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With demand for student loans and the pricetag on tuition rising in direct relationship every year, it has become increasingly difficult to graduate college without owing money. In fact, most college graduates— approximately seven in every ten, including one in every two students from high income households — leave campus with an average of $33,000 in debt. That’s the “new normal“, and students shouldn’t be afraid to take out a loan to fund their future. Getting a higher education is still a good investment.
 
But there are some less-traveled roads that students can take to minimize loan amounts or bypass taking out loans altogether. These roads are especially suited to students who are open to researching unconventional schools, making an informed decision on funding themselves, and trying alternative modes of learning.
 

WHAT IF I TOLD YOU… Three in every ten college students graduate without debt, and that at least one of those three does not come from a high income household?

 

Meet Our Guide:

As a student, he completed bachelor’s and master’s degrees without accumulating student loan debt. He attributes this accomplishment to having earned a scholarship from his undergraduate institution and financial assistance from his parents, as well as to having earned an assistantship to teach academic and online writing at a large, public research institution. Now an independent contractor and data journalist for the industry of Higher Education, he studies student loan debt and alternative learning methods, often finding that a large chunk of graduating without student loans can be distilled into the following four pieces of advice:

 

  • Do Research that Involves Crunching Numbers
  • Use Social Networking to Apply for Local, Regional and National Funding
  • Treat Getting an Education like Running a Business
  • Think Outside the Conventional U.S. Classroom

 
 
 

JJackson Headshot

Joshua Jackson is a freelance writer, researcher, and data journalist. His infographics and articles have appeared on websites revolving around issues of public health, the college ranking systems, and education reform. A graduate and former instructor of English at the University of Arkansas, he resides in Northwest Arkansas, home of the Ozarks, Wal-Mart and the Little Golden Gate Bridge.

 
 
 

Do Research that Involves Crunching Numbers

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Look for Low Cost Universities with Fixed, Guaranteed or In-State Tuition Rates

A number of colleges and universities offer tuition rates that are either fixed or guaranteed, meaning that their rate does not go up over the course of four years like it does at most colleges and universities. Some programs allow out-of-state residents from within the same region to pay in-state tuition, which, when factoring alongside a fixed or guaranteed rate, is far less expensive than the average cost for a year at college: $21,902 if you find the mean of private, in-state public, and out-of-state public tuition averages. Judging by the list below, Texas and Illinois are good states to shop for colleges with these kinds of deals.

 

    COLLEGE OR UNIVERSITY TUITION*

  •     Angelo State University: San Angelo, TX $6,559
  •     Berkeley College: multiple New York and New Jersey locations $7,700
  •     Chicago State University: Chicago, IL $9,032
  •     Columbia College: Columbia, MO $7,115
  •     Eastern Illinois University: Charleston, IL $11,144
  •     Illinois State University: Normal, IL $13,010
  •     Lamar University: Beaumont, TX $7,429
  •     Midwestern State University: Wichita Falls, TX $7,665
  •     New Saint Andrews College: Moscow, ID $11,200
  •     Northeastern Illinois University: Chicago, IL $8,460
  •     Northern Illinois University: DeKalb, IL $12,976
  •     Ohio University: Athens, OH $10,446
  •     Prairie View A&M University: Prairie View, TX $6764
  •     Sam Houston State University: Huntsville, TX $7,022
  •     Southern Illinois University: Carbondale, IL $12,092
  •     Southern Illinois University: Edwardsville, IL $9,666
  •     Stephen F. Austin State University: Nacogdoches, TX $8,412
  •     Sul Ross State: Eagle Pass, TX $3,984
  •     Tarleton State University: Stephensville, TX $5,856
  •     Texas A&M University: All Locations $5,578 – 8,506
  •     Texas Southern University: Houston, TX $7,946
  •     Texas Tech University: Lubbock, TX $7,517
  •     Texas Women’s University: Denton, Dallas, and Houston, TX $7,339
  •     University of Colorado: Boulder, CO $10,347
  •     University of Houston: Houston and Victoria, TX $8,401
  •     University of Illinois at Chicago: Chicago, IL $13,410
  •     University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign: Champaign, IL $14,750
  •     University of Kansas: Lawrence Kansas $10,107
  •     University of North Texas: Denton, TX $8,745
  •     University of Texas: All Locations, TX $7,222-10,864
  •     Western Illinois University: Macomb, IL $11,767
  •     West Texas A&M University: Canyon, TX $6,500

