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When you’re trying to figure out how to pay for college, the threat of student loans hangs ominously over your head. You likely know you should fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). You’ve accepted all the grants and applied for all the scholarships. But you’ve done the math and still don’t know how you’re going to foot the bill without borrowing money.
Luckily, there are plenty of creative ways to fund your college education without taking on debt. Not only can these solutions save you money, but they’ll save you time, allow you to travel the world, and give you access to the same professors as your peers for a lower price.
One way to make funding school an easier task is to reduce the overall costs. Some students will be able to save both time and money by taking CLEP tests for some of their 100- or 200-level course requirements.
CLEP stands for “College-Level Examination Program.” These tests are administered by College Board and are $87/each. If you are affiliated with the military, these tests may be extended to you as a benefit.
If you pass and your school is one of the 2,900+ that accept CLEP tests, you get away with paying $87 for a course that would have otherwise cost you the equivalent of three credit hours of tuition.
CLEP tests are available for many general electives including English composition and literature, foreign languages, introductory social sciences (psychology, sociology) or hard sciences (biology, chemistry) courses, and math courses from algebra all the way to calculus. There are also select business courses available including accounting.
Attend Community College First
Many American college students can attend community college for free or reduced tuition thanks to Pell Grants, which you can obtain by filling out the FAFSA. If you qualify for the maximum grant, odds are your tuition will actually be less than your financial aid. Partway through the semester, the school will issue you a check for the excess funding. You could make money off of going to school!
If your primary goal is to lower expenses, going to community college for the first two years is almost always cheaper than the cheapest of four-year programs even without financial aid. Plus, you can set yourself up to graduate after two years with an associate degree before moving on to a four-year institution. That way, if you want to work in your final two years of college, more job opportunities will be available to you.
The easiest and most cost-effective route in most situations is to transfer to a state school after you finish community college. State schools tend to have lower tuition rates than private colleges and universities, and they also tend to have matriculation agreements with community colleges. That means that the credits you got at a discount will easily transfer and count towards your four-year degree. It’s even better if you know the school to which you’d like to transfer before you start your freshman year. That way, you can ensure the exact credits you’re taking can be applied directly to your intended four-year program without repeating any coursework.
If you’re worried about the quality of education you will get at a community college, don’t be. Many community college instructors also teach at other local colleges and universities, giving you access to the same professors as the students at the four-year school down the road. They’ll just be paying more for it.
Believe it or not, study abroad can be cheaper than studying at your home university. Depending on the location and the dollar’s exchange rate in your study abroad location, your tuition may be lower when you’re studying overseas.
Don’t limit yourself to one semester, either; students can do a year or more at a foreign university while earning credits at their home university through an academic exchange program. Talk with your academic advisor about timing, though. You generally must earn a certain number of your final credits at your home university in order for your degree to be endorsed by your college.
Study abroad isn’t just cheaper in some cases; it also opens up the door to further financial aid opportunities. Scholarships galore are available through your university or college, study abroad program, or outside nonprofits. If those scholarships are refundable, your less expensive semester abroad could end up netting you money should the grants and scholarships add up to more than the program cost. The check your school cuts you could help you with some of your day-to-day expenses while you’re away, including things like books and transportation.
Become a Resident Assistant
At some schools, the cost of university housing is just as expensive as tuition. Once you’re an upperclassman, many schools offer a way to alleviate these costs by offering positions as resident assistants. Resident assistants take on responsibility for a certain section of the student population in their living area, often facilitating social opportunities, providing them with resources for various situations (mental health, substance abuse, etc), and ensuring codes of conduct are being met.
When you take on this position, the school traditionally waives your housing costs for the semester. Some schools may even offer benefits, meal plans, or a small compensation package. The responsibilities are huge and can sometimes eat up a large portion of your time. But if you’re willing to handle the responsibilities, the financial payoff can be huge.
Graduate Without Debt
It is possible to graduate without debt. And it is possible to do so without working forty hours per week as a student. While the responsibilities of resident assistants can be intense, your other options include exploring the world and taking a CLEP test to save yourself from sitting through a class you’ve already taken but hasn’t transferred.
Not only can creative college funding save you money, but it can also improve your quality of life. Those who pursue the route with the least debt may find they have the most enriching educational experiences simply because they were looking a little deeper.