Before I started TeensGotCents and got enrolled in dual enrollment, I never really focused on my financial future. After all, education was never something I had to pay for in the past. But since then, I learned that student loan debt in the United States is $1.3 trillion. Even worse, according to MarketWatch, that number is going up by about $3,000 every few seconds!
I’ve known plenty of people who have contributed to the trillions of dollars in debt themselves. And they’re not alone. A study by the Institute of College Access and Success says the average college student takes out $28,950 in debt — and 70% of all students took out some kind of loan in 2014.
What many of these students and classmates don’t realize is that there are ways to graduate with as little debt possible. These five strategies can reduce costs, prepare your pre-college finances, and set you on a path for success.
Make a Plan NOW
If you don’t already have a plan, it’s time to hash one out. Talk to your parents about opening a savings account. Ask grandparents or aunts and uncles to stop giving you sweaters and gift cards, and instead contribute to your college fund. Most importantly, begin a personal budget so you can “invest” in your college fund yourself. For example, if you were able to put $50 in a savings account every month from your 15th birthday to your 18th birthday, you would have managed to save $2,400 — enough for textbooks or a year of living in dorms.
Earn Your Keep
There are plenty of opportunities for teens to work after school, during the summer, or as needed for family and friends. Pick up babysitting jobs on weekends, apply to work at your favorite fast food spot, or start a lawn care business during your breaks. And keep it up while you’re in college! Many students can enroll in federal work-study programs, which guarantee a paycheck AND a contribution to your tuition. You can even set up automatic deposits to your savings account and schedule monthly payments to your tuition to keep yourself on track.
Hunt for Scholarships and Funding
From the moment you even consider uttering the word “college,” you’ll have tons of people whispering in your ear, reminding you to apply for scholarships. But often teenagers and college students are unsure of where to look. If you are in high school, make friends with your guidance counselor or teachers. They are sent scholarship notices frequently and can keep you up to date. If you are already in college, your academic advisor or department head should be in the know. And if these come up empty, you can always do a Google search for scholarships or scroll scholarship boards. You will almost certainly be surprised how many scholarships get only a small handful of applicants!
Revisit Your Options
We all want to have that dream college experience with dorm rooms, grassy lawns, fraternities and sororities … but when that reality costs way more than you can afford, it’s time to bring yourself back down to earth. Community and junior colleges are a great and inexpensive short term alternative to paying outrageous public and private school tuition. And better yet, most towns now have access to community colleges, meaning you can save double by not shelling out for room and board or a shared apartment.
Did you know that there are schools that don’t actually charge students tuition? Students at the US Air Force Academy receive full tuition scholarships worth $40,000 in return for enlisting for active duty service. Curtis Institute of Music gives merit awards that cover the entire cost of college. And at the College of the Ozarks, students exchange 15 hours of work per week during the school year for free tuition. These schools prove that college can be obtainable if you are willing to sacrifice, work hard and prove your worth.
Now that I am a college student myself, I am dedicated to graduating without a single loan in my name. It’s going to hard, but I know the end result will be so worth it! By following these strategies, including attending a community college, living at home, and constantly being on the lookout for new scholarship opportunities, I am making my dreams come true one semester at a time.
What are you doing to avoid taking on debt for college?