How many times lately have you heard how prohibitively expensive college is? It seems impossible to make it out of college without being neck-deep in debt. With ever rising tuition, books, meal plans, rent, clubs, intramural sports, and other fees… always more fees.
If you don’t have filthy rich parents or a full-ride scholarship can you get out debt free? The short answer is, yes.
I was able to make it through an Associate’s, Bachelor’s, and a full-time MBA program, all debt free… for around $15K total to be exact. So how did I do it?
Here are a few pointers that can help you mitigate some of the costs associated with going to college.

1. Take dual enrollment courses

This is not always possible, but I was able to take 6 dual enrollment courses (around 20 credit hours) offered through my high school. Had I been more ambitious, I could have even taken more, but those would have required me to actually go to the college, and that didn’t jive with me at the time.
I remember signing up for “College English,” aka English 101 in most colleges. Some of my friends opted not to take the class because they wanted to avoid the dreaded “10-page research paper.” But I was the one laughing a year later when they had to take English 101 and write that same research paper.
Don’t be afraid of a little extra work today, because, in all reality, your high school class will probably be easier than the college classes. Even if they’re the same difficulty, why would you ever willingly duplicate your efforts? If I asked you if you would prefer to clean the dishes today, or today and Friday, which option would you pick? Neither is fun, but at least you don’t have to do the dishes twice in the first scenario.
Not only this, but the cost of these courses were cheaper than at the university, and it was nice starting my college career with a semester of credits already in the bag.

2. Investigate local scholarship opportunities

I was lucky enough to have 2 older siblings who worked hard in school. Because of their efforts, I learned early that the local community college would give a full-ride scholarship plus $400 for books, to anyone from one of the three local high schools who finished in the top 10% of their class. So early on in high school, this was my goal… top 10%.
Now before you write this off and think “well I’m not that smart, I could never be in the top 10%,” high school is the easiest time to do well in school by justsimply trying. It sounds crazy, but I didn’t do much. I studied rarely if ever, but I did everything I was supposed to do, showed up to class, turned in my papers on time, exchanged papers with friends for proofreading, and studied for important exams. I know there are some schools that have those crazy bookworms who graduate with 4.9 GPAs (how is that even possible?), but in most cases, it’s very possible.
Because of my consistency, I was able to finish in the top 10%. My hard work paid off and that led to me getting tuition and $400 for books. I was able to cover all of my Associate’s degree and was even able to save up some money from my various jobs along the way.
There was also another opportunity to get free tuition to a state school for anyone who “exceeded” in all four of the state standardized tests. I unfortunately only exceeded in three of the four 😦
Of course, these exact scholarships likely won’t be available in your area, but there will be something! There are options, do a little research and find them.

3. Start at a Community College

I think it’s strange that many people think that going to a Community College is academic and maybe even career suicide. But let me tell you first hand, as a Community College graduate, it’s not a big deal. I don’t want to say there are no downsides, but I can tell you one thing, I NEVER list my Community College on my resume or LinkedIn profile.  All people ever see is the four-year university I graduated from. I get credit for going to a great university but only had to attend for three semesters to get the degree.
While some people will start their freshmen year of college living in a new place on their own and pay thousands of dollars to do so, I was able to adapt to college life more naturally by living at home, and had I not had a scholarship, I would have paid $750 a semester… yes you heard that right, $1500 total per academic year.
When I graduated with my Associate’s Degree all of my college credits transferred as a block to the four-year university I transferred to. That saved me from taking several classes required for my major, as well as all the “generals.”
Don’t underestimate the many advantages to starting your higher education at a community college, rather than going straight to a university.

4. Pick the right school for you

So many people want to go to the best school that they can possibly get into. I’ve heard horror stories of people giving up huge scholarships to go to a marginally better school, simply because the school was better. If you know you want to study engineering, and you know that school X has a horrible program, and school Y has a stellar program, then sure, it probably makes sense to go to school Y, even if it is more expensive.
But something I’ve observed is, people very often change course. Throughout my college career, I went from doctor, to lawyer, to probably some other career that pays lots of money, until I settled on business. If I had a dollar for every person who told me they were going to Med school who didn’t even end up graduating with a healthcare related degree, I would have lots of dollars.
Be flexible and know that your plans will likely change. Even in graduate school, when I thought I knew exactly what I wanted, I probably changed my career track every other day. Don’t build your plan around something that very well may not happen, especially if that means you have to spend a lot more money to do so.

Make it Rain

Be flexible and know that your plans will likely change. Even in graduate school, when I thought I knew exactly what I wanted, I probably changed my career track every other day. Don’t build you plan around something that very well may not happen, especially if that means you have to spend a lot more money to do so.

5. Your major does not determine your destiny

I studied History and my wife studied Exercise and Wellness. Surprisingly, I don’t work as a historian, and she doesn’t work in a field at all connected to health. The best course of action would obviously be to pick the major directly tied to your future profession. You want to be an Architect, study architecture, simple right?

But there is definitely leeway if you make the “wrong” decision. You can always get an entry-level job, work your butt off, and get promoted to a great position (it worked for me).

I don’t 100% believe the advice I’m going to give you next, but I’ll give it anyway. I got a degree that many consider worthless, a History degree, and in a lot of ways, heck, even most ways, they’re probably right. But I was able to graduate in 6 semesters because the degree was easier than many others.

When others were studying for 4-7 years for their more prestigious degrees, and racking up more debt and missed opportunity along the way, I was out in the real world making money and getting actual experience. I don’t think it’s a bad idea to consider picking a simple degree, getting out as fast as you can, and then just start working and see what are your interests and see where fate takes you.

6. Look for more scholarships!

A few of the stories that I am most proud of deal with luckily stumbling on scholarships.

For the first, I had just two months to work one summer before going off to study abroad (which was an amazing experience, and worth it in my opinion, but not cheap). Since I only had two months to work, I got on with a temp agency (I was basically Ryan Howard from the Office) and was placed in a very blue-collar job for the two months.

While I was working there I saw a flier on the wall advertising a scholarship offered by the National Sport Shooting Foundation (what even is that?). There were strict limits on who could apply, and since I was a temp for the company, I felt like I qualified, so I submitted my application. I wrote a SINGLE PAGE paper about why the 2nd amendment is important. I cannot stress enough that it was only one page, it took me a couple of hours to write and proofread.

Well, a few months later I got an email, and in that email, I was congratulated for winning the essay contest. You’re probably thinking, how much could you get for winning an essay contest for the National Sport Shooting Foundation with a one-page paper? Well, you’ll be shocked to know it was $6,000 dollars of cold hard cash. Yep, that was by far the best ROI I’ve ever had in my life.

Kramer

Second, while applying to MBA programs, I didn’t want to drop an arm and a leg to go back to school. I was lucky that my wife was working at the time, but I still wanted to avoid spending too much. I reached out to a friend who was attending a school I was interested in. When I asked him about financial aid all he said was “they’ll take care of you.” So I went ahead and applied.

This school sits around the #25 range for all MBA programs in the U.S., so I was more than happy to attend the school. When I got accepted, I was floored that the advertised $60k program cost was dropped to around $3k total after scholarships. I was able to go to a top 25 MBA program for less than $5k, pretty crazy.

Conclusion

What’s the moral of the story? Obviously, this is not advice that you can likely apply to yourself exactly, but you can apply the principles. You can look for local scholarships, consider starting at community college, pick the right school, pick the right major, and always be aware of scholarship opportunities, even later in your college career. If you can be strategic and thoughtful, there’s no reason why you can’t rock college, rather than the other way around.

What college hacks worked for you?

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