How to Pay for College without Student Loans

Michael Lux Blog, Student Loans 5 Comments

Not everyone comes from wealthy families or qualifies for huge scholarships.  That doesn’t mean that it is impossible to get a good degree and a good job without going into a ton of debt.  In fact, if you are smart, you can get your degree with little or no debt at all… rich parents not required.

The most important step is to realize that not all college educations are a good deal.  The key is to find value for your dollar.  Value isn’t found by going to the most prestigious school, nor is value found by just going where your parents or guidance consoler suggest.  You will get the most bang for your buck by finding the most opportunity for the lowest cost.

Here is one possible plan that maximizes opportunity, leaves plenty of room for modification, and saves a bundle on tuition:

Year 1 and 2: Attend a community college.

Going this route is not glamorous, but it makes so much sense for so many reasons.

Community college offers a significant savings over public four-year schools.  The difference in tuition between a community college and high priced private schools and for-profit schools is absurd.  Community colleges are also much better about accommodating there schedule for people with jobs.  Saving money while spending less is a win/win.

Community college also puts you in a situation where the professors are all full time educators.  Many larger school students complain that their professors prioritize research over teaching.  At a community college your professors have only one job, teaching you.

The other huge advantage with community college is that it allows you to explore your interests in various programs without breaking the bank.  If you end up deciding that college isn’t for you, you won’t walk away  with life altering student loans.  If you spend an extra year or two trying out different areas of study, it won’t break the bank.

After your time at the community college you can either pursue full time employment, or if interested, continue your education at a four-year university.  Not only will you have saved a bunch of money, but with two years of higher ed and life experience, you will be much wiser when it comes to selecting a school and area of study.  You may also find that you are a much more desirable student with a proven record of college success instead of a just another high school grad.

If you do pick the community college route, one important thing to keep in mind is transferring of credits.  Call around to schools that you might be interested in attending after your time at community college to see if your credits will transfer.  Many community colleges are now affiliated with larger institutions which makes transferring of credits much easier.

Year 3 and 4: The Four Year In-State College

Most states have public schools that are as highly regarded, if not more highly regarded, than most private schools.  By this point you will have had two years of higher-ed and be in a much better position to evaluate your needs professionally and personally.

The bigger schools will cost more, but there will be many opportunities to lower tuition costs.  Finding a job with the school that has tuition benefits can be a great deal.  Another option would be to look into becoming a resident advisor.  These jobs, though a major commitment, often include free housing, meals, and a small stipend.

The best part about finishing your education at the bigger school is the name on the diploma.  Nobody cares where you got half your credits, in the job market you will be on equal footing with the people who spent far more money on the same degree.

Going this route may lead to some smaller student loans, but it will help you avoid private student loans, and it will give you a big head start over your peers who spent far more money.  While they are trying to pay off their debt, you can be saving for retirement.  They may be forced to take the highest paying job, while you can afford to give more weight to things like experience, training, and enjoyment.

Bottom Line

Most 18 year olds, even the most mature, are not in the best position to make one of the most important decisions of their life.  Because massive student loan debt can be a life altering mistake, gradually exposing yourself to college life and finances can help you avoid looking back with regret.

What this route lacks in initial excitement, the chance to graduate college with little or no student loans is always a smart decision.

Can decide what is best for you?  Ask around.  Are there more people who wish they went to community college or are there more people who wish they went to the more expensive school?

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I often suggest this scheme for my students to keep their costs down. The other alternative is a scholarship.

Money Beagle

Very good strategy. In any case, if you do have to take loans, the best aproach is to wait as long as you can before taking them. That will reduce your overall outlay and reduce the interest that accrues.


Great plan, and you should definitely view student loans as a very last resort, and not something to be taken lightly.

Honey Smith
Honey Smith

The sentence “At a community college your professors have only one job, teaching you.” implies that those instructors are full-time benefits eligible faculty at the institution where they are teaching. For the most part, CC instructors are contingent faculty, teaching 6+ courses per semester at 2+ institutions. The credits are cheap, yes, because they pay PhD holders ridiculously low salaries with no job security or quality of life. This doesn’t make CC’s a bad deal (many adjuncts are dedicated and wonderful teachers), but they are exploited, for sure.

The Student Loan Sherpa
Reply to  Honey Smith

That is a very fair point. But can’t the same argument also apply to most other Universities where they rely upon adjust faculty and non-tenure track professors?