9 Ways to Reduce Student Loan Debt
Give a man an education and he will build a new world, but give a man a loan and you can own that man forever.
It’s been 10 years since I graduated from grad school. I still proudly hang up my diploma because it put me on a better path for my career and my income. It was also FREE. No loans, no debt, no soul to be sold. With that, I thought I might offer some ways to help reduce debt if you are a college student or have a child that is about to head to college.
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1. Scholarships, Scholarships, Scholarships
This is always worth mentioning, but if you asked young me years ago, I could care less about scholarships. There were time consuming. The questions were so boring. I had better things to do. I wish someone would have said to me right then and there that scholarships will determine if you stay at job you despise to make ends meet or be financially secure enough to move on.
Most scholarships go unclaimed because no one applies so start searching for those unique scholarships. The web is always a good way to start, but also ask around in your network. Ask if your parents company have their own scholarships program, ask if their credit union has one, your church, your old high school, your old part-time employer, and your local community.
2. Finish School Early
It’s kind of strange how as a society we have come to normalize 5 year degrees when other generations before our time were able to complete it in 4 years. Before you even start taking classes, map out what you need and want to take. If you can finish early, I would recommend doing so. Finishing a semester early can save you massive amounts of money and get you in the workforce that much faster.
Yes, it will be strange to be out before all of your friends are, but hey it’s the price you pay for wanting financial independence early on. You can still come back in May to graduate with your peers. Don’t discount any opportunities you have to accelerate your degree and reduce your debt. I know it’s really tempting to spend that last semester hanging around, sleeping in late, going to 2 or 3 classes, but think of the cost now and for your future self. A semester can be $15K + interest and you are looking at maybe 2 years before you can pay that off.
Do not discount AP classes or working with your high school to start on some college credit work. If you can earn credits at less then the price of in-state tuition, you can significantly reduce costs in the long-term. Don’t also forget about going to a community college first before going to a university. Doing so can greatly reduce costs on some of the requirement classes and get you to complete school faster.
3. Ask Your Employer
If you are working part-time or full-time while going to school, ask if your employer can help with tuition costs. It never hurts to ask. Example: my husband worked full-time while pursuing his MBA part-time. He worked for a small company and was probably the only one going to school at that time. He asked if the company could cover this tuition and they wrote him a check which partially paid off a few classes. It was never done before and all it took was to ask, get persistent and see what happens. If you are a valuable employee, there’s a lot of negotiating power you can bring to the table with an ask like this.
Similarly, I know that Starbucks does a tuition reimbursement program too for Arizona State University online program. I know there’s certain criteria that partners need to meet, but it is worth reading the subreddits on this program. From what I gathered, Starbucks will cover around 50% of the tuition (not books or fees) and you cover the rest. At the end of the semester, you submit a reimbursement for the remainder of the tuition costs. Having your money in the game is also an incentive to ensure you study and do well.
For my situation, my full tuition reimbursement was through a large pharmaceutical company. It was a program that was in place for many years. I didn’t think I qualified because I had just joined the company and I, frankly, didn’t want to do another 2 years of school, but the incentive was too great to pass up. At that time, I also lived at home so I was able to dedicate full-time work and part-time school without feeling too overwhelmed. There was no requirement to stay after I finished my program, but I liked what I was doing and the company. The requirement to continue getting reimbursement was to maintain at least a B in the classes. I was also a bit spoiled because we had a cohort from the company so they sent a Professor down to the company to hold classes in the large conference rooms. I didn’t even have to step foot on campus. Very cushy!
4. Work Part-Time
I worked at the computer labs starting from my sophomore year to my senior year. Initially, I only worked 6 hours a week in 3 hour blocks. Very flexible, on campus and the best part: I could do my homework, read and be on the computer during those hours. The only thing I had to do was make sure I cleaned my assigned computers, made sure no one brought food into the lab, and help people who needed help with software, hardware or printer issues. I was paid above the minimum wage average and could pick up shifts in between classes or if a class got canceled and I had the time. I ended up managing the campus computer labs my senior year working 30 hours a week + 2 days of classes + an internship in the city. I used the money I earned to pay for off-campus housing and meals which removed room and board from my final loan debt for my last year. My experience from that campus job also gave me the background to pursue an opportunity in IT at graduation.
Working part-time can be a scary thought especially when you have to juggle classes, activities, studying, socializing, etc., but it can actually be a good avenue to see what you want to do post graduation. Look for part-time work on campus, perhaps in your favorite department. Use part-time work as an opportunity to network and build up prioritization skills as work-life balance will be key to overall success once you get out of school.
