Navigating Through College Without Debt

According to a recent Credit.com survey, 25% of 18-to-24-year olds defined the new American dream as being debt-free. However, one in six individuals doubted that they would ever achieve that goal within their lifetime. Student loan debt is the most common form of debt for individuals 18-to-24, with the average amount being well over $26,000. Fortunately, though, there are several ways to navigate through college without taking out loans. Here are just a few of them:

First, consider taking College Level Examination Program (CLEP) tests in high school to test out of subjects you are already proficient in. You can also take dual-enrollment classes, which allow your high school classes to count as college credit. Completing community college or online classes during the summer can also be a great way to get some general education requirements out of the way while still in high school.

Second, take the SAT and ACT seriously. The higher you score on these tests, and the better your grades are, the more scholarship money you will be eligible for. I personally raised my ACT score three points when I retook it, which qualified me for an additional $1,500 per year.

When you’re talking with financial aid counselors from various colleges, be sure to ask about the type of merit-based aid they offer (based on your ACT/SAT scores and GPA). Also, find out whether you could qualify for need-based aid. You can fill out the Free Application for the Federal Student Award (FAFSA) yearly to determine whether you qualify for federal student aid.

Think about how you could channel your interests into scholarship money. For example, I competed on my university’s speech team and made videos for the school newspaper’s website in exchange for scholarship money. You can search websites such as scholarships.com in order to find out what scholarships you might be eligible for.

You can consider doing a work-study program in order to earn additional money. When you’re an upperclassman, you can be a resident assistant for a dorm floor in exchange for free room and board.

Also, research how your prospective college charges for units. The college I attended charged a flat fee per semester if you were taking between 12-18 units per semester. I always took 16-18 units a semester because it meant I was able to take an extra class or two a semester without paying extra. This helped me to both graduate early and save money on tuition.

If your top choice schools still don’t seem financially feasible, see if there’s a way to get all your gen ed requirements out of the way beforehand so you only have to spend two years at the school. You could also consider taking online classes or going to a smaller university and then transferring to a larger one. Check out Forbes‘ list of top colleges to find out how to get the best education for your budget.

Through proactively searching out scholarships and other types of aid, you’ll be well on your way to graduating without debt and achieving the new American dream.

Rebekah B. is a 20-something writer and speaker.

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