5 Ways to Get Through College Without Debt (and a Scholarship Offer)

I accumulated a good bit of debt when I went to college. Initially, I attended a school I really couldn’t afford, but it was by far my favorite school, it was relatively close to home, and I went with my heart instead of my head.

Unfortunately, that emotional decision required me to get student loans for the first couple years so I could finance tuition costs. I scraped up enough other money for incidentals (books, utilities, pizza, football tickets – you know, the bare necessities), and my mom managed to cover my housing – even my apartment rent when I moved off campus my sophomore year.

I eventually returned home and bounced around some before finishing my degree online. Over the years I worked full time, took advantage of a tuition reimbursement program (which eventually went away in the months following 9/11, when the economy went south), and finally managed to graduate with minimal debt.

Upon graduation, one of my life goals became helping my kids finish college debt free. I knew I had to start planning, and saving, early. We have opened 529 plans for our kids and try to sock away some money as we can.

We also plan to use a combination of the following strategies to help them reach the goal of a debt-free education.

5 Ways to Minimize Debts While in School

1. Choose your school wisely. Unless you plan to study a very specific field with minimal offerings from most schools, it probably makes sense to consider an in-state school, where tuition is usually a fraction of that at an out-of-state school.

2. Consider a 2-year degree path at a local college for core requirements. Looking back, I wish I had stayed home the first couple years, attended a local school and worked to save towards my four-year degree costs. If you go this route, first verify that your ultimate school choice will accept transfer credits from the local college or university you plan to attend.

3. Work while in school. In a perfect world you would not have to work while in school. You could devote 100% of your efforts into getting your education. But let’s face it; this is not a perfect world. Few parents can afford to send their kids to school and cover 100% of the financing.

Your education is ultimately your responsibility, so if you want it bad enough, you can get a job and subsidize some of your costs. You’re building your resume and developing work ethic – two things you can’t get from school anyway.

4. Take a year off after high school. This is a controversial idea, and I know there is a risk if you take time off you may never return. I get that. However, I left for college when I was still 17 (had a late birthday). I still had lots of growing up to do, and looking back I probably would have benefited from another year to mature.

I also could have worked that year and cash-flowed my first year of college, giving me a head start towards a debt free education.

5. Take classes during the summer and graduate early. If you can swing it, plan to stay on campus during the summer and take a couple classes. You will graduate a semester or two early, which translates to less meal plans, less rent for that off campus apartment, etc. In my experience, I also found relaxed professors and graduate assistants and an overall more relaxed environment than the hustle and bustle of fall semester.

Three years ago I wrote about the coming bubble from student loan debt, and I still believe graduate indebtedness will be one of the larger financial problems for the next generation. In a small way, I’d like to help reverse that trend.

Introducing the Frugal Dad Scholarship 2012

That’s right; we’re offering a Frugal Dad Scholarship ($5,000) twice annually to a deserving student. For full details, requirements and an application, visit the Frugal Dad Scholarship page. I look forward to reviewing your submissions and awarding our first scholarship!


  1. I would love to second the idea of taking a year off. HOWEVER make sure that your financial aid (scholarships, whatever) can be held for a year. Sometimes it doesn’t which means that you can actually have a harder time finding scholarships etc to finance your education.

  2. Having a four year college experience is invaluable for the networks that you create, especially living on campus. If you do the two-year off campus then go in as a junior, it is a very difficult adjustment. You basically lack the social network. A big part of getting jobs is who you know (along with having relevant skills).

    Kudos to you for showing financial alternatives for higher education. Its good that people know there is more options than going into debt for college. The occupy movement whining about college loans and not having a job is a systematic issue, but also one of personal responsibility. I didn’t take a loan to complete college and received an education our family could pay for rather than kill ourselves for something more expensive.

  3. My older daughter will be going to college next fall with an eye towards a degree in physical therapy, so this information is very timely for us. Very generous scholarship you’re offering!

  4. > Supply and demand

    And I thought it was because of excessive pay of administrators at colleges. You see, they join the board of directors of other schools. They vote for a pay raise. So, the next time a school administrator is looking for a job, the “market rate” is much higher. Could that explain why colleges are more expensive each year?

  5. I think that lots of people are considering opting for cheaper educational paths. The trick is to balance the debt you’ll take on from your course against the type of job that you can gain after graduation.

  6. There is always the option of the military. I am a Coast Guard veteran, I received great benefits, job experience, travels, have a VA loan for my house and a free education (Masters) to boot! Veterans are also given preference when looking for a job in the federal government. I could go on and on, but it’s a great place to grow up AND get the experience and education you need to succeed!

  7. Totally agree with your suggestions and Joe’s just above me. And just wanted to weigh in on working during college. I worked the last two years I was at UNC and found that not only did it help me financially, I was way more disciplined in my studies and used my time far more wisely. I ended up staying on at that research lab a year after I graduated, made some invaluable contacts and friends that basically shaped me into the adult I am now. That being said, my husband is emphatic that our children not have to work while in school and nothing I can say will change his mind, so we opened 529 accounts for each of them when they were born and we have relatives that contribute to that for their birthdays as well as our own contributions.
    Keep up the good work, Frugal DAD!

