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How I graduated college 2 years early under 15k in debt

College is expensive.

You know it. I know it. Even your dog knows it. (I am purposefully ignoring the curmudgeons who still remember when you could buy a 3-bedroom house for $50,000. They haven’t been in college since Reagan was president, what do they know?)

In the summer of Senior year I had no savings for college. My parents were both paycheck to paycheck, but thankfully above the poverty line, my part-time job savings didn’t break 4 figures, and my college applications (through both computer error and my own stupidity) were sent in under the wire, after all the financial aid was distributed. So, just like most of my classmates, I had to take out student loans.

In the 90’s college tuition cost less than $2,000 per semester, now the average is $10,000! So how on earth is the regular high school kid supposed to get that amount, plus take care of housing and supplies? Minimum wage pays approx. 8.30/hr depending on location, factor in 40 hours a week minus taxes, that barely hits $16,000. Our hypothetical student is already $4,000 short for the year, and they don’t even have a place to live.

The honest truth is unless you are eligible for low income, outstanding academic, or full ride scholarships, the average student will graduate with ~$30,000 in debt. This is the baseline price for education, and it doesn’t even include lodging and textbooks! And don’t get me started on masters and PhD programs…

I managed to pack in 4.5 years of college, plus a study abroad trip, for under $15,000 of loans through grit, dumb luck, and pinching pennies. It was not easy, for a few months I barely ate anything except raman and nutella, and there was a point where I almost had to drop out. But if you are like me and dread the idea of debt to your name, my experience could save you a lot of money.

So here are some of my tips on how to avoid a monster student loan:

  1. Don’t wait to graduate

  2. Save while the saving is easy

  3. Treat open enrollment as a deadline

  4. Find student jobs with tuition aid

  5. Man up and stay with mom

  6. Do. Not. Go. Out. Of. State.

  7. Side hustle study notes

  8. Only take what you ABSOLUTELY HAVE TO

Now let’s Dora the Explore these topics.

Don’t wait to graduate

If you’ve already gotten through high school, congratulations! Welcome to adulthood! But on the off chance you’re reading this before senior year, you might not have to sit through another year of bathroom break tickets and disgusting cafeteria food. (Edit: this article was written before COVID-19.) When I was in the program it was called PSEO, now it’s called CCP.

College Credit Plus is one of the best things that’s happened to me; all I had to do was take a math and english test easier than the SATs and bam, goodbye high school, hello free college! CCP is a state provided option where high school students can take college classes, and the only things you have to pay for are supplies and transportation. Yes, you do have to take a math and english assessment, but a night on Khan Academy and an 11th grade composition skillset will let you breeze through it.

By my junior year all of my classes were at the local satellite college, and when I graduated high school I was only a few credits away from an associates degree. So look into similar programs in your state, and start saving.

Save while the saving is easy

Dear lord I did not take this advice enough, so please learn from my mistakes! Summer is such a goldmine for working during high school and college. Don’t go crazy with double shifts and forget to enjoy time off school, but don’t miss out on earning income for tuition while you’re living rent free.

Just a part time job at $8/hr can bank you $2,000 before school starts again. Put that in a nice high interest savings account and that’s a year of textbooks, or rent, or a chunk off of your tuition.

Treat open enrollment as a deadline

College applications, scholarship essays, job applications, grant proposals. They all have a cutoff date, so you should just apply any time before then, right?


Cutoff dates are a lie, do not trust them! Scholarships and jobs are often selected before the deadline, and colleges fill up fast. Applications turned in early are often given priority when it comes to grants and scholarships. When I turned in my financial aid applications near the deadline, I got the bare minimum student loan offers, when I turned them in early I got Pell grants and scholarship options.

Find student jobs with tuition aid

Student work study opportunities are everywhere at your university. Apply to be a tour guide for freshman orientation, shelve books in the library, sit on your bum in the computer lab helping kids use a printer, the possibilities are endless!

Work study positions have an option to deduct money from your paycheck to pay student loans, and may qualify you for specific scholarships.

Man up and stay with mom

I get it, you want to be independent, you want to have a cool university bachelor pad to bring home dates. But seriously, think about it.

University housing is ~5k a semester, you’re living in a 12x15 cement cube with a stranger, using a communal bathroom covered in germs, and you’re living off sub-par dining hall food. Does that sound like it's worth thousands of dollars?

Don’t discount staying at home; you don’t have to pay an arm and a leg for boarding, you already have your room decorated, and you already know the people you’re living with! Now, if you’re in a toxic situation please disregard and get out ASAP, but if you have a solid, supportive family, suck it up, do some extra chores, and save money.

But what about off campus? Sure, but these are your options: either paying $400-900 a month to live with 6 other people in a rundown townhouse with paper-thin walls, or shelling out $800-2,000 a month for a “luxury” apartment. If you do the math (no thank you), off campus can be more expensive than on campus!

For me the answer is easy: Not. Worth. It.

Do. Not. Go. Out. Of. State.

Out of state tuition is a scam.

Let me say it again: Out of state tuition is a scam. In Ohio, my university cost was approx. $12-15k per semester. But if I accepted the enrollment offer I got from a university in Florida?

$35,000 dollars.

Per year.

Not including housing and food.

This is more than I made per year at my first full-time job out of college, so that's a hefty no thank you.

Some states have a tristate area that offers in-state rates, i.e. a student in Kentucky can go to university in Indiana for the same price as in-state. But remember, most states are bigger than a European country, so if you’re looking to get away from home, just look to the other side of your state.

Side hustle study notes

Let me tell you all about the wonderful world of selling your class notes! There are a good dozen websites that will pay you to share your handwritten or typed notes for other students to use. Sites like NexusNotes and GradeBuddy want your notes, and aren’t afraid to buy them!

For a detailed list of sites and requirements, check out Amy Kennedy’s article on “24 Best Places to Sell College Notes Online for Cash”

Only take what you ABSOLUTELY HAVE TO

Student loans can and will destroy you. Do not count on student loan forgiveness, do not assume you will get a cushy well-paying job right out of college, and do not underestimate the weight of debt on every aspect of your life.

Look at the story of Chris: “Student Loan Horror Stories: Borrowed: $79,000. Paid: $190,000. Now Owes? $236,000” If that isn't enough to terrify you I don't know what will.

The quoted price is never the total, and there is no guarantee you will always be able to pay your monthly bill. Cars break down, appendix’s burst, houses flood, and the job market… is the job market. Can you guarantee you’ll always have $500 on hand for monthly repayments?

If you need loans to get through college, that’s normal, me too! But why are you indebting yourself for over a decade on extras that don’t matter?

I had to take out loans for college, but I didn’t take a penny more than I needed. After high school, my base tuition was about 12k per year. I took out ~$7k in federal loans, worked 2 jobs, commuted from home, and busted my keister. I splurged before my last year for a summer study abroad, and took out a $1k loan for the extra tuition after scholarships. I paid for my flight, food, and incidentals out of pocket, and when I got home went right back to work for the rest of the summer before my last year.

I graduated in December of 2018 with a Bachelors in English, and only $14,780 and some change in debt. It wasn’t easy, it wasn’t all fun, but I gave myself a leg up in the long run, and became one of the first in my father’s line to get a bachelors. Hopefully you can learn something from my experience (and mistakes), and one day you’ll be writing your own guide!

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