3 Ways to Pay for College While Avoiding Debt

By Carrie Sullivan

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As a young adult, going to college is a huge milestone in your life and a stepping stone to your future.  It’s a time when you have hit the ripe old age of adulthood and the beginning of declaring your independence.

Yay for freedom!

This all sounds exciting when you are an 18-year-old embarking on a brand new journey into what appears to be newfound freedom until reality sets in and you realize that with that newfound freedom comes a whole new set of responsibilities.

If you are heading off to college, one of those “new” responsibilities will include paying for college.  Some of you may already have a college or savings fund to pay your way through college.  However, over 65% of college students today graduate with student loan debt (Hanson)

Here are some alarming student loan statistics, according to Education Initiative at  educationdata.org:

  • The United States student loan debt totals 1.762 trillion dollars 
  • The total average federal student loan debt balance is $37,014.  
  • The average monthly payment for a Bachelor’s degree ranges from $354 to $551

If you don’t have the money to pay for college up front, you still have options other than student loans.  These options offer alternative ways to help pay for college without racking up a bunch of student loans and facing a mountain of debt at a time when your life is just beginning.

There is no “one-size fits all” option.  Everyone’s background and story are unique to them.  The most important first step before making any decisions is to research all of your options and make sure you choose the best option that is right for you.  

In this article, we will explore the following alternative options for you to consider before thinking student loans are your only option:

Before we dive into these options, keep in mind that in your excitement to start experiencing your journey into your new path of freedom and adulthood, go in with your eyes wide open. 

Write out in great detail your goals and what you envision your life looking like after college.  

  • Where will you live? 
    • Back home with your parents?
    • On your own?  If so, will you purchase a home or rent it?
    • With roommates?
  • How much income will you make in your first “real” job?  
    • $50,000 – $75,000
    • $75,000 – $100,000
    • $100,000+

*be sure to do your research on this, don’t just assume you’re going to find a job in the field you want right away or that you will start off at top dollar.

  • What will your bills look like?  
    • Heat, Electric, & Water
    • Phone
    • TV & Internet
    • Groceries & Dining Out
    • Gas
    • Transportation Expenses
      • Vehicle payment
      • Gas
      • Auto Insurance
      • Maintenance (oil/filter changes, tires, etc.)
    • Home or renter’s insurance
    • Home repairs
    • Clothing
    • Personal care (hair care, nails, cosmetics, shaving kit, etc.)
    • Hobbies (sports, hunting, fishing, reading, photography, woodworking, technology, snowmobiling, camping, travel, etc.)
    • Subscriptions
      • Gym
      • Music
      • Netflix/Hulu/Disney, etc.
      • Amazon Prime
      • XM Radio
      • OnStar
      • Meals
    • Will you have pets?
      • Pet food & toys
      • Vet bill
    • Health/Dental/Vision Insurance
      • Premiums
      • Copays & Coinsurance
    • Retirement
      • 401k or 304b
      • Individual IRA
      • Roth
    • Will you have debt, and what will the monthly payments (and total balance) look like?
      • Credit Cards
      • Vehicle loans
      • Mortgage
      • Personal loans
      • Student loans
    • Technology
      • Computer, laptop, tablet, etc.
      • Computer software
      • Printer/Scanner
    • Gifts
      • Holidays
      • Birthdays
      • Anniversaries
      • Weddings
      • Showers
    • Giving
      • Tithing
      • Donations
      • Charities

When you really sit down and write it all out,  there are many expenses to consider as an independent adult.  Unless someone has taught you well about money while growing up, you will be in for a rude awakening if you don’t start preparing for life after college before you start college.  

This is not an exhaustive list, but one that will get you thinking about what those expenses and debt payments will look like for you financially after college. Hopefully, it will motivate you to take the road less traveled and make every attempt possible to avoid student loans as a means to pay for college. 

As a parent, if you have children and college is a possibility in their future, the quicker you get up to speed on the college enrollment process and the cost of college, the better.  Do a lot of research with your child and create a file of resources together that you can refer to when preparing yourself and your child financially for college.   

Now without further ado, let’s dive into those student loan alternative options that I mentioned earlier.

Attending Community Colleges

As a high school graduate who is anxious to get out on their own, community colleges can seem less than appealing.  However, given the alternative to four years of fun and newfound freedom in exchange for a lifetime of anxiety and overwhelm from substantial student loans and high monthly debt payments… You might want to consider this an option that your future self will thank you for.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average annual tuition and fees at a 2-year public community college are $3,900, and the average tuition and fees at a 4-year public university are $9,400.

The money you can save by starting out at a 2-year community college is like getting a scholarship without all the work.  

Attending a community college is an excellent way to test the waters and ensure college is the right path for you. Some students end up struggling academically, socially, or both, but they try to hide it as long as possible for fear of failure.

Flexible schedules are another benefit of community colleges.  Community colleges offer many more night courses and options than universities, which allows you to pick up a part-time job to help pay for your tuition instead of taking out loans. If you really want to get ahead, pick up a full-time summer job and put the cash away for the following school year. 

Scholarships, Grants, and Work-Study Programs

Scholarships, grants, and work-study programs are great ways to help pay for college.  Scholarships are more “merit-based.”  Grants are often “need-based.”  Federal work-study programs are funded through work exchange and awarded based on need.

There are thousands of scholarships and grants out there, but you have to apply for them even to be considered.  This is free money that you don’t have to pay back!  

Before receiving any college funding, you must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).  The FAFSA gathers the information to determine what types of financial aid you may qualify for and how much you could receive.  It is used to determine your eligibility for federal aid as well as aid from many colleges and states.

You can also apply for scholarships outside of the FAFSA; these scholarships will have their own process and applications.  So many students don’t take advantage of scholarships and grants because it takes a fair amount of time and effort, or they apply for a few and don’t get them, so they give up right away.

Check with your guidance counselor to find out how you find scholarships.  You can also search online.  According to bankrate.com, here are the 9 best college scholarship search engines:

  1. Scholarships.com
  2. Fastweb
  3. Cappex
  4. Niche
  5. Chegg
  6. Peterson’s
  7. Unigo
  8. Scholly
  9. ScholarshipOwl

No-Loan Colleges

No-loan colleges were formed due to the growing student loan crisis.  It is designed to reduce financial burdens by helping students meet their financial needs completely “loan-free.”  

The financial packages offered through these colleges are made up of scholarships, grants, and work-study programs; student loans are not part of the financial package.

Some colleges offer “no-loan” financial packages to low-income students, and some colleges offer them to everyone.

Check out this list from Student Loan Hero of 57 ‘No Loan Colleges.’


Graduating from high school, going to college, becoming an adult, and gaining newfound freedom can certainly be an exciting time in your life.  Now that you are an adult and carry all the responsibilities and privileges that come with it, remember that the decisions and choices you make as you embark on this new journey will carry with you forever.  

Attending community college, taking advantage of scholarships, grants, and work-study programs, and checking into no-loan colleges are just a few options to help you escape the student loan debt trap.  

Educate yourself on all the options available to you, be diligent in your research, and don’t get so wrapped up at the moment that you forget to think about your future.  When making decisions today, ask yourself, “what will my future look like, based on the choices I make right now in the present:?  Make your future self proud of the person you have become!

About Carrie:

Family Money Mindset Coach with love and passion for family values and life-long learning.

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