  8. I learned — sadly after graduating college — that I could have joined the national guard in high school as a senior and qualified for both the GI Bill and the NG tuition reimbursement. Even without a full time commitment it would have covered the tuition for my state school.

  9. Something I touched upon recently about the working while in college–this is awesome if you remember to actually start paying what you can on your student loans. I worked two jobs while in college and still managed to get myself in debt. Some of it was by choice (I had very little consumer debt until my mother was sick and passed away–I spent what I could to make her life more at ease for the short time she had left with us and do not regret one iota of it) but some of it was by sheer stupidity. I managed to live with someone and pay, well, most of the bills–rent, food, utilities, cable, internet, and phone. I cannot account for where my money went and that is a lesson I had to learn the hard way.

  10. Regarding going to an in-state school: Our state has resiprocity with a number of surrounding states, which makes the tution in those states comperable to in-state tuition. So, don’t automatically rule out neighboring states.

    Regarding going to a two-year school first: In reality, that doesn’t get you ahead if the credits don’t transfer and REPLACE credits you would need to take at the 4-year school. Sometimes, the credits transfer, but all they really count for is making you a junior instead of a freshman.

    Regarding working during school: Also work during high school, and SAVE a good portion of that for college. Because I didn’t have many expenses in high school, I was able to save 1/2 of my paychecks from after-school and summer jobs. I was able to work on-campus for just a few hours a week for the first couple of years. Then, I was able to get a paid summer internship in my field, which led into a 20-hour a week job in my field for the remaining years of school. Because I had this real-world experience, I was one of the first in my class to have a job lined up for after graduation.

    Regarding taking a year off: This might be especially beneficial if you have no idea what you want to major in. Some people would say to just go to college and take generals. But, for some college degrees, there is a strict path of sequential classes you have to take, and in order to finish on time, you have to start in that major from the first semester. This is another reason to check with the 4-year university before jumping into taking the first 2 years at a community college.

  11. I also want to bring up the option of joining the military. My husband joined the military out of high school. He got poor grades and got into a fair amount of trouble. He was headed down a path that was probably not going to turn out well. He joined the Air Force and served for 8 years, doing 3 tours overseas. When he got out of the AF, he went to college. He receives a monthly stipend, free tuition, and free books. He has matured enough to take school seriously and has a better idea of what he wants to do with life. When he was in high school he thought about going to tech school for welding. Now he is getting a bachelors in Environmental Science and is working with alternative energy technologies. Joining the AF allowed him to mature and make better decisions, and not go into debt while doing it.

    This is not the right choice for everyone, but it is an important option for some.

  12. Most high schools offer courses that allow students to earn college credit while in high school at greatly reduced per credit rates. It is not uncommon for college bound students in my local high school to graduate with enough credits to enter college as sophomores. Our high school has a partnership with the local junior college. All credits are transferable to any Oregon state college. Some students have graduated high school with both HS and AA degrees by earning dual hs/college credits while in high school.

  13. Having graduated from college debt free I highly recommend way #3. I worked a tone during my time in school and it taught the value of hard work made me appreciate my college degree a whole lot more. In addition to working I still had time to study, socialize, go to football games, etc. Another thing not mentioned but something I did was to live at home the first few years of school. Now this is dependent on if you have a school close by and your family wants to put up with you. 🙂 But it does allow you to save some money and room and board.

  14. I just finished my first semester at a school, which I decided to attend due to the cost, and it has been a horrible experience. I am unable to take the classes I need due to budget cuts. I am already done with community college but am still looking at 3+ years to graduate due to lack of available classes. I am transfering to an adult program at a private institution and will be done in one year. Yes I will be $5,000 in debt as opposed to zero, but I will be done quicker and I am sure the quality of my life will be much better over the next year. The debt it worth it to me.

  15. most students earn while they learn,but that s as far as they go-their financial setup and payback is limited.as far as “taking a year off” goes,that really is a brilliant idea,provided that youre absolutely determined to get back into education mode,and have planned out this strategy down to the last detail.that one year should give you a good buffer and headsup on your edu loan.

  16. I took more than a year off after school and thanks to that I qualified for 100% grant funds that covered my entire tuition and books. I was also then not required to live in a dorm. The trick is to be an independent student and have a yearly income under a certain amount. You also want to pick a school whose tuition fees do not exceed the grant awards. I went to a local state university.

  17. I f you NEED financial assistance it is wise to note that if you do take a year off before/during college that you will lose out dearly as your own income is expected to pay for your own education and your expected contribution goes up dramatically which reduces your need, and thus grants/subsidized loan offers. That did not work out for most of my college friends who did so…

  18. I would have liked to take a year off and work, but the school I chose to attend wouldn’t allow me to apply for many of the first time student scholarships since I wasn’t a high school senior. So I’m working while in school instead, which I think all students should do.

  19. There are plenty of people who are motivated, hardworking and committed to country who choose not to join the military, regardless of the benefits, due to personal convictions. Further, there are some significant issues related to class and military-educational benefits. Children of the upper middle class and wealthy need not even momentarily consider being on the target end of a sniper rifle in order to achieve their educational aspirations. Perhaps mandatory national service in the US would act as a social glue and cure some of this disparity, slackers and all.