Research the Percentage of Students Who Receive Federal Pell Grants and the Percentage of Students Who Graduate with Debt Where You Apply

Knowing what percentage of students receive Federal Pell Grants (i.e., a gift they don’t have to pay back) versus what percentage graduate with student loan debt can tell us something about how likely an applicant is to graduate with debt. If the percentage of students who receive Federal Pell Grants in a particular state or at a particular institution is high, for instance, then the chances of a new student receiving one of those grants tend to be higher, along with their chances of graduating without debt. Conversely, if the percentage of students graduating with debt in a particular state and from a particular institution is higher, then the likelihood of a new student receiving a Federal Pell Grant tends to be lower, while the likelihood of graduating with debt tend to be higher. Of course, we’re speaking in generalities here, and there are many other factors to account for when looking at grants (e.g., race and income demographics, which will be discussed below), but it’s best to be wary of schools and states where a high percentage of students graduate with debt at the same time as we increase our awareness of schools and states where a high percentage of students receive Federal Pell Grants. Such an awareness helps us better play the odds, if not put them in our favor.

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Go Where the Majority of Students Receive Funding via Grant, Scholarship or Work Study Program

Look at a college or university’s financial aid page for information on how many students receive grants, scholarships or work studies. If a school does not provide that number, and many don’t, then look it up on CollegeData and check its financial aid profile under “Money Matters”. Using this dataset, find the “Average Percent of Need Met” and the percentage of applicants who receive “Need-Based Gifts.” The closer these indicators are to 100 percent, the better.

You can also use this database to research scholarships that you might apply for to receive a “Merit-Based Gift.” A choice few colleges and universities only admit students whom they can furnish with “full-ride” grants and scholarships. Although rare, most of these institutions ask their students to work full-time under a work study program, which certainly won’t hurt the new graduate’s prospects on the job market. A list of those is provided below.

    

    Members of the Work College Consortium

  •     Alice Lloyd College
  •     Berea College
  •     Blackburn College
  •     College of the Ozarks
  •     Ecclesia College
  •     Sterling College
  •     Warren Wilson College

    

Start. Saving. Early.

If we’re looking at the big picture of covering college tuition and the cost of living, then students (and probably a willing parent) should look into a college savings plan as early as possible.

Some Do’s and Don’ts

DON’T be afraid to use Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms to connect with financial planners, university professionals, student loan experts, or charitable friends and family.

DO download apps like Mint to track checking, investment and savings account information. Or, for much younger students and their parents, download BigStart and BigDreamers, which are gaming apps that help younger learners find out more about themselves, what they want to be when they grow up, and how to achieve those dreams with financial awareness.

DO open and contribute regularly to a 529 Plan, which is tax-deductible and will allow contributors to collect on the benefits of long-term investment, such as compound interest. Use a plan finder to choose a 529 plan in a state where attendance is desired; however, choosing in-state is smarter.

DO start saving an emergency fund. If we’re looking at the smaller picture of year-to-year living, it’s wise for the student himself to open a savings account as soon as possible and begin contributing at least a hundred dollars a month. That small amount of money, if planted in the ninth grade and cultivated monthly over the course of four years, will grow to $4,800 by high school graduation. A comfortable nest egg such as this can go a long way toward covering expenses such as books, fees and the other unforeseeable costs that come with college and can accumulate to force students going into credit card debt or taking out unnecessary loans.

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Determine FAFSA Eligibility

Every student, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, or household income, should submit the Free Application For Federal Student Aid. If a student comes from a low-income household, from an underserved community, or is of a religious, racial, ethnic or gender minority group, then they may be eligible for special grants or need-based aid.

MYTH OR FACT?

Minority students receive more financial aid than non-minority students.

MYTH: Minority students are less likely to win private scholarships or receive merit-based institutional grants than non-minority students.

White students receive the majority of scholarships and grants.

FACT: White students receive more than three-quarters (76%) of all institutional merit-based scholarship and grant funding.

