How to Pay for College without Student Loan Debt

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Mark Kantrowitz

By Mark Kantrowitz

April 1, 2020

Students who enroll in lower-cost public colleges and who pick wealthier parents are more likely to graduate from college with no student loan debt. These tips will help you pay for college without student loans.

Choose a cheaper college. Students who enroll at community colleges are less likely to graduate with student loans. More than half of the students at these colleges do not borrow to pay for their education and more than two-thirds graduate with less than $10,000 in student loan debt. More than three quarters of students who graduate with no debt enrolled at a college that charged less than $10,000 a year in tuition, according to data from the 2015-2016 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS:16). Another option is to enroll at a college with a generous no-loans financial aid policy.

Choose an unconventional college. You can opt for a work college or attend college in a country that offers free tuition for international students.

Choose a college that is close to home. Students who enroll at an in-state public college are less likely to graduate with student loans than students who go out-of-state for college.

Consider a college where your parents attended, or better yet, where they work. Many colleges offer discounted or free tuition to employees and their families. If your parent or sibling attended a college, you may be eligible for a legacy discount, too.

Major in STEM. Students who major in STEM, especially mathematics, are less likely to borrow to pay for college. Perhaps it’s because math majors know how to calculate the impact of compound interest and are more wary of borrowing to pay for college?

Use our Loan Calculator to determine the monthly loan payment and total payments on your student loans, based on the loan amount, interest rate, loan fees and repayment term.

Apply for scholarships. Students who win more scholarships, especially scholarships worth $25,000 or more, are less likely to borrow to pay for college. More than half graduate with no debt. The goal of many scholarship providers is to reduce the student’s work and debt burden. So, focus on free money first.

Did you know that scholarships are taxable? Use our Scholarship Tax Calculator to figure out the taxable amount of your scholarships and calculate how much you’ll have to pay in taxes.

Find an employer who will pay your tuition. Students who benefit from employer-paid tuition assistance are also less likely to graduate with student loan debt.

See also: These Companies Will Help You Pay For College

Graduate on time. Plan a pathway from matriculation to graduation. Consider how often each class is offered and any prerequisites. Take 15 credits a semester instead of 12, since you can’t graduate in four years on just 12 credits. Students who take less time to graduate are also less likely to graduate with student loan debt.

Pick wealthy parents. Students whose parents earn $100,000 or more a year are less likely to borrow to pay for college. Students who need financial aid to pay for college are more likely to graduate with student loans, in part because most colleges use student loans to meet financial need. Three-quarters of students who file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) graduate with student loan debt, compared with only a third of students who don’t file the FAFSA. That’s why only 25% of Pell Grant recipients pay for college without student loans, compared with 57% of non-recipients. 

But since those who earn $90,000 per year or above are earning more than 87% of the rest of the U.S. population, there are other ways your parents could help you eliminate student loan debt without being wealthy. Parents: If you’re looking to change jobs, look for positions at a college that would offer free or discounted tuition for your kids. Find creative ways to save money to apply towards college costs. CollegeBacker is an easy-to-use online platform that allows you to open or grow your college savings plan. You can use their gifting feature to easily receive gifts from family and friends, and shop through their links to earn cash back towards college. Learn more about CollegeBacker

Save for college. Every dollar you save is a dollar less you’ll have to borrow. It is cheaper to save than to borrow. Money in college savings plans also gives you the flexibility to choose a more expensive college than you otherwise could afford.

Even if you don’t have a lot of extra money to save for college, get creative. Use cash-back credit cards for everyday purchases, pay off your balance in full, and use any cash you earn to put towards college. Ask any presents received from birthdays, holidays, and graduations, to be in the form of cash for college or the Gift of College gift card. Sell any unwanted belongings for extra money. Apply any unexpected money, such as winning a contest, a bonus at work, or refund, to the college savings.

Fill out the FAFSA. The FAFSA can open the door to grants, which is free money you don’t have to pay back. You can also qualify for work-study, which could help reduce what you need to borrow.

Check out our Complete Guide to the FAFSA and Financial Aid.

Dependent students, Asian and Hispanic students, and male students are less likely to graduate with student loan debt.

More than 90% of international students graduate with no debt, in part because they are not eligible for student loans.

Earning college credits in high school by taking AP classes and participating in dual enrollment may not be effective in reducing student loan debt at graduation. College credit may be limited to students who earn a 4 or a 5 on AP tests, and then may count only for general credit and not satisfy prerequisites.

At, our goal is to help you make smart decisions about saving and paying for education. Some of the products featured in this article are from our partners, but this doesn’t influence our evaluations. Our opinions are our own.

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