August 14, 2023 By Mark Kantrowitz
How To Graduate College with No, Little, or Manageable Debt
The average amount of federal student loan debt outstanding per borrower, including undergraduate and graduate debt, is about $37,700 as of 2023.1
Even though about 88% of college graduates applied for financial aid, for many, borrowing is one way families are covering the remaining gap to cover their college costs.
About a third of undergraduate students graduate college with no student loan debt and 42% of graduate and professional school students graduate with no student loan debt. Of the undergraduate students that borrow, 54.3% graduate with less than $10,000 in student loan debt and the average amount of debt at graduation for bachelor’s degree recipients is about $30,000.2
With that said, graduating from college with manageable debt, little debt, or even no debt at all is feasible. Here are tips for how to complete your college degree as close to debt-free as possible.
Tips for Graduating College with No Debt (or as Little Debt as Possible)
- Transfer credits from AP courses you completed in high school. If you took any AP courses in high school, they may be able to satisfy some college prerequisites. Work with your high school guidance counselor or your college advisor to see if your AP courses can transfer as college credits. You may be able to skip some classes and move on to more advanced classes for your major. This could help you satisfy your credit requirements sooner and possibly help you graduate faster.
- Weigh the benefits of a community college. Taking a detour through a community college on your way to a bachelor’s degree may save money, but make sure to keep your eye on the prize if your goal is a bachelor’s degree. A fifth of community college students who intend to get a bachelor’s degree succeed in doing so within six years, compared with two-thirds of students who start off at a 4-year college. However, a community college is a good option for an associate’s degree or certificate.
- Attend a school that is most cost effective for you. These are likely public, in-state schools, which tend to cost about a third of the cost of a private college. There are also about six dozen mostly private colleges with “no loans” financial aid policies, including UMass Amherst, CUNY, and SUNY schools. Carefully compare your financial aid packages for each school to determine which is the best financial fit for you.
- Complete courses during the summer – either online or in-person – to get ahead on classwork. But check first to confirm whether those classes’ credits will count toward your bachelor’s degree.
- Consider joining the military if it’s something you’re interested in. ROTC scholarships and the GI Bill can make college much more affordable. You can even try ROTC scholarships for a year before you are required to commit to military service.
- Become a Resident Advisor (RA) to help pay for room and board. Some colleges may even provide a full or partial tuition waiver for RAs.
- Continuously look for and apply to scholarships and grants (aka free money). More than half of students who win $25,000 or more in scholarships graduate with no debt, compared with less than a third of students who don’t win any private scholarships.3 Search a free scholarship matching service, like Fastweb.com or the College Board’s Big Future. Continue searching even after you enroll in college, as some scholarships are only available to registered students. One easy scholarship to apply for is College Ave’s $1,000 scholarship monthly sweepstakes.
- Live at home or consider roommates for off-campus housing. The money you save on room, board, and rent could be used towards your college degree instead.
- Graduate as fast as possible. This will get you working faster and avoid tuition and other college costs for extra semesters of classes. Graduate in three years instead of four, or four years instead of five, to save on tuition and other costs.
- Learn how to save money early. It is cheaper to save money than it is to borrow it. The more you save, the less you’ll have to borrow. College savings also gives you the flexibility to enroll at a more expensive college than you otherwise could afford.
- Look for ways to make money while you’re in college. You can put that extra money toward your tuition and other college expenses – and it’s less you’ll have to borrow.
How to Borrow Wisely
- Take out only what you need in student loans. Live like a student while you’re in college, so you don’t have to live like a student after you graduate. A good rule of thumb is to aim to have total student loan debt at graduation that is less than your annual projected starting salary.
- Make student loan payments while you’re in school or make extra payments when you’re able to. Both will reduce the overall cost of your loan over time and will help you graduate with less debt. Apply any extra payments to the loan with the highest interest rate to save the most money.
- Look for ways to reduce your interest rate. Signing up for autopay is one way to do this. Most lenders will provide a small interest rate reduction, typically 0.25%, as an incentive.
How Graduating with Less Debt Can Impact Your Future
- You’ll have less financial stress. Student loan stress can affect your physical well-being as well as your personal financial health. And having more student loan debt can increase stress. With less debt, you can stress less and focus on your growing career post-graduation.
- You can start saving for other goals faster. Graduating with large amounts of student debt can cause delays in major life events, such as getting married, having children, buying a car, buying a home, saving for retirement, and saving for your children’s college education. If you graduate with too much debt, you may need an extended or income-driven repayment plan. These repayment plans reduce the monthly payment by increasing the repayment term to 20, 25 or even 30 years. That means you may still be repaying your own student loans when your children enroll in college.
- You can focus on building your career without worrying about repayment requirements. Students who graduate with too much student loan debt are more likely to take a job that pays better, as opposed to a job that matches their major and career goals.
Is It Possible to Graduate College Without Debt at All?
The good news? It’s possible to graduate college with minimal, manageable, or even no debt at all. However, most college students do have a gap in how they’ll finance their college degree, leaving them with no choice but to borrow for their education. Graduating with no debt can be challenging, but there are ways to minimize how much student debt you take on. Choose an affordable school, take advantage of financial aid, continue applying to scholarships year-round, and borrow only what you need, not as much as you can.
If you do need money to fill in the gaps to pay for college, check out College Ave’s stress-free student loan options.
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