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The following is a guest post by Lisa Bigelow, a content writer for Bold.

When it comes to paying for college, the anxiety about how to leave college debt-free starts early. And for thousands of grads who are buckling under the weight of monthly student loan payments that can cost as much as a mortgage, that worry can last for as long as 25 years.

According to EducationData.org and The College Board, the cost of a private school undergraduate education can exceed $200,000 over four years. Think you can avoid a $100k+ price tag by staying in-state? Think again—many public flagships can cost over $100,000 for residents seeking an undergraduate degree, including room and board. And with financial aid calculators returning eye-poppingly low awards, you’d better not get a second topping on your pizza.

In fact, you’d better hope that you can graduate on time.

The good news is that you can maintain financial health and get a great education at the same time. You won’t have to enroll as a full-time student and work 40 hours a week, either—each of the methods suggested are attainable for anyone who makes it a priority to leave college debt-free.

Here are four practical ways you can leave college debt-free (and still get that second pizza topping).

1. Cut the upfront sticker price

Don’t visit schools until you are certain you can afford them. Instead, prioritize the cost of attendance and how much you can afford to pay. Staying in-state is one easy way to do this. But if you have wanderlust and want to explore colleges outside state lines, an often-overlooked method of cutting the upfront cost is the regional tuition discount. Many US states participate in some form of tuition reciprocity or exchange programs. You can explore the full list of options at the National Association for Student Financial Aid Administrators website.

Let’s explore how this works. As a resident of a New England state, for example, you can study at another New England state’s public university at a greatly reduced cost if your home state’s public schools don’t offer the degree you want. So, for example, if you live in Maine but want to go to film school, you can attend the University of Rhode Island and major in film using the regional tuition discount.

Some universities offer different types of regional discounts and scholarships that appear somewhat arbitrary. The University of Louisville (in Kentucky) includes Connecticut in its regional scholars program. And at the University of Nebraska, out-of-state admitted applicants are eligible for several thousand dollars in renewable scholarship money if they meet modest academic standards.

If you already have your heart set on an expensive school and you’re not likely to qualify for reciprocity, financial help, or merit aid, live at home and complete your first two years at your local community college.

Here’s another fun fact: in some places, graduating from community college with a minimum GPA gives you automatic acceptance to the state flagship university.

2. Leverage dual enrollment and “testing out”

When you enroll in a four-year college it’s pretty likely that you’ll spend the first two years completing general education requirements and taking electives. Why not further reduce the cost of your education by completing some of those credits at your local community college, or by testing out?

Community college per-credit tuition is usually much cheaper than at four-year colleges, so take advantage of the lower rate in high school and over the summer after you’re enrolled in your four-year college.

But beware: you’ll probably need at least a C to transfer the credits, so read your institution’s rules first. Also, plan to take general education and low-level elective classes, because you’ll want to take courses in your major at your four-year school.

If you’ve been given the opportunity to take Advanced Placement courses, study hard for your year-end exams. Many colleges will accept a score of 3 or higher for credit, although some require at least a 4 (and others none at all). Take four or five AP classes in high school, score well on the exams, and guess what? You’ve just saved yourself a semester of tuition.

3. Take advantage of financial aid opportunities

After taking steps one and two, you probably have a good idea of what the leftover expense will be if you want to leave college debt-free. Your next job is to figure out how to cut that total even more by using financial aid. There are four types to consider.

The first is called need-based aid. This is what you’ll apply for when you complete your Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Known as the FAFSA, this is where you’ll enter detailed financial information, and you’ll need at least an hour the first time you complete this form. Hint: apply for aid as soon as the form opens in the fall. It is not a bottomless pot of money.

There is also medical-based financial aid. If you have a condition that could make employment difficult after graduating from college, you may be eligible, and qualifying is separate and apart from financial need and academic considerations.

The third type of aid relates to merit and is offered directly by colleges. Some schools automatically consider all accepted applicants for merit scholarships, which could relate to academics or community service or, in the case of recruited athletes, athletics. At other universities, you’ll need to submit a separate scholarship application after you’ve been admitted. Some merit awards are renewable for four years and others are only for one year.

If you didn’t get need-based or merit-based aid then you still may qualify for a private scholarship. Some require essays, some don’t, and some are offered by local community organizations such as rotary clubs, women’s organizations, and the like. Don’t turn your nose up at small-dollar awards, either, because they add up quickly and can cover budget-busting expenses such as travel and books.

4. Find easy money

Small-dollar awards really add up when you make finding easy money a priority. Consider using the following resources to help leave college debt-free:

  • Returns from micro-investing apps like Acorns
  • Tax return refunds
  • Browser add-ons that give you cashback for shopping online
  • Rewards credit cards (apply for a travel rewards credit card if you’re studying out of state)
  • Asking for money at the holidays and on your birthday
  • Working part-time by capitalizing on a special talent, such as tutoring, photography, or freelance writing

Leave College Debt-Free

Finally, if you have to take out a student loan, you may be able to have it forgiven if you agree to serve your community after graduation. The Peace Corps is one such way to serve, but if you have a specialized degree such as nursing, you can work in an underserved community and reap the rewards of loan forgiveness.


Lisa Bigelow writes for Bold and is an award-winning content creator, personal finance expert, and mom of three fantastic almost-adults. In addition to Credit.com, Lisa has contributed to The Tokenist, OnEntrepreneur, College Money Tips, Finovate, Finance Buzz, Life and Money by Citi, MagnifyMoney, Well + Good, Smarter With Gartner, and Popular Science. She lives with her family in Connecticut.


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