Student Loan Debt

There Are Ways to Pay for College Without Loans

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College tuition isn’t getting any more affordable. Many people take on a mountain of debt but there are ways to pay for college without loans.

College tuition has increased 538% since 1985, putting higher education out of reach for many and making it virtually impossible to pay for without going into debt. It’s still possible though to pay for college without loans, we’ll show you how.

Is College Even Worth It?

College certainly isn’t for everyone but that has nothing to do with the cost. Not going to college doesn’t mean a life on the bread line if you go into a lucrative field that doesn’t require a degree and those are still out there. Jobs like appliance repair, dental hygienist, and electrician still pay well and are unlikely to be lost eventually to automation.

But college graduates will still make an average of  $550,000 more than those with just a high school education over a 40 year career. So yes, for many people, a college degree is still hugely beneficial. And because at LMM we don’t look at everything only in terms of money, college has other benefits too.

College graduates are more likely to live healthy lifestyles, to be civically engaged, and to be more open to differing opinions. (Editorial aside; not sure about that last one given the recent chilling move towards making campuses “safe spaces” where dissenting voices are not being shouted down, but barred from speaking at all).

And the fact that there is a time and place for things like sex, drugs, and getting drunk, and that time and place is college, is not something to be overlooked either.

How Much Debt Are We Talking

Nationally, there is $1.2 trillion in outstanding student loan debt spread out between 40 million of us. The average amount per person is $26,600 and the average monthly payment is $280. It will take an average of 21 years to pay it all off. So by the time your loan is paid off, you might be considering taking on more to pay for your kid’s education.


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Consequences Of All That Debt

You might think that all that debt only affects the individual who carries it. Boo hoo, a few less dinners out and last year’s model smart phone rather than the newest, shiniest one. No. The affects of, I’ll say it again with feeling for those in the back, $1.2 TRILLION in debt has far reaching consequences.

Those with debt are less likely to start a small business. Given that 60% of jobs are created by small business, that’s a lot of jobs that could have been but won’t be.

People crippled with debt are not buying homes either. For people between 18 and 34, home ownership rates are down 7.3% in the last decade.

This is a problem for a few reasons. As the Boomers start looking to retire and down size, there will be less people able to buy those big McMansions. Millennials don’t need all that room since they are delaying marriage and parenthood, two more things they can’t afford.

The smaller your dwelling, the less room you have for stuff. So people living in one bedroom apartments don’t need much furniture or lawn mowers or patio furniture or Weber grills. And not buying stuff hurts the economy. This is the worst consequence I think.

When you are hamstrung by debt, you don’t have money to give to charity.

When you are working two jobs to pay back those loans, you don’t have time to volunteer in your community.

When you graduate with tens of thousands of dollars in debt, you don’t take a job at a non-profit, you take the corporate job because it pays more.

When you are struggling to keep your head above water, you don’t have money, time, or the opportunity to give back and that makes the world just that little bit worse.

But there are ways to avoid the college debt trap. College might not look like the idea you had in your head, but you’ll have a degree at the end of things.

Live In A City That Offers Free Tuition

These aren’t easy to find, but they exist. Kalamazoo Promise pays tuition and other fees  for a bachelor’s degree or 130 credit hours (whichever comes first) to every student living in Kalamazoo County who has attended all four years of high school at a Kalamazoo public high school.

A graduate has ten years to enroll and there are 15 Michigan universities and colleges and 29 community colleges that accept Kalamazoo Promise scholarship students.

Cities of Promise list cities that participate in the program although not all of them offer full tuition.

Free Colleges

There are some colleges that offer free tuition. There are various trade-offs, you will work part-time for the school, a limited selection of majors, or participate in public service on behalf of the institution.

Or, get a job at the school you want to attend. Many institutions offer free or reduced tuition not only to employees, but some also offer the benefit to employee dependents.

Community College

Unless you want to graduate with debt, you have to change your mind set that you’ll go to the best, most prestigious college that you were accepted into.

For the first two or so years of college, you’re mostly taking required courses and not those directly related to your major. So why not get those out of the way at a community college where the price per credit is vastly cheaper?

After you finish the required courses, transfer to a more prestigious school so when you get that fancy piece of paper, it has the “right” name on it.

Grants And Scholarships

The key to getting grants and scholarships is not to go after just the biggest and best ones you can find. There is a lot of competitions for those and they’re likely to be based on grades. Well, not all of us are academics. But you can get money based on many other criteria, ethnicity, area of study, even based on your hobbies.

Debt Free College Grad with Shanice Miller

Debt Free College Grad with Shanice Miller

Apply for as many as you might qualify for. The process can be ponderous but you can use the same essay for more than one application.


I know when you’re 18 and freshly graduated from high school, you’re anxious to leave home and start your “grown up” life. But living at home while attending college can save thousands on room and board. And if there is anything worse than not leaving home until 22 or 23, it’s moving back home at 25 or 26 because you can’t afford your loan payments and rent. You can use the community college strategy too, live at home for a few years while attending and then transfer.

Take Longer To Graduate

If you are going to work to pay for your education, you are not going to graduate in four years. In order to pay for a single credit hour at Michigan State, you would have to work a minimum wage job for 60 hours. For one credit.  You also need time to study, eat, sleep, exercise, maybe even socialize. So if you want to work your way through school, it’s going to take awhile. Unless…

Get Your Job To Pay

Some companies offer help with educational expenses. There may be string attached, if you leave before a certain period of time you may have to pay back the money and of course, the kind of degree they will help with will likely have to be related to the industry they serve.

There is usually a cap of about $5,000 a year, since that’s the maximum that can be exempted from tax withholding under IRS rules. But every little bit helps and a job willing to help fund your education is more likely to be flexible in working around your class schedule. This is a list of 15 companies that have such policies.

Join The Military

This is not a suggestion for anyone only considering this because of the GI Bill. There are serious consequences to joining the military and getting your ass shot off in some hell hole is worse than student loan debt.

But if you have other reasons for joining, you will get a lot of help paying for your education. If you choose a state school, your full tuition and then some will be covered. There is an allowance for housing and books. If you choose a private school, you’ll get about $19,000 a year. Which sounds like a lot and is a lot, but private schools average over $30,000 a year. So choose wisely.

Work In Public Service

Choosing to work a qualifying job in the public sector won’t render you debt free but it will lessen your debt. The Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program forgives your remaining balance after 120 monthly payments. There are all sorts of qualifications to meet the requirements and ten years is a big portion of your working life but if you want a career in public service, be sure to take advantage of this program.

Anyone Can Do This

Anyone can take advantage of at least one thing I have listed here and maybe not come out with no debt, but certainly less. The problem is, you aren’t so savvy at 18 and maybe you don’t have parents who went to college and understand the process. And banks are all too happy to fork out huge sums of money because they know they won’t be on the hook for it even if the borrower defaults. Schools know this too and keep jacking the rates accordingly.

Do some research before signing papers agreeing to put yourself in tens of thousands of dollars in debt.


Candice Elliott - Senior Editor
Candice Elliott is a substantial contributor to Listen Money Matters. She has been a personal finance writer since 2013 and has written extensively on student loan debt, investing, and credit. She has successfully navigated these areas in her own life and knows how to help others do the same. Candice has answered thousands of questions from the LMM community and spent countless hours doing research for hundreds of personal finance articles. She happily calls New Orleans, Louisiana home-the most fun city in the world.

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