How to Graduate from College without Student Loan Debt

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There is something called the ‘student loan myth’.  The student loan myth is the assumption that it is impossible to graduate from college without student loans.  Those who believe this myth think that if they are going to go to college, they MUST get student loans.  This type of default thinking is financially dangerous.

The Danger of Default Thinking

Default – a : a selection made usu. automatically or without active consideration due to lack of a viable alternative 〈remained the club’s president by defaultMerriam-Webster’s collegiate dictionary

So many of our financial decisions are made by default. We never think about or consider our options.  We simply do what has always been done.  If I walked up and down a public street and asked, “How is it that someone can afford to pay for college?”  9 out of 10 people would look at me with concern and say, “Student loans, of course”.

Yet, there is a way to graduate from college or an online school debt free. Otherwise your degree won’t be worth it if you have too much college loan debt.  Remember, there are even some great jobs without a college degree.

The Key to Graduating from College Without Student Loan Debt

Creativity, resourcefulness, and commitment

If default thinking boxes us in, then creativity will free us to consider the possibility that we actually could graduate from college without debt.  Commit to thinking about an option that no one else has considered.  Be willing to do something that no one else would do.  Make it your college goal to graduate – with reasonable grades, and no debt. Then you can devote your energy to achieving that goal.

Work early

You can and should take this two ways.

First, start to work as soon as you are old enough.  I was 14 when I started tossing newspapers and 16 when I started my first part time job.  Even though you might not make much at this young age, you should be able to stash away a lot of cash to help pay for your college education.

Second, start to work early in the morning.  At school, some of the best paying jobs are early morning jobs because no one wants to work early in the morning.  If you work at times when others are unwilling, you can expect to be properly rewarded for your effort.

Invest early

Once you start to earn an income, you need to be on a strict saving diet.  While you are living at home, (before going to college) you should be able to save at least 50-70% of your income.

Once you have $1,000, read a book on investing.  There are many suggested investing books amongst some of the best personal finance books.  From there, I would choose a basic investing strategy, depending on your time frame.  Here’s a step by step guide for new investors.

Consider a co-op program

A co-op program allows you to work and go to school at the same time.

In a co-op program, you might spend a semester or two in the classroom and then you get some work experience in your field.  After a semester of work, it is time to head back to the classroom.  While you work, you also earn the money necessary to pay for a substantial part of your next semester.  Sure, it takes longer to graduate, but you will graduate with more experience, more maturity, and less debt.

Community College

A community college is a great way to take care of basic course requirements.  In addition to having lower tuition rates, you might be able to stay at home for an extra year.  This, of course, will reduce your room and board cost.

Even if you are considering a degree that is not offered at your community college, you can still spend a year or two completing required courses before transferring.

Another affordable alternative is to consider online universities. Attend an accredited institution and you can earn many types of degrees or certification offered at many community colleges.

Don’t Buy A Car

I know, Americans don’t want to hear this piece of advice.  For Americans, this is almost unpatriotic for me to write.  However, I’m thankful for my Canadian background that taught me you don’t need a car when you’re 16.  In general, most Canadians do not buy their first vehicle until after they graduate college.  While more than half my US friends had a car in high school, not one of my Canadian friends had a car in high school.

Instead of buying a car, use the money for school.  Once you graduate and save the money for a car, then you can buy a car – with cash.  By the way, I’m sure one of your bazillion friends who owns a car would be glad to give you a ride every now and then.

Join the Military

If you are considering a career in the armed forces, there are a lot of programs that will pay for your college costs.  Remember, you are making a huge commitment with this one, so don’t take it lightly.  In exchange for your education, they will expect some type of military service.

Work hard

Unless you are willing to work hard, you won’t be able to get out of college debt free.  Working hard might apply to working on your grades to increase your opportunity for scholarships.  Working hard might mean spending time working at a part-time job to pay for your schooling.  Working hard might involve spending extra time on the sports field to keep your athletic scholarship.  Better yet, work hard on all of these items.


If you have a clear sense of where you want to go to school, contact a school representative and ask them for a list of scholarship they have available.  Pick out a few scholarships you think you would be well suited for and become better suited.

In addition, it is advisable to spend a substantial amount of time the semester before you go to college submitting scholarship applications.  For most teens, it will be hard for them to make more working than they could save by being awarded just a few scholarships.

Keep School Costs Low

Reduce textbook costs by buying online.  Reduce food costs by making your own.  Reduce housing costs by shopping around.

Unfortunately, people see their school loans as a blank check.  As a result, those with school loans have no regard for how much they are spending on school.  Since you plan to pay cash, you need to give due diligence to shop around and find some of the best prices.

What did you do to help reduce the cost of a college education?  Do you think it is really possible to graduate college without student loan debt?


  1. Dawn McCordic says

    My boys wish they didn’t have to have a car, but it is the only way they can find and hold a job as well as attend college!! Also, they can save money on room and board by living at home, but then they need a car to get back and forth to classes as well as work.

    • says

      In your case, having a car makes complete sense as it is actually saving money by allowing them to stay at home. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. says

    It’s possible. Indeed! When I was in high school, we had duel credit classes. I took a ton of them! If someone takes those, then they will count as high school and college credit. You may have to research which high schools do this. But if someone wants to knock out some college classes for FREE, it may be worth switching schools.