(SOURCE: http://www.finaid.org/scholarships/20110902racescholarships.pdf)

How to Fill Out the FAFSA

After the FAFSA

  
  

Apply for Grants, Scholarships & Work Study Programs

For scholarships beyond merit- or need- based aid offered by the government, sift through this blog and this database. Apply to scholarships for which you are eligible like it’s a part-time job. Try to submit at least one per week. With an eye for the long term, search for jobs or careers that may allow loan forgiveness if you take out a Federal Student Loan. Vocations such as these include teaching, military service and other public service careers.

      

DID YOU KNOW? Public Loan Forgiveness is non-taxable, while Income-Driven Forgiveness is.

Types of Aid

Loan Forgiveness Presentation by Heather Jarvis

    

Treat Getting an Education like Running a Business

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A DOSE OF REALITY: Seven out of ten college students work while earning their degrees, the same proportion as graduate with debt. This is fitting, because with tuition prices as high as they are, most students can’t work their way through college to offset debt anymore.

THE SILVER LINING(S): More than two in every three students who work have less than $50,000 in debt, meaning that working learners tend to have lower debt than students who do not work. Students who work also tend to be more upwardly mobile after college than their non-working peers, which makes them more likely to move into managerial positions than those who treat college like a four-year vacation.

(SOURCE: https://cew.georgetown.edu/wp-content/uploads/Working-Learners-Report.pdf)

Make Use of Crowdfunding

The Internet tends to appreciate self-starters, and sites like Kickstarter, GoFundMe and Piglt are perfect platforms to self-start an education. Use them to set a funding goal, upload videos to express why people should invest in you, and conduct follow-up marketing campaigns through email and social media. Not for the faint of business acumen, this option has the potential to be lucrative, with one particularly inspiring student raising more than $60,000 for her education.

QUICK MARKETING TIPS:
Tell a compelling and creative story.
Keep donors posted on short and long term goals.
Add a personal touch to social media and email message.
Express gratitude.

Ask Employers to Invest in You

Pitch the idea of increasing value to an employer by getting an education than will benefit their business. This is an especially good option for students who know they want to work for a specific business or company after graduation, and ideally work there already. Some businessesalready have Employer Tuition Reimbursement programs in place. All such programs are capped, allowing employers to contribute as much as $5,250 per year (an amount you can tell them is tax-deductible if they don’t already have one). That money can go towards tuition, books, fees or any cost associated with a college education. Think: new laptop.

  • Companies that Offer Tuition Reimbursements of $3,000 or Higher Per Year”COMPANY AMOUNT OFFERED PER YEAR
  •     Apple $5,000
  •     AT&T $5,250
  •     Bank of America $5,250
  •     Boeing $3,000
  •     Best Buy $3,500
  •     Chevron $5,250*
  •     Disney $5,250**
  •     Ford $5,000
  •     Gap $5,000
  •     Home Depot $5,000
  •     Intel $5,250***
  •     Proctor & Gamble $5,250****
  •     Verizon $8,000
  •     Wells Fargo $5,000

      *75% of all educational costs.
      **$700 per credit hour, 100% reimbursement for books, and $100 per course for the cost of materials.
      ***100% of reimbursable costs, including tuition and textbooks.
      ****80% of cost of education with a lifetime cap of $40,000.

      (SOURCE: http://www.businessinsider.com/companies-that-will-pay-for-your-tuition-2014-6)

Look into Tax Credits and Deductions for Higher Education Expenses

Assuming a student is working, there are a few credits and deductions they can take advantage of come tax season. Some of these benefits are designed for student loan holders (see: Student Loan Interest Deduction). However, most are designed to incentivize hardworking college students to run their educations like a business.

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Think Outside the Conventional U.S. Classroom

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“There’s a lot to be said for looking outside the traditional, four-year college classroom—and outside the country.”

Go the Community Route

According to the College Board, average in-state tuition at a community college for 2014-2015 was $3,347. That’s a little over one-third the cost of in-state tuition at a public university, about three-twentieths (i.e., 15%) of out-of-state tuition at a public university, and one-tenth the cost of private college tuition. In other words, going the community route can save tons of money—more than $12,000 a year when comparing average community college rates with in-state public school rates — especially as community college courses are designed to transfer to a larger, local public school, where students can also eventually transfer after having completed 2 of 4 years for a degree they will receive at less than full price.

