How I Graduated from College … Totally Debt-Free

The five steps I took to earn a degree without owing a dime to anybody.

According to the most recent numbers from the Institute for College Access and Success, the average American college graduate walks out of school carrying close to $30,000 in debt. To give you a better idea of just how massive this problem is, the nation’s combined student loan debt last year was $1.12 trillion dollars, eclipsing the nation’s credit card debt by about $300 billion.

If that $1.12 trillion estimate is giving you the heebie-jeebies yet, let me put it this way: America’s collective college debt is a higher amount than the federal government is spending on either Medicaid or Medicare. It’s a sum that exceeds federal spending on Social Security programs by a good $200 billion, and a tally that surpasses the 2015 budget’s military, education, transportation and food assistance appropriations combined.

Saddled with backbreaking debt before their careers even begin, the grim consequences for today’s college graduates are already apparent. Fewer grads are going into high-paying jobs, fewer grads are getting married and starting families and fewer grads are purchasing their own homes and paying property taxes. Instead of their income being recycled back into the economy, it’s going towards lenders and banks who have no qualms about dishing out another bag of free money to tomorrow’s debt-laden young adults. The similarities between today’s student loan industry and the subprime housing market circa 2006 even has organizations like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau speculating that another bubble burst and ensuing recession is nigh.

I got my bachelor’s of science in communication in 2012. While almost all of my classmates scurried off after the ceremony owing tens of thousands of dollars, I walked off the stage holding a diploma and zero dollars and zero cents in college debt. In a way, that little financial feat is almost as impressive as garnering a degree in the first place — anybody can eventually earn a degree as long as the government keeps giving them money to fail calculus over and over again, but to graduate from college without taking out a single loan from anybody? That’s akin to winning the Boston Marathon wearing flip-flops while everybody else in the race had on those stupid little shoes with the wheels inside them.

So, how exactly did I manage to accomplish this seemingly impossible 21st century feat? Well, here are the five things I did to get through college sans any help from the feds…

STEP ONE:

I saved up my own money before starting college.

Seeing as how I grew up in a family that didn’t produce a single high school graduate until George W.’s first term of office, it probably shouldn’t be that surprising that my parents never set up a college fund for me. Already having the money set aside for you in an exclusive account built over the course of 18 years is certainly the easiest way to make it through college without accumulating debt, but let’s face it — most parents these days are too busy paying off their own respective debts to even think about paving an easier career pathway for their own children. With that in mind, if you want to get through college without owing an entire year’s salary before even being fitted for a cap and gown, you’ll probably have to save up your own money ahead of time. Of course, you really can’t expect the average teenager to put his or her summer job money into a college savings account instead of using it to buy cell phones and synthetic marijuana, but if that’s your only way into higher education, it’s something you will force yourself into doing. I actually waited two years before entering college, doing the most menial, soul-crushing labor imaginable until I was able to save up about $4,000. Granted, it may not have been enough to send me to Harvard, but it was enough to get my foot in the door of higher education. Which brings me to my next cost-cutting measure …

STEP TWO:

Instead of going to a four-year institution immediately, I knocked out my general education requirements at a two-year community college.

For the life of me, I can’t figure out why more students don’t start off at junior and technical colleges. Not only are the way easier to get into than your basic four-year state schools, they are generally half, and sometimes even a quarter, of the cost to attend. What makes this even more perplexing is that in most states, the university systems and the community college systems generally work out some kind of agreement so that general education classes accumulated at a two-year institution easily transfer over to the four-year publics and privates. That means that you can pretty much knock out at least half your college course load at half-price — if not even a lower amount than that. So, what’s the point in spending $3,500 a semester at the University of Georgia when you can take the exact same classes — with credits that are just as transferable — at Georgia Highlands College for only $1,500?

STEP THREE:

When it did come time to pick a four-year school, I opted for a public over a private and a commuter school over a residential.

Once I got my general education requirements out of the way, it was time to select a “real” four-year school. As a journalism major, I clearly had no plans of ever making money professionally, so I decided to go with the most cost-effective school within a 40-mile radius and transitioned to a communication degree with a minor in journalism and some abstruse civic media nonsense. Yeah, I could have pursued one of the full-time journalism programs at UGA or Georgia State, but there’s no way I could have paid for them on my own dime. Instead of seeking prestige, I went for affordability — while the Kennesaw State social sciences department may not have had the glitz and glamour of Emory or Georgia Tech, it also give me an opportunity to pick up a degree without begging for a Stafford. By now, we all know that private schools are a lot more expensive than public schools; while it’s arguable that you are paying for higher quality instruction, you are also putting yourself in a much more expensive predicament, and without access to many of the financial assistance tools that you have access to at a public university. Which brings me to my next debt-prevention technique…

STEP FOUR:

I actually worked hard to good grades, which allowed me to get scholarships that paid off most of my tuition fees.

In Georgia, there is a statewide program called HOPE. Implemented in the early 1990s to keep students from going out-of-state for college, the scholarship (ironically enough, funded entirely by Georgia Lottery revenue) practically makes public schools free to all those who graduate from high school with high-enough GPAs, as well as those who earn steady marks throughout college. Granted, it doesn’t pay off all of the costs associated with college (it takes care of most of the tuition but it barely puts a dent in all those suspicious student activity fees, not to mention the exorbitant text book costs) but it nonetheless paid off at least half of my higher education costs. Additionally, having a well-above average GPA allowed me to participate in student work programs that weren’t available to the 3.0 students, with the supplemental income large enough to more or less pay off my remaining attendance costs. I am not sure how many other states have similar programs to HOPE, but the central thesis here is the same: if you get good grades, odds are, somebody’s going to give you money you don’t have to pay back to get your degree.

STEP FIVE:

Instead of interning, I worked throughout college and learned to live under my means.

Even with scholarships and the cash flow from a student job, I still struggled to make it through college. Really, the tuition, student fees and the book costs are just half of your expenses: there’s also room and board costs (if you’re not mooching off your parents), transportation costs, food costs and impressing-your-date costs. When you are just a kid in your early 20s relying solely on your own finances, those extra costs can really hammer you down; my last two semesters in college were so rough, I actually imposed a spending money on food moratorium Tuesdays through Thursdays to keep some emergency reserve funds in my pockets. Simply put, if you want to make it through college debt-free, you’re going to also have to work at least part-time. Odds are, this means you will probably have to do something pretty humdrum, like working at a restaurant or as a cashier, but if you play your cards right, you might end up landing a gig that’s actually kind of cool. In my case, I wound up becoming a roving community news reporter for an upstart online publication, which made me a two-year journalism professional before I even received a diploma. Sure, it wasn’t fun driving a crappy Kia Spectra with shot brakes to campus — nor was it much fun to use a pay-as-you-go-phone while everybody else had tablets — but eventually, that Spartan lifestyle led me to magna cum laude honors and a fresh new degree. And unlike a good 95 percent of my fellow graduates? As soon as I stepped off the stage, I owned my diploma outright. TC mark

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