In 2015, student debt was at an all-time high, with the average student shouldering $35,051 upon graduation. Fortunately, through different financial aid programs, there are ways to avoid or minimize student loan debt and interest. Federal student loans, for example, charge little interest, but are not available to everyone. A Stafford loan is need-based, and the government pays the interest while the student is in school. Free college does exist, but most tuition-free colleges are extremely selective.
If you don’t qualify for low-interest student loans, can’t get into a school that offers free college tuition, or are struggling with finding a solution for how to pay for college, it can seem impossible to get through college debt free. However, there are a number of ways to get through college without a student loan, if you’re willing to do some hard work.
Read: Student Loan Debt: Is College Tuition Worth the Cost?
1. Apply for Scholarships and Grants
Check to see if your college offers scholarships or grants. You can apply for the numerous smaller scholarships that you’ll find are available, and qualifying for several of these could help to eliminate the need for student loans.
The procedure for applying for scholarships will vary depending on the specific rules of the scholarship. Look through a list of available scholarships, and then apply for the ones for which you’re qualified. Also, check with your local re-employment center to see if you qualify for grants.
2. Go to Community College First
Although public state schools are generally less costly than private universities, the college costs at a community college are even more manageable than at public state universities. Attending a community college for your first two years could be a financially sound decision.
In addition to the direct cost benefits provided by a community college, attending this kind of higher-education institution can open more doors to scholarship money. If your grades in high school weren’t the best, or if you didn’t stand out in any extracurricular activities, it can be difficult to qualify for scholarships. If you can earn good grades at a community college, your transcript will look far more appealing to colleges, and scholarship doors that were previously closed might open for you.
3. Take AP Courses in High School
Another effective way to help avoid going into student debt is to work toward advanced placement credits. Passing AP exams can reduce the number of classes you have to take in college, up to the point where you might be able to graduate a semester early. Taking AP classes in high school can reduce the time you spend in college and by extension, minimize the debt you accumulate in college.
4. Consider Whether a Dorm or Apartment Is Cheaper for You
As a general rule, many underclassmen live in dorms while the upperclassmen primarily reside in apartments off campus. Get estimates on the costs of each option and consider living in whichever housing is cheaper for you, regardless of what your peers are doing.
Read: 15 Best Places to Live If You’re Trying to Save Money (and 15 Worst)
5. Consider a Work Study Program
Working a job at your college can be unpleasant, but it could be a better fit for you than a job off campus. The school will understand your commitment to study time and the minimal hours you are available for work.
In addition to reducing debt, holding a job at your school can provide another valuable benefit: work experience. Also, your holding a campus job could make some staff members more inclined to give you a recommendation for future jobs.
To apply for a federal work-study position, you must first fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. If you meet the financial aid requirements, you can then get into a work-study program at your college.
6. Join ROTC
If you’re willing to sacrifice a few years after college so that you can remain debt free, you should consider joining the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. In exchange for your service as an ROTC officer after graduation, you can receive financial support from the military. Should you change your mind, you can cancel your enrollment while keeping any funding you received during your freshman year. After that, however, any funding received must be paid back in full.
The Air Force, Army and Navy each have separate requirements to enlist in the ROTC. To apply, you must first fill out an application, or talk to a local recruiter. If you meet all the requirements and are accepted into the program, then you’re free to join and gain the financial benefits.
If you don’t want to join the army after graduation but do want help with funding, the Coast Guard Student Reserve is another option to consider. Students spend eight weeks training with the group over the summer, and work two weekends a month during the school year. After graduation, students enter the Coast Guard reserves.
7. Be a Full-Time Worker, Part-Time Student
Part-time students make up a sizable part of the student population at colleges. Attending school on a part-time basis might extend your timeline to graduation, but it could be worth it if it gets you through college debt free. Consider looking into colleges that offer night classes and online degrees.
If All Else Fails, Consider Subsidized Loans vs. Unsubsidized Loans
If none of these strategies will work for you in your quest to minimize school debt, you should be aware of the two different types of loans that you can take out to pay for college: subsidized loans and unsubsidized loans.
If you come from a lower income family, then a subsidized loan might be best for you. A subsidized loan doesn’t accrue interest until you’re six months out of college. Although subsidized loans are easier to manage, they are only available to lower-income families.
An unsubsidized loan is available to anyone, but interest can be accrued while attending college. With an unsubsidized loan, you can borrow as much money as you need, whereas with a subsidized loan the government limits what you can borrow.
It can be easy to get frustrated by college debt and simply hope for student loan forgiveness, but there are ways to eliminate debt entirely. Take some time and investigate further to see which scholarships or grants you qualify for, or what cheaper alternatives you can opt into while earning your degree. Otherwise, check out your options for subsidized or unsubsidized loans.
Related: How to Pay Off Student Loans After Graduation: 9 Helpful Tips