  3. says

    I guess everyone’s circumstances are different, so I wouldn’t speak to possibility in absolute terms, but I have to say that the critical issue for me, even given some scholarships and grants, was one that you don’t mention: if you really want to make it out debt free, don’t go to a private university. Knocking out some credits at community college seems to hint at a bigger principle about choosing tuition scale. Of course, my alma mater wouldn’t like that piece of advise. I think I’m a pretty interesting case study, at least, regarding the extreme improbability of avoiding loans as a Christian university student, short of a full ride. I think all of the things you say are still vitally important, even if the student can’t get out totally debt-free, because there’s a big difference between blank check and minimal debt. And you probably say it elsewhere, but the most important principle after the fact, for those of us who ended up owing, is: don’t pay just the monthly minimum. If you keep living frugally, you can get out of student loans pretty quickly.

  4. says

    i was similar to you where i started to work as early as 14. well i actually started to work when i was about 7 but that ways stuff around the house, but to me its the same.

    as for getting through college i had a lot of early mornings on Friday and Saturday working at a bank. while my friends were all sleeping i was working. and not just working for a paycheck but also for tuition reimbursement. this was a way that i would get a couple extra thousand dollars a semester to help pay for my books, classes and lab fees. all of which helped me graduate with zero debt and about $10,000 in the bank. not bad by my standards.

  5. Dawn McCordic says

    I forgot to mention…my husband and I both went in to medicine to serve as medical missionaries overseas. We were VERY frugal but still had some debt. There is a foundation named Project Medsend which serves to help you serve overseas. They pay off your loans, graduate and undergraduate for the time you are overseas. They only sponsor long term service. They paid off all our debt and we were able to get to the mission field several years sooner! If one is over seas and must come back because of family or an illness, they give you back your remaining payment coupons…simple…Many have been able to serve sooner. That said there are also such programs now for nurses and teachers to serve in under served areas of the USA…in my mind, I call that ministry—going where you are really needed and can make a difference, and the gov’t. provides loan forgiveness….another way to get on with life service after training.

  6. Laura Lizabe says

    I do some web work for GM and thought it might be helpful for you all to know that GM has a discount for college students and recent grads. Check out our website for more info. There’s also a Facebook page where you can share your experiences and get money saving tips. Check it out when you have some time! -Laura

  7. cpascal says

    There’s another option for saving money on college which isn’t mentioned here, and that is through crdeit by exam programs like the CLEPs. Many people have saved hundreds of dollars in tuition fees through these programs and managed to finish their degrees faster, too. I have a website with articles on getting college credit this way at

  8. says

    I wish someone had sat me down as a high schooler and taught me all about this. There was simply no guidance at all about how to pay for school beyond scholarships, grants or loans.

    • says

      I also wish that more young people would hear this message before blindly taking on debt. Many people are now paying a high price for those misguided decision. I had an email the other day from someone who has about $115,00 in debt and a $20,000 household income. It is hard to make it with those numbers.

    • says

      Good work! Keep it up. If you are starting at 13 than you really on top of the ball. Tell you mom thanks for being such a good mom :).

  9. Lyle says

    Particularly if one is interested in Medicine, consider that the Fort Hood Shooter got a free medical education from the Army. Also if you check the incentives for a med school graduate to enlist are high. Note that in that case you start out as an officer, so life is better. In addition to the free 4 year education for one that one can transfer as part of the GI bill if you go as an officer likley you will get an advanced degree on the Military as part of your career.

  10. Frederick Bosiclair says

    Hey Craig! Im 16 now soon to be 17. My dad told me about your article! and i also have a Canadian background like you, but unfortunately i live in florida with no metro’s or anything around, and i have my license but no isurance so im not aloud to drive until i get a job. ive been appyling at places but havent been getting calls. So im still trying, im looking into going to community college for a possible of 2 years, like you said to get my requirements out of the way. Im currently a junior in highschool and my major is law enforcement but ive also been thinking of buisness management which my come in handy in the future, especially if i follow your tips and stay of debt, unlike my parents who they personally said that they have had problems with their college tuition, so they are pretty uptight on me now. haha. But i really appreciate the article itll come in handy soon!

    • says

      Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. You’re on the right track and if more 16 (soon to be 17) years olds have a good path like you we’d all be in better shape. Keep up the good work.

  11. says

    Its not that you cant go to school and end up with debt its just requires a plan and some work. Well many might be working its to fund buying clothes or things for their cars. Being smart early on pays off in the future. I like how you mention getting REASONABLE grades but NO DEBT!!!

  12. Ben says

    I don’t understand why people go to university and then don’t actually work incurring lots of debt on the way. I am 14 in grade 9 and have been saving money from doing papers since I was 7. I have been lucky to have a small job since that young age and have over $12,000 in the bank. Next year I plan to get a part time job. I have spent the last couple days researching different career paths and universities.

  13. Eric says

    I’m currently an American living in Paris, France. One way to get a quilty cheap education is going to school at one of France’s Public University’s like the Sorbonne. It is 500 dollars a year tuition and what’s amazing is that even as a foreign you qualify for housing and living grants-free money. It is a different system, socialized so don’t expect Apple computers ok every room. However, you can graduate debt free easy here and most students do. American University of Paris starts at 36,000 a year but scholarships are available-totally American College here in Europe.

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  17. says

    Great advice. My daughter is graduating this December with less than $1,000 debt because she worked while in college. it is possible. Thanks for these great tips. Hopefully, college bound high school seniors will take them to heart.

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