Get an Education Without Going Broke

By Carly Rae Zent

Access to higher education has become a luxury for many in the United States. Learn how to get your degree without going into (too much) debt.

Being a student is so expensive that student debt is a crisis of our era. And that debt can put delays on your financial life. In fact, 61% of millennials say that they’ve delayed homeownership because of student debt. On top of that, a new slew of borrowers who took out loans to pay for higher education are finding out a federal loan forgiveness program may now be working against them instead of for them.

Student loans can be relentless, as they can sometimes seem like a never-ending installment loan that you may have to carry around for life. If you don’t want to be in that position, or if you don’t want to contribute even more to debt you already have, then this is the article for you.

Get your AA degree at a community college

Community colleges offer classes at a much lower rate than four-year colleges and universities. While there are some major differences between a community college versus a standard four-year college, the financial benefits can help students who are seeking degrees. OppLoans’ e-book, “College Debt Destroyer,” by its educational arm OppU states the following:

If you really want to get a bachelor’s degree but have no idea how you could possibly pay for it, enrolling in community college for 2 years before transferring to a 4-year college can help you cut the cost of a bachelor’s degree significantly.

[Dr. Cliff A. Robb, Faculty Director of Consumer Finance & Financial Planning at The School of Human Ecology, University of Wisconsin-Madison,] agrees: “Students and families should be very open to alternative models that are different from the traditional viewpoint. [They should consider the concept of:] Do you really need to go to X university and do a 4-year degree? Or can you go to a 2-year school and transition to a 4-year model? The option to go to a community college and flesh out that core coursework like math and language and science before matriculating to a bigger university at a higher cost can save a ton of money.”

Even in states where community college is not free for everyone, there are programs specifically for students to enroll in 2-year institutions to save money before finishing 4-year degrees at other schools. For example, in Ohio’s Preferred Pathway program at Columbus State Community College, where students start for 2 years before transferring to one of 9 public and private universities to complete bachelor’s degrees, 76% of students took on 0 debt in the 2015-16 academic year.

Explore trade certification possibilities

It’s time to think long and hard about what you want to pay to study. Is it something that offers a short certificate program instead? Trade certificates can be a way to circumvent the normal expensive schooling route and train for a role that pays decently well. Some trade certificates that get you into well-paying industries include bookkeeping, event planning, and court reporting.

Trade certifications are often shorter than a four-year degree. They also wind up costing less in many cases. It might not be the ideal option for you, but it’s worth exploring and seeing what your options are.

Consider online certificate courses

If you’re not looking to get a four-year, master’s, or other type of professional degree, and are just hoping for an extra certificate to boost your resume or skills, consider taking online courses. Udemy.com, for example, runs regular $15 flash sales on courses that teach anything from business skills to digital marketing. Lynda.com is another similar site, which many local libraries partner with to offer free memberships to people with a library card.

Research state funding for your education

States provide all sorts of grants and funding for higher education. They do this because they like to incentivize students to stay in-state. For example, if you’re still in high school, or working towards your GED, and you live in Florida, the Florida Bright Futures scholarship will provide a certain amount of funding towards in-state tuition.

Contact your state’s higher education agency in order to get information on state grants available to you.

Find national grants

There is also national funding for higher education. This includes the Pell Grant, Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education, and grants for service members.

National funding is usually obtained by filling out a FAFSA every year – short for, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The process can be confusing, but you can get a jumpstart by checking out OppU’s guide to filling out the FAFSA here.

Look into institutional grants

The institution you are attending (or planning to attend) also likely has grant and scholarship opportunities for attendees. This is especially true if you are attending a public institution. Most educational institutions have whole offices dedicated to discussing financial aid and grants with students. Find out where that office is on your campus and ask about grants available to you.

Find special scholarships

There are also private scholarship opportunities provided by all kinds of special interest groups. For example, there are scholarships for unusually tall people.

There are also scholarships available to you depending on your life situation. There are lots of scholarships and funds available for single moms, for example. There are also many scholarships available to first-generation college students. Or for nontraditional students.

Googling around might help you find scholarships available to you based on your specific circumstances. You can also try using College Board’s Scholarship Search, which asks you all kind of questions to see which scholarships in their database you might qualify for.

While scholarship applications take up a lot of time, the pay-off will likely be worth the time if you get even a few hundred or one thousand dollars. If you apply for scholarships that are highly relevant for you, then you will be more likely to get them. Plus, being able to put the win on your resume will demonstrate excellence, or help you network with the organization that grants it.

Here are a few resources to help you get stared:

Tuition reimbursement from your place of work

Many workplaces offer tuition reimbursement, and that list of places is growing. For example, Starbucks famously rolled out a tuition reimbursement program in 2015. Their tuition reimbursement is unfortunately limited to ASU’s online bachelor’s degree. But many companies have policies that will apply to a broader range of programs and courses. For example, Publix offers tuition reimbursement for any course that will help contribute to your ability to perform at your job; the program covers an extensive list of majors.

Many corporations offer similar tuition reimbursement programs, or offer money towards continuing education, so if you’re serious about going to school, then asking about what your company offers. Finding a job somewhere that has a tuition reimbursement program could be another great move.

Have a goal going in

Besides getting as much funding as possible towards your college tuition, you also need to make good choices in your student life. One of the most important ways to save money as a student is to stick to your degree and graduate on time. People who switch majors, fail classes, and take longer to graduate will have to take more classes and spend more money. In fact, nearly six in 10 bachelor degree students take more than four years to graduate.

That doesn’t mean you should stick to a major you hate. It just means that you should try your best to have a plan when you start college classes. If you’re feeling ambivalent about what you want to do, it might be best to delay beginning college and instead explore your options and what you want your career to look like. It might be worth finding a free career counselor to help you make a good decision. If you already have one degree, alumni are often welcome back to free career counseling services on campus.

Take advantage of student resources

Once you’re a student, be sure to take advantage of resources your institution has to offer. Everything from the library to the student discounts on public transportation and electronics can save you good money if you take advantage of it. Some common free resources available to students include:

  • Free use of school gym
  • Occasional free food on campus
  • Cheap lunches from organizations
  • Free career counseling
  • Free public transportation
  • Student discounts on electronics
  • Student discounts at local stores
  • Student discounts on museum entrance
  • Use the library to borrow books or possibly other resources for free
  • Use the library as a free study space

Libraries also loan out things like electronic equipment and passes to local amusement. Ask both your local library and school library what they have to offer. Here are also a few examples of how a library can become a broke person’s best friend.

Minimize class expenses

There are many strategies for minimizing class expenses, such as textbook purchases — the general rule is to buy them used or borrow them from the library if you can; if you are purchasing books, try to sell them when you’re done.

Take out student-specific loans if you must

If you do end up needing to take out a loan, don’t go for bad credit loans, cash advances, or title loans. Talk to your institution’s financial aid office about student loans. They have lower interest rates, and some kinds of student loans don’t start collecting interest at all until you’ve completed your degree.

Some schools also have resources for students in a financial tight spot. For example, some schools offer interest-free emergency loans.

Good luck on avoiding student debt

While getting an education can expand your options for employment and increase your income amount, getting into student debt can trap you and limit your options once you’re out of school. Education is important, but making wise choices and doing research into resources available to you will help you get the most out of your education for as little expense as possible.

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