Top 10 Best Community Colleges in the U.S.

  •     Walla Walla Community College: Walla Walla, Washington
  •     Santa Barbara City College: Santa Barbara, CA
  •     Lake Area Technical Institute: Watertown, SD
  •     East San Gabriel Valley Regional Occupational Program & Technical Center: West Covina, CA
  •     New Mexico Military Institute: Roswell, NM
  •     North Central Kansas Technical College: Beloit, KS
  •     Valencia College: Orlando/Winter Park/Kissimmee/Lake Nona, FL
  •     Snow College: Ephraim, UT
  •     Saint Paul College: St. Paul, MN
  •     Maryland Community College: Spruce Pine, NC
  • (SOURCE: http://www.thebestschools.org/blog/2013/05/28/50-community-colleges-united-states/).

Serve in the Military and Receive Benefits To Put Toward Your Education

Both veterans and active military personnel have a number of options to fund and pursue a higher education. These military benefits include Tuition Assistance for every service branch, a benefit that can cover 100 percent of tuition and fees up to a max of $4,500 per year; the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which is available to service personnel, Reserve and Guard members, as well as veterans who served at least 90 consecutive days after September 11th, 2001, and which can provide up to 36 months of financial assistance with the expenses of a college education; the Yellow Ribbon Program, which can cover the entire cost of in-state tuition and fees at participating public universities; and Loan Repayment, which allows the U.S. Military to partially or fully pay an enlisted service member’s student loans. Based on their allowance of these benefits, colleges and universities often groom themselves to be Military Friendly institutions, lists of which are provided below. The list for online Military Friendly schools is ranked by the highest level of assistance provided by the Yellow Ribbon Program for those schools.

Top 10 Military Friendly Traditional Universities and Top 10 Military Friendly Online Colleges

  • TRADITIONAL ONLINE
  • University of La Verne (CA) Columbia College
  • University of Alabama (AL) University of Maryland University College
  • Liberty University (VA) Saint Leo University Online
  • University of South Carolina, Columbia (SC) Eastern Kentucky University
  • University of Oklahoma (OK) Stratford University
  • Northwood University – Michigan (MI) Argosy University Online
  • Kansas State University (KS) Colorado Technical College – Online
  • Regis University (CO) Brandman University (Online Campus)
  • St. Joseph’s College – New York (NY) University of Nebraska at Omaha
  • Western Kentucky University (KY) American Public University System
  • (SOURCE TRADITIONAL: http://www.bestcolleges.com/features/top-military-friendly-colleges/)

  • (SOURCE ONLINE: http://www.guidetoonlineschools.com/online-schools/military-friendly)

Take Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)

Massive open online courses have become excellent tools for acquiring professional skills, and increasingly, careers. Although first looked-down-upon for having unsustainable business models—courses used to be entirely free! They recently started charging fees in exchange for certifications, some of which may be help earn college credit. What’s more, however, is that MOOC takers are claiming more and more tangible career benefits such as pay raises, promotions, and even the knowledge and skills necessary to startup a new business. Students who are running their education like a business might also look into some of the tax benefits that MOOCs might help them take advantage of, such as the Business Deduction for Work-Related Expenses, which may allow a tax deduction for MOOC fees paid toward courses related to their work.

MOOCS
(SOURCE: https://hbr.org/2015/09/whos-benefiting-from-moocs-and-why)

Attend International Universities

Of all the ways to cut college costs and graduate debt-free, going to a free international college or university is the most underrated. At least nine countries have free programs, including but not limited to zero tuition fees for those accepted to universities in Germany, Brazil, Iceland, Luxembourg, Norway, Panama, Finland, and the Czech Republic. Although the language of instruction may not be English in some of these countries, it is for many, especially among courses for graduate students, but often for undergraduates also. As this ranking demonstrates, German universities are particularly welcoming to U.S. students.

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Related Rankings:
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The Most Affordable Online Colleges
The 25 Best Small Colleges
The 50 Best Colleges for Non-Traditional Students
The 50 Best Online Learning Sites