I definitely recommend this article. I myself graduated college debt-free and I don’t regret it. My mom has school debts and it seems really stressful. I’m really glad I don’t have that to deal with that.
How did I do it? Well, first off, I got my GE out of the way at a community college. You save money this way, believe me. It’s also a good idea if, like I was at the time, you aren’t quite sure what you want to major in. The large variety of classes at community college let you try a bunch of different subjects to figure out what you like best.
Of course, at a community college you will probably be thinking about transferring to a four-year university, unless your career of choice doesn’t require that. So it’s probably best to meet with a counselor to figure out how to do that. At my school there were a couple paths to doing this. Either you could pick an Associate’s Degree and take the courses for that, or you could do the IGETC (Inter-Segmental General Education Transfer Curriculum), which is multi-disciplinary but is accepted by all the state schools, and graduate with a Associate’s in University Studies, basically a “transfer A.A.” (or A.S.). I went the IGETC route, mainly cause I still wasn’t sure what my major was, and I had already determined that I was going to go to a state school to save money.
If, like me, you are going to school in California, there is a helpful online tool called Assist that lets you compare courses at different schools to see what transfers between them, which can help you get your lower division stuff out of the way. This can help a lot when you’re transferring, since that way you can take less courses and thereby save on college costs (and have less debts!).
Now, I have a confession: I was in community college for five years. That is a lot longer than it takes most people. But because I was also working part-time and I didn’t want to kill myself, I only took 12 units a semester. So it took longer. 12 units was the minimum for full-time, and I had to be full-time to stay on my parents’ health insurance, as I had no health benefits through my job. This meant that in addition to my IGETC courses I took a lot of random stuff. I took P.E., courses in Microsoft Office, beginning piano, beginning acting, practically every course in the Business Office Technology department (which taught things like typing, transcription, proofreading, etc), and printmaking, among others. I graduated with like 90 units, when I only needed like 70 to transfer.
For my IGETC classes I tried to be well-rounded too. I took math statistics, anthropology, chemistry, Asian religion and philosophy, Intro to Film, human development, art history…basically whatever classes looked most interesting to me out of the choices provided. And it was fun! I also mixed it up with on-campus classes and online ones, which is great if you need to work around a job or other commitment. Taking online classes, which are typically self-paced to a degree, also shows that you are self-motivated, an important life skill.
Anyway, after those five years, I was 24 years old and ready to transfer. Time to think about financial aid. Thankfully, my grades were good, which I hoped would work for me, as I figured I wouldn’t be able to get need-based aid due to being a middle-class white girl. So I started out by doing what every person wanting financial aid should do: fill out and submit the FAFSA. The FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) is necessary for getting any sort of federal government financial aid (and possibly state too), be it loans or grants. Typically it is due around March. You need tax info for this as well to show how much you or your parents can pay toward school, so save those stubs and such.
And here is where God must’ve really come through for me. I did the FAFSA but did not at that time apply for any other aid. Also, the FAFSA was based on my taxes, since I was no longer being counted as a dependent on my parents’ taxes. At the time, I had just started my current job and was making barely over minimum wage.
And then the results come back: I had qualified for a Pell Grant AND a State University Grant, enough to cover all my tuition for the year and then some. (I was going to a local school, so I didn’t have room and board expenses).
I was stoked. Grants you don’t have to pay back. You just earn them. My hard work at school had paid off. My low-paying job, not exactly an asset in my life other than it provided money and health benefits, worked out for me too because it allowed me to be eligible for need-based aid I might not have qualified for otherwise. (Now, obviously, if you can get a good job while in school, go for it. I just happened to not have a high-paying job at the time even though I’d tried to get one).
I managed to get these grants all 3 years I was at my four-year uni just by working hard in class and filing my FAFSA each year. The only money I paid for school was for a couple summer courses my grants didn’t cover, and when I did a payment plan one semester to cover for the fact that one of the grants didn’t kick in right away for some reason. (The grant later kicked in retroactively, and I got the money from it paid to me because I had already paid for what that grant would’ve covered, using the payment plan). I graduated with my B.A. in 2011 completely debt-free.
So it can be done. Give it a shot!