or hobbies, whatever it is, there is a way to make money off of it – so find that way and use it to pay off your loans! Check out our video (linked) on how to make money!
Maximizing the magic of college
College is a magical time for so many reasons. It’s a maturing experience, an opportunity to become independent and develop as a human being. You continuously learn new skills and understand new things about yourself, getting closer to finding out who you want to be.
That said, there is no denying that college is expensive. So make sure you are not only doing everything in your power to prevent student loans but make the most of your four years!
I hope you enjoyed this article. If you have any creative ideas about how to graduate college without student loans, leave a comment below!
Tali & Liz