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How to Graduate Debt Free

| July 03, 2018
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Seems like a foreign concept, doesn’t it, graduating debt-free? The average debt of the class of 2017 students finishing their undergraduate degree was $39,400, and 88% of students attending a for-profit school graduated with at least some debt. Those numbers are astounding and they’ve grown significantly in recent years.

Believe it or not, the good news is, it is still very possible to graduate with little to no debt, and we’ll outline some of the strategies to do so below. We understand there are certainly fields (such as medical) where it can be far more difficult to graduate debt free. However, the strategies we'll talk about will certainly go a long way in even reducing the debt load for students.

1) CLEP, Dantes, AP and standardized testing

CLEP and Dantes (DSST) exams test you on specific topics which allow you to display mastery in a particular area. In other words, if you already know it, no need to waste your time and hard earned money on re-learning it at an entry level. This is a huge benefit to students.

In fact, even if you are not yet mastery of a particular subject, why not take a season and self-study? Purchase text books on the subject. You can actually purchase CLEP and DSST course study materials to help prepare you for the tests. Treat this as if you are in the classroom learning it. Spend as much time as you would in the class room. Write papers on the subject, test yourself, learn what you don’t know. Then take the exam once you feel your knowledge in this subject is adequate.

This sort of self discipline will save you significantly. Consider the cost of a college class averaging around $1,500 - $3,000. At around $85 per CLEP test, 5 successful tests saves you around $10,000. Boom! The more you test out the more you save! There are 33 CLEP tests, 38 DSST tests and 34 AP, so have at ‘em!

This will not make college free for you. However, do your research to determine how your school of choice treats standardized testing such as CLEP, AP or Dantes as it relates to college credit. In my personal experience, I was able to test out of an entire semester of college and I knew students who did even more than that!

2) Get the basic credits done at a community college, then transfer to your ideal school of choice.

There are many benefits to this strategy. First is saving money. The average cost of a community college in 2017 was $135 per credit hour. Implementing the strategy of spending your first 2 years out of 4 at a community college is shown to save on average between $10,000 and $20,000!

Often, community colleges offer flexibility in class times. You’ll find night classes, day classes, online classes, they often appeal to the working adult.

Third, it might help you with qualifying for your school of choice. If your high school GPA, ACT or SAT score caused you to not be accepted to your favorite school, you have a couple of years to work on a new track record for your dream school to take into consideration through the grades you achieve at the community school.

One thing to mention before pursuing this strategy. You’ll want to be sure your credits will transfer. Simply meeting with the academic advisor at the school you intend to graduate from should steer you in the right direction in this regard.

One more quick note on this strategy. Many students find themselves switching their field of study halfway through. They lose interest or second guess their career choice. Students who spend the first couple of years at a community college will be grateful they went this route if they end up changing course. 

3) Find all the scholarships!

The amount of scholarships you can apply for is virtually unlimited! There are so many of them out there, it is worth spending some time researching possibilities for you. Don’t assume scholarships are only for straight-A students or student athletes! There could be scholarships available based on where you went to high school, your household income, ethnicity, skills, clubs, field of study, contest winners, involvement in the community, etc. 

4) Work part time

Paying your way through school through part time work is possible most of the time, but rarely easy. It limits your social life, you'll sacrifice sleep, and your grades might suffer as you have less time to study. But consider the benefits of graduating with a fresh slate to start your career without financial constraints of having to pay back debt! 

Some tips here would be to find something with flexible hours, willing to work around your school schedule. Consider not taking on both a full time work load and full time school load. Burnout can happen quickly!

The ideal job is a position that also helps pay for part or all of your school. For example, in 2014 Starbucks teamed up with Arizona State to offer all of its employees who work more than 20 hours a week the opportunity for a 100% tuition-free 4 year degree from ASU. Wow!

5) Join the military

Military members receive a wide range of opportunities for covering college costs. Tuition assistance and scholarships are plenty. Here’s a resource with more information. 

6) Rich uncle?

If nothing else, it is never a bad idea to check in with your rich uncle Jim who wants to see you succeed!

As you head back to school, remember the age old adage, sleep, study, socialize. Choose two. When it comes to school, there’s so much to do, so little time. Hang in there, prioritize your time, and play your cards right so you aren’t left paying loans for years and years to come.

Good luck!

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