The debt associated with attending college is almost certainly a concern for students and for their parents when parents pay for their child to attend college. Sources show that there is a recent increase in the amount of debt owed by college graduates in the U.S., with little signs of reprieve in the near future. The thought of graduating with a debt free degree sometimes becomes overshadowed by the reality of the costs associated with student loans and other issues that result in increasing debt.
Statistics show the severity of mounting student debt and the consequences of the issue. A 2017 report from ACA International indicated that student loan consumer debt had reached nearly $1.4 trillion, at the time that the organization published the article. Forbes published an article in February 2020, which indicated that student loan debt had reached $1.6 trillion. The significant increase in debt in less than three years shows the seriousness of the situation, along with the fact that college students continue to graduate with significant debt.
It is possible to achieve the dream of a debt free degree. Students just have to be savvy enough to realize what the best options are to accomplish this, and to then implement a plan that best works for them and their future. Earning a debt free degree may be hard work that requires dedication, focus, and planning, but the rewards will likely last a lifetime.
The Issue of Student Debt
The issue of outstanding student loan debt is often referred to as a ‘crisis.’ Student loan debt now ranks second among the highest debt categories, with only mortgage debt ranking as a higher consumer debt category. The seriousness of graduating with debt is further substantiated by an article published on the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) site. A point is made that some students graduate with a degree and debt, while other students just have the debt, even if they do not complete their degree.
A primary issue leading to rising student debt is likely the rising cost of attending college. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reveals that between the years 2007-2008 and 2017-2018, the costs of undergraduate tuition, room and board, and required fees rose by 31 percent at public colleges and universities. There was also a significant increase in the costs of attending college at private, non-profit institutions.
There are more than 42 million borrowers that owe less than $100,000, and more than three million borrowers that owe more than $100,000 in student loan debt. That debt follows the individual borrower, and can have far-reaching effects on the day-to-day life of the borrower.
The Burdensome Consequences of Student Debt
The consequences of getting into debt because of financing an education is something that many students likely do not understand until they actually experience those consequences. The fact is that there both short-term and long-term consequences of the debt associated with a college education.
Sources show that having more student debt is directly associated with experiencing difficulties obtaining a loan in the years after college, and affects the potential for home ownership, or even receiving approval to rent an apartment or home. Former college students that leave school with debt also are likely to have higher rates of bankruptcy compared to graduates with little to no debt.
Loans that go into default cause additional hardships for borrowers. Students that leave school with significant debt sometimes work more than one job just to try and stay one step ahead of collectors.
There are other aspects of having student debt that are likely not considered when looking at the consequences of not having a debt free degree. A Psychology Today contributor discussed the fact that student debt and rising tuition costs sometimes affects the mental health of students. Psychologists, and sometimes students themselves, report on feelings of panic, anxiety, depression, self-doubt or embarrassment directly associated with student debt.
Earn a Debt Free Degree to Avoid Insurmountable Student Debt
Earning a college degree does not mean that a student has to live a life of poverty. There are a number of measures to take to avoid or minimize student debt without experiencing the potentially long-lasting consequences.
It is important to understand that overwhelming student debt does not exclusively affect students that earn a graduate degree. The financial and emotional consequences of student debt affects students across all degree levels, whether a student earns an associate’s or bachelor’s degree or if the student earns a master’s or doctoral degree.
Consider attending a school within your own state. In-state tuition is often less expensive compared to the tuition for non-residents. It is important to know that some schools offer lower tuition for students that reside within a certain county or region, but charge higher tuition for students residing outside that area, even if the students reside within the state.
Plan your budget before you start college. Know where to find student discounts and use coupons at restaurants, grocery stores and for other types of purchases. Use public transportation or walk instead of driving a car. The cost of student parking alone adds up very quickly, particularly after adding the cost of parking to the cost of vehicle maintenance and gas.
Find an affordable housing arrangement if you plan to live off-campus. Sharing an apartment with a roommate significantly reduces the cost of rent, utilities, and other housing costs.
Carefully Consider the School to Save Money
Attending a big-name school does not necessarily mean that you will have a lucrative career or even get an entry-level job at a big-name company. Employers likely care more about your knowledge and skills, rather than if you graduated from an expensive, well-known school. Consider the significant savings of attending a smaller or lesser-known school that offers the degree program that matches your interests and career goals, over the expensive costs of attending an elite school.
Graduating from an affordable school does not mean that your degree is worth any less than a degree from an elite school. Students that attend lesser-known schools benefit from having the same curriculum, the same faculty support, and other resources that are similar to those at an elite school. Smaller schools also offer the same or similar school or program accreditations as the more expensive schools.
Check for Accreditation
It is the student’s responsibility to understand all admissions requirements, tuition costs and fees. It is also the student’s responsibility to research accreditation before applying to a particular college or program.
Make sure that the school has proper accreditation. Students that graduate from a school that does not have proper accreditation potentially discover that they cannot get a job in their chosen field. No student wants to pay the cost of attending college only to discover that the school or program does not have the proper accreditation.
Prior Learning Assessments Offer College Savings
Engage in the Prior Learning Assessments (PLA) option in high school and earn college credits while still attending high school. The type of Prior Learning Assessment varies among different high schools, and potentially includes portfolio submissions or advanced placement courses, among other options. Taking advantage of this option can cut several thousand dollars off the cost of attending college.