5. Consider Online Programs
The reality is that sometimes college programs are heavily for-profit and the cost of attending in-person can be astronomical given you pay for a lot of extras. If you are looking to do something that’s more tech focused, I would encourage you to check out many online programs that can give you a strong foundation. Many of these programs are also accelerated so you can learn a new skill, a new coding language or a new way to do something in less than a year.
For example, a CS degree at a 4-year college can result in thousands of dollars in student loan debt. An alternative option might be a certification for the latest programming language at ⅓ of the cost and at half the time. The key with some of these online courses is to make sure you do a few things: 1) Build a resume of projects that you can point potential employers to 2) Network outside of the program and in-person 3) Understand what the market needs and update your skills. As a former adtech program manager, I have interviewed many graduates in technical fields and I’m sad to say that many of them were very unprepared to discuss their work, to solve new problems and relay their thought process and solutions. It also concerns me that many students are in college for four years and are studying outdated material (more specifically old programming languages and project methodologies). Yes, I think the thinking is that hopefully they get the foundation to be able to understand new concepts later on, but sadly this rarely happens.
6. Side Hustles
I knew a drug dealer in college. I knew someone who created this thing for a car trunk and sold lots of it. (I didn’t understand what it was, but apparently enough people had the same problem that they were willing to pay for the item.) I knew someone who modeled and was a shot girl. Don’t discount your side hustles to help pay for college. With the internet, the continued rise of e-commerce and the rise of social media, selling something online is now easier than ever. Use that side hustle to help you. It may not bring you millions, but if it can reduce thousands of interest in your first few years out of college, call that a win.
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7. Go Abroad
An alternative that many people may not consider is to go abroad to study. This one is especially good for my dual citizenship holding friends. Take advantage of other education opportunities outside of the states. My sister’s roommate is heading back to the Philippines for medical school. Depending on how she does in her exams, she has the opportunity to attend a well-known school in the Philippines. There will be some work that she would need to do when she comes back to the US to practice, but at least she’ll be way ahead in terms of reduced debt than her other peers.
I realize that many people come to the U.S. to study, but globalization has really expanded the reach of education so going back to your home country to finish a few years or working with a partner school abroad at a fraction of the cost could be very beneficial to your overall financial security. It might also be worth doing undergrad back in the home country and do grad work at an Ivy here in the States. There’s so many various ways to get the education that you need without following the conventional path that everyone is on.
8. Get Family to Help
Before the grandparents shower kids with toys they’ll play with for a few hours, consider asking them to gift towards future education instead. We all have to plan ahead and us adults, it is our responsibility to step-in and start that process. Any financial adviser will tell you retirement first before college fund because the idea is that the kid’s have more time on their hands to save and earn more, but both are possible if we plan ahead and if we choose to be deliberate about how money gets spent today. A partially funded 529 can go a long way to reducing student loan debt. A few thousands in savings can provide the means to skip a loan. A few dollars here and there adds up so don’t discount getting family support to start the college fund early.
9. Get Realistic
Just because everyone is going to this college, just because you got into the dream college and just because you can borrow money to go there doesn’t mean it’s the right move. It’s important that both parents and students sit down to understand what a loan can mean for the future. What kind of lifestyle will it impact? Do you want to be scraping by at 24 instead of thriving and living your best life? College is 4 years. It’s such a short time span, but yet many spend 10 years or more paying for those 4 years. Is the trade-off worth it?
I continue to believe in education, but I also believe in doing a little of the unconventional to reduce debt and obtain a degree that is useful and worth pursuing. I know many articles will cite that today’s new generation will have more student loan debt than ever before, but I also caution you from reading too much into that. You don’t have to be part of that statistic. Get smart with financial basics. If you borrow money today, you eventually will have to pay for it. If you don’t learn skills that is needed in the today’s job market, your salary will suffer.
In our September meetup for Sisters for FI, we talked a lot about reducing student loan debt. Here are other resources to take a look. If you’ve got a great tip to reduce student loan debt, share the love in the comments below.
Facebook Group: College Bound for parents and students to learn more about the college process
Scholarly for college scholarships. Most scholarships go unclaimed because no one applies. Run through your children's activities and background and encourage them to apply.
Don't forget to check locally too or through work for potential scholarships.
Read more about College Hacking
Podcast episode to listen to about college student loan debt: Choose FI: 78