As attractive as this post’s title sounds, you might be disappointed to learn that I do not have some secret, magical dust to sprinkle over your college career and make it free.
If I did, I’d charge a lot of money for that sprinkle, rendering the whole theoretical concept useless.
I do, however, want to bring your attention to a path that community college students can take to a debt-free degree.
I get really bummed when I speak to a student about things they could have done to avoid debt and hear, “Oh man, I didn’t think about that.” To prevent that from happening to you, I’ve outlined the step-by-step plan that helped me graduate from college debt free.
This is the “motivated” student’s guide because it includes some steps that require work. These are more than doable for every student, but they will take some effort.
STEP 1: ATTEND COMMUNITY COLLEGE
Already at a community college? Well, then this step is easy. Attending community college not only changed my life, but it’s also the best way to graduate debt free because (surprise, surprise) it’s cheaper than attending a 4-year university.
Even if you have to take out a loan while attending community college, odds are it will be much smaller and easier to pay off before graduation.
STEP 2: APPLY FOR SCHOLARSHIPS… ASAP
Community college is cheap; therefore, winning just one average-sized scholarship of $2,000 is enough to cover nearly a full-year of tuition.
Additionally, scholarships and any loans or grants will be used to cover your tuition. Then, any leftover money will likely be refunded to you by your school—meaning money in your pocket that can help cover living expenses, transfer application fees, moving fees, and any other expenses you may have.
Applying for scholarships while attending community college is critical because you want to have as little debt as possible before moving onto the next step. (Read more about applying for scholarships here.)
STEP 3: SELECT THE BEST FINANCIAL DEAL FOR TRANSFER
The second-best decision you can make on your academic journey is to apply to more than one transfer school and select the school that gives you the most money. Period.
I can say that confidently for two reasons. First, lots of schools offer grants, scholarships, and other forms of financial aid to transfer students. Second, I haven’t bumped into a 30-something year old with student loan debt who wouldn’t go back in time and select a cheaper school (other personal experiences may differ).
There are amazing schools offering generous financial aid packages. Sometimes it’s a state school, and sometimes it’s an expensive liberal arts school offering the best package. Ultimately, you won’t know until you apply—so apply to a variety of schools and explore your options.
STEP 4: APPLY FOR SCHOLARSHIPS UNTIL GRADUATION… OR GET A PART-TIME JOB
Keep at it! Remember, you can use scholarships to pay for more than just tuition. Any expenses that you incur after transferring to a 4-year institution could potentially be paid for by scholarships.
If you had to take out loans in order to transfer, then you’ll want to work on paying those loans down as much as possible before graduation—and scholarships can help.
If scholarships aren’t your thing, then you can reduce your loans by working part time in college and putting as much as possible toward your student debt.
STEP 5: GRADUATE DEBT FREE!
Well, that was anticlimactic.
Honestly, all it takes is three smart decisions: (1) attend community college, (2) choose the transfer school with the least loan burden, and (3) focus on paying off any debt accumulated while still in school.
It’s not magic, but boy is it worth it.
Have a question for Diane about transferring from a community college? Leave it in the comments.