Credit for prior learning is not just for high school students. Many colleges recognize that today’s college students are often adult learners seeking to advance their career or that want to change their career to another profession. Schools offer credits for prior work experience or credits for meeting other criteria.
Earning an Online Degree Often Offers Significant Savings
Completing requirements for a degree in an online format often saves thousands of dollars over the cost of completing the degree in the traditional classroom. Students do not have to worry about the costs associated with transportation, parking fees, meals on campus, or some other mandatory costs.
Online programs typically have the same curriculum as on-campus programs. Faculty members that provide instruction on-campus provide instruction to online students. Online students have access to a variety of resources and tools that helps them progress through their chosen program.
Students that pursue an online degree often have the advantage of completing any required internship, project or clinical hours at an agreed-upon facility in their own area. Schools make arrangements with non-resident students to fulfill this or other requirements. This saves on the cost of traveling to the school to meet this requirement.
Schools often feature significant savings on the cost of tuition for their online programs, compared to the tuition rate for face-to-face courses. Consider the tuition rate when a student pursues a Bachelor of Science in Information Sciences and Technology at Pennsylvania State University. The tuition calculator shows that a student that enrolls to attend one-credit hour of instruction at a campus location pays $1,458 per credit hour. The tuition calculator reveals that a student that enrolls in one-credit hour of instruction at the online World Campus pays $576 per credit hour. The $882 per-credit-hour savings between brick-and-mortar and online instruction likely goes a long way for many students seeking to graduate with a debt free degree.
Lamar University is another example of a school where students pay lower tuition when earning an online degree compared to attending classes in person. The tuition for the online undergraduate criminal justice program is $273 per credit hour. Enroll in the traditional on-campus program and tuition is an estimated $436 per credit hour.
Transfer Associate Degree Credits to a Four-Year Degree Program
Most schools accept transfer credits from community colleges or other schools that offer associate degree programs. Transferring these credits potentially saves thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of dollars over the cost of enrolling in a bachelor’s degree program without any transfer credits.
Individual schools and programs have different rules regarding transfer credits. This means that students need to understand the policies of a particular school before enrolling in a program in hopes of transferring previously-earned credits.
Enroll in an Accelerated Program and Graduate Debt Free
An accelerated program features the same level of high-quality instruction that is delivered in a traditional program format. The difference is that the courses are shorter in length than the traditional course length. The courses are usually fast-paced, which requires the discipline of completing assignments and exams on time.
Earning an accelerated degree often means that a student graduates as much as a year earlier than if the student completed course requirements in the traditional course sequence format. Consider the savings that goes towards the goal of graduating debt free when you choose to earn an accelerated degree.
Financing the Cost of a College Education
Financing a college education is no easy task with the rising cost of tuition and other expenses. Prospective students understand the need to finance their college education to gain the cutting-edge, in-demand skills to enhance their career opportunities. Technology is ever-changing, requiring students to stay up-to-date to meet tomorrow’s needs today.
These options go a long way towards financing college when students meet eligibility requirements.
Apply for Grants
Students often qualify for grants to finance part of their education. Grants are no longer strictly reserved for the lowest-income students.
Check out the various grants available and apply for the grants well in advance. Talk to an academic advisor to see if you meet the income requirements and the other eligibility requirements for specific grants.
Apply for Scholarships
Do you think that scholarships are only awarded to the super-talented student with the highest GPA or to the student with the highest exam scores? There are both public and private scholarships available for students of all backgrounds. Schools often have information about lesser-known scholarships.
Each type of scholarship has its own eligibility requirements. The first requirement is to make sure that you submit the scholarship application on time, which is likely several months in advance of the start of the school year.
Speak to your employer about scholarship information because many employers offer scholarships. These scholarships are not reserved only for the most senior employees. Check the requirements for applying for a scholarship and make sure that you properly complete the application.
Take Advantage of Employer Tuition Reimbursement
There are many employers that offer partial or full tuition reimbursement for employees that take certain college courses or that enroll in a degree program that is related to their role within the company or agency. Some employers reserve tuition reimbursement programs only for full-time employees, while other employers offer tuition reimbursement to both full-time and part-time employees.
Individual employers typically have other requirements which determines eligibility and the amount of the tuition reimbursement.
Work Study Reduces Student Debt
Work Study is a federally-funded program that provides certain jobs for eligible students. Students that demonstrate financial need are potentially eligible to work part-time at the school where they attend college.
Some schools have agreements with local employers to offer work study jobs to eligible students that apply for the program at the financial aid office of the college.
Military Service Reduces College Debt
Many schools offer tuition discounts, reduced fees or other savings on the cost of attending college to members of the military. Although some schools restrict the savings to students that are active duty military personnel, other schools extend the discount and savings to spouses, other dependents, and to veterans of the U.S. Military.
Use your G.I. Bill or other military benefits to help pay for your college education. Graduate debt free when you also apply for scholarships or grants reserved specifically for students that are members of the military.
More Ways to Earn a Debt Free Degree
It is possible to graduate from college debt-free or with very little debt. Choose an affordable school that offers programs that match your career interests rather than choosing a school just because of its name.
Consider a savings plan to help you afford college. Keep track of your spending and your debt on an ongoing basis.
Consider taking more than the minimum number of credits each term to shorten the time that you spend in school.
Renting textbooks rather than buying them offers a significant savings each term. Check the campus bookstore or online sites for textbooks or other required course materials at a reduced cost.
Rely on trusted sources to provide comprehensive information on graduating debt free.