Nine Strategies For A Debt-Free College Degree!

Nine Strategies For A Debt-Free College Degree!

Our oldest recently began his senior year of college. It feels a little surreal as each day we get closer to his graduation in May. He’ll graduate with two associates degrees and one bachelor’s degree and absolutely no student debt!

Here are some tips that we learned in our journey to higher education.

1. Set clear expectations.

 Be VERY clear with your student at an early age as to what, if any, help he/she can expect from you and your spouse.  Whether you plan to give them $2000 (or $200) upon graduation from high school, let them know well ahead of time.  If you expect them to foot the entire cost of a higher education, this is fine, as long as they know it well in advance.  It saves on unmet expectations or hurt feelings if you are very open from the beginning.  

2. Utilize community college.

Our community college was a GREAT help in cutting costs for the first two years.  He has easily saved enough to fund this through a part-time summer job.  Additionally, he saved money during the first two years of his college experience by living at home and continuing to work that part-time job.   Every penny counted toward the ultimate goal of transferring to a 4 year university.  

We discovered that a four year university, which is about 30 minutes from our home, has a GREAT working relationship with our community two year college.  There is a rep. dedicated to helping community college students transition to their university.  Additionally, most colleges spell out very specifically what financial incentives they will give transfer students with high GPAs. 

It is generally believed that students will be offered a LOT more financial aid as at incoming freshman, than they will be as a transfer student.  However, there are plenty of scholarships for students transferring from two year colleges, especially if you are a non-traditional student. In fact, after three semesters at a two-year college, my son was offered a full-tuition scholarship to transfer to a four year, private, Christian university.

3. Fill out FAFSA early.

Each year, FAFSA applications open on October 1st.  Even if you need to estimate your income, fill out your initial papers on-line as close to October 1st as you can.  This “holds” your place in line and puts your “file date” as the date you initiated the file for that year.  Since some funds are given out on a “first come, first served basis”, you have obtained and maintained your “early file” place in line.  

FAFSA will use your taxes of the previous year for calculation.  If your financial status has changed greatly, finish filling out FAFSA and then call the financial aid office at the colleges which your student is interested in attending. 

4. Research early. 

Go to college fairs with your student as early at their freshman or sophomore year.  Reps love to see eager faces.  Find out EXACTLY what those colleges want to see on your student’s transcript.  Most two year colleges sponsor a bi-annual “college fair” night.  If your child is interested in a Christian college, check http://myblueprintstory.com/ to find a free Christian college fair near you. 

5. Ask questions.

Answers are free!  Take your student to local colleges. Let them get the “feel” of university life. While you’re there, ask for a tour of important areas like, a typical dorm room, the cafeteria, and the library.

Ask students for their insights! When we toured colleges, we sat in “commons” areas, like the coffee shop. We interacted with students and asked about their experience at the college.

Here are some of the questions we asked:

  • how they liked the profs
  • whether quiet hours were strictly observed in the dorms
  • one thing they would change about the college if they could
  • to rate their experience at the college on a scale of 1-10
  • whether they felt safe walking around campus at night
  • if they worked a job on campus

6. Take the ACT/SAT more than once.   

Talk to reps early and often.  Ask specific questions about their scholarship levels.  Sometimes the monetary difference between an ACT score of 25 and 27 can amount to several thousand dollars in honors scholarship money at that particular university.  If your student needs an ACT increase of 1-2 points, then have them take the test again.  They can take the ACT up to 12 times, although statistically scores don’t increase significantly after the third try.

7. Visit universities.

This is the fun part.  They like you.  They want you.  They serve you a free lunch.  However, don’t visit over the summer.  Go when class is in session.  This way you can visit with students and ask about their experience.  You can see if traffic is crazy or if the class sizes seem abnormally large.  If your student is seriously interested, plan to visit more than once.  Any college should be open to hosting your student overnight and letting them audit classes the next day, which are associated with their chosen field of study.   

Finally, bear in mind that this more money than buying a house folks!  Don’t be afraid to ask all of your questions, and have them answered adequately, before you make a commitment.  Be sure you understand ALL the costs before you “sign on the dotted line.”  People who have never had to live on a limited income forget to add those “$50” parking passes, and “$100 one-time enrollment fees”.  But, if you count nickels and dimes (like we do) then you want to know ALL the costs.  

8. Apply for scholarships early and often.

There are a lot of scholarship opportunities available for younger students.  Most involve writing essays.  So, be certain your student gets a GOOD background in what constitutes “good writing.”  Even if your student does not win, an honorable mention in a nationwide contest looks REALLY good on their transcript. 

http://www.fastweb.com/ is the best place we have found to scout out REAL scholarships.  Yep, there are a lot of places on-line which will charge you money for research that you can do yourself.  You need to sign up for an account.  

We really, we have not received a lot of nuisance e-mails or phone calls from signing up with Fastweb’s free service.  To guard against this possibility, we DID set up a separate e-mail account dedicated to all college research. So, all the colleges have that one, special e-mail address.  Then, you don’t clutter up your personal in-box.  

You can also visit your guidance counselor at your local high school. They will have lots of insights on locally and nationally available scholarships.

9. Teach your children to manage money!

We put our son in charge of our family finances for six months when he was in high school. This was a HUGE help in him understanding money – how to save, spend, and manage it. As a college student, he has maintained the principles that we taught him, saving money each month, while working in the college library.

How did it work out for us?

Here’s a snapshot of how applying these strategies has played out for our us.

Our oldest won two scholarships before beginning classes at our local two-year college. He attended for three semesters, paying just a couple of thousand dollars out of pocket.  He was then offered a full-tuition scholarship at a 4-year, private, Christian university to finish his undergraduate degree.  He has worked on campus and full-time between semesters. He will graduate debt-free in May of 2020 with an undergrad in psychology, an associates in psychology, and an associates in Bible. We paid for his books, gifting him with a total of $4000 toward his college education. 

Our 2nd son graduated from high school three years ago and pursued his love of technology. He chose not to attend college, instead, accepting a full-time position with benefits directly after high school graduation. He now has his dream job, working in IT for a Christian healthcare sharing company, where they are paying for all of his tech certifications.  

What about you?  Are you on this journey?  Any additional tips you can share?  I’d love to hear from you. Leave your thoughts in the comments section.

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