By now, you've heard that the average college debt among student loan borrowers in America is $32,731, according to the Federal Reserve—a number that's only rising and that can take up to two decades to pay off. It's a sum that can be overwhelming to even think about. But a college degree is important, so you're just going to have to take a deep breath and sign that borrower's note because, well, that's what you do right?
It doesn't have to be that way! It is possible to pay for college without student loans. Or, to borrow a lot less than the average. Here are nine steps you can take that can help minimize or even eliminate your student loan debt.
1. Apply for aid.
First things first: file the FAFSA. Wait, didn’t we just talk about not borrowing money for school? Yes, but federal student loans aren’t the only options the U.S. Department of Education offers to soon-to-be college kids. Filing the FAFSA also unlocks grants ("free money") and work-study opportunities to students who qualify. Depending on your household income, you might be eligible for non-loan aid that includes the Federal Pell Grant. Financial aid for college students in Virginia include the Virginia Guaranteed Assistance Program (VGAP) and the Virginia Tuition Assistance Grant (VTAG).
2. Consider co-op education.
Co-operative education programs, structured programs in which students get paid to work for outside employers and get college credit for doing so, can be a great way to finance your education. Not only are you making money while you gain real-world experience (unlike with many internships), in some programs you aren’t billed for tuition during the months you’re working. Co-op education programs typically require students to complete one to three practical learning experiences, which are typically full-time and last three to twelve months. Virginia Tech and Virginia Commonwealth University both offer cooperative education programs for certain degrees.
3. Prioritize the scholarship search.
Treat applying for college scholarships like a part-time job—because there’s a lot of money to be made. If you can spend several hours per weekend, more during the summer, searching for and applying to scholarships, you could potentially replace thousands of dollars worth of loans with “free” money. Fine-tune your essays frequently and ask a guidance counselor or supportive teacher for help proofreading and editing. Get creative in your scholarship search, as there are a colorful variety of opportunities available—Fastweb.com is a good place to start. There are many specific scholarships just for college students in Virginia, which could narrow your competition. If you’re a Member One member and need help paying for college in Virginia, check out our two scholarship opportunities here.
4. Work a little more.
Studies have shown that it can be beneficial to work a part-time job while in college—it hones time management and career-relevant skills. Work-study is often a good option if you’re offered it as part of your financial aid package, as it’s right on campus and allows you to study during your downtime. But don’t rule out off-campus job opportunities that may be more lucrative. And don’t be afraid to let your entrepreneurial side shine with a side hustle during your college years—Snapchat, Kinko’s, and Modcloth are just a few businesses born on college campuses.
5. Check out ROTC programs.
If you’re interested in a military career after college, Reserve Officer Training Corps programs can help pay the majority of your college expenses while getting you ahead on that career path. As a ROTC cadet who has committed to serving after college, you are eligible to have your full tuition, as well as the costs of fees and textbooks, covered for four years of college, and you’ll also receive a monthly stipend for living expenses. Many colleges in Virginia have ROTC programs on campus, including Virginia Tech, the University of Richmond, the College of William and Mary, and Radford University.
6. Stay open-minded about your college choice.
We’re not here to try to dissuade you from your dream school. In fact, depending on your situation, that dream school may be quite affordable—keep in mind that some seemingly expensive private schools, for example, actually have more scholarship and grant money to give away than your local State U. What we are saying is that the dream of graduating with no or minimal debt, ready to start your adult life on sound financial footing, may supersede dreams of one specific school. Apply to a mix of public and private schools and compare financial aid packages from each carefully.
7. Don’t rule out community college.
The Virginia community college system consists of 23 colleges on 40 campuses across the commonwealth. For the 2020-21 academic year, in-state tuition and mandatory fees for those colleges was about $2,310 for a semester of full-time study (15 credit hours). Compare that to more than $7,000 per semester for an in-state student at Virginia Tech and you can begin to see why two years at community school can be a great way for students in Virginia to graduate without debt. Numerous matriculation agreements exist in our state that guarantee admission, and in some cases scholarships, to Virginia community college students who plan on transferring to an in-state college or university after completing an associate’s degree.
8. Live the off-campus life.
A large portion of the typical grad’s debt may not even be tuition—room and board is a huge expense on your college bill. For example, on-campus students at Virginia Tech paid approximately $10,000 for room and board in the 2021-202 academic year.
To borrow less over the next four years, move off-campus as soon as your school allows. Get yourself a modest apartment and a roommate or three to split it with, and learn to cook to avoid shelling out for a meal plan (you’ll be sick of dining hall food in a semester or two anyway). If it’s feasible, you may even want to consider living at home with your family while commuting to a nearby university. Nobody would call the life of a commuter easy, but if you’re game it could save you thousands.
9. Make a dent in your loans while still in school.
Even if you can’t fully eliminate student loans from your life, you can graduate in four years with a lot less debt than the typical student. If you do borrow money to pay for school, strive to start paying it off before you graduate. Use that money from your work-study or part-time job to make little payments whenever you can, even if it’s just to pay off interest. It can add up to make a big difference and get you closer to achieving the next big goals in your life unhampered by hefty student loan bills.
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Whether you're a new college student incurring student loan debt or on the other side of college and working to pay it all off, know this—you’re not alone.