It’s Possible to Graduate Debt-Free. Here’s How: Scout out scholarships, take courses online, use your skills to make money and get a summer job.
[No one says that it's "impossible," just like it's possible to make one's living as a basketball player or a rapper. Our interest should not be in what's possible at best, but what's likely for most.]
By REBEKAH BELL, July 23, 2013 7:21 p.m. ET
In 2009, when I was applying to my dream college, my parents had one stipulation: graduate without debt. I burst out laughing.
There was no feasible way that a middle-class 19-year-old with average grades could attend a college with a price tag of nearly $40,000 a year without taking out loans. But now that I’ve graduated loan-free, I realize how lucky I am that my parents made this seemingly ridiculous demand.
[Ms. Bell mentions "luck" -- ask yourself if you think that her luck resided primarily in having "unreasonable parents" or in the success of the rest of what we're about to read.]
Figures from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York reveal that 37 million Americans have student loan debt. About two-thirds of students receiving bachelor’s degrees borrow to fund their education, with the average student debt at an all-time high of $26,000. Total student-loan debt is estimated to be $1 trillion.
Only 38% of borrowers are making payments on their loans. The rest are either still in school, postponing payments or not paying them back. Almost one in 10 students who started repayment in 2009 defaulted within two years. At least 40% of student borrowers put off a major purchase such as a car or home because they couldn’t afford it, and many are delaying marriage and families.
[That was with the OLD student loan interest rates. The new ones are, literally, twice as bad.]
The lesson here is that students should do everything within their power to avoid this kind of debt.
[Wait -- isn't the lesson that we should not have raised student loan interest rates?]
Although attending school without loans is difficult, it is not impossible. Here’s what I learned about avoiding the debt trap:
• Think creatively. I attended a college close to home during my freshman year because it offered a scholarship. I also took classes online to save money. Some of my friends completed dual-enrollment classes during high school, got college credits from the College-Level Examination Program in subjects where they were already proficient, or attended a less expensive community college before moving to a four-year school. Others attended trade or vocational schools instead of college. The aim should always be: Reduce the number of credits you’re paying for at the premium rate.
[This is good advice if you simply want to reduce the cost of your education. It's not necessarily good advice if you care about the quality of that education. My daughter who is now at CSUF spent her first two years -- actually three years, due to the unavailability of classes needed to complete her program -- at Fullerton College, near our house. It has worked out well for her, but if she could have gotten into a more prestigious school, the advice that "no, leave that to the children of wealthier parents" is bad for her -- and it's bad for a society that supposedly values movement across social classes. Meanwhile, evidence suggests that, at least for many students, online classes are no substitute for the "real thing." Not only do some find them more difficult, but they seem to lead to less learning -- retention and fluid mastery of the material.]
• Look hard for scholarships. I received an academic scholarship and need-based aid through my university. I also received several community and church scholarships and a matching grant through my father’s workplace. Searching for scholarships and aid is tiring but can definitely pay off.
[She had "average grades" but still got an academic scholarship. Great. I guess that Biola has a good financial aid program -- but of course, most students don't go to Bible institutes. As for church scholarships, while they're great they're not available to everyone -- such as those not in the right religion (or any organized religion.) Having one's father work somewhere that gives his offspring matching grants is a great idea, but not always feasible. But yes, search for scholarships. Too bad if that makes it harder to take part in extracurricular activities.]
• Use your skills. Figure out a way to use your college interests to earn extra money—and to beef up your résumé and gain real-world experience. I competed on my university’s speech team and worked as a videographer for the college newspaper in exchange for several thousand dollars’ worth of scholarship money. Some of my friends received athletic or theater scholarships. A friend who was an English major worked in the on-campus tutoring center.
[A reminder again: scholarship money is a finite resource. The more people apply for it, the smaller the percentage that will get it. Saying "just get a scholarship" is a bit like saying "just marry a wealthy European prince!" Nice gig if you can get it. And, by the way, many more people want those on-campus jobs than can get them.]
• Generate income. There are creative ways to make money. For me, it meant raising and selling cattle (one of the perks of being raised as a 4-H kid on a farm). One friend became a wedding photographer, earning cash and working only on weekends. My older sister taught piano lessons. A tech-savvy friend did Web design. These were all jobs that brought in money without interfering with classes.
[Not everyone can raise cattle. It's a capital-intensive enterprise, for one. And there are only so many weddings to go around. And teaching piano requires first having had lessons oneself, and having had enough leisure time to practice, and -- having a piano in the first place! I admire the people who have figured out "creative ways to make money" -- but do I really need to point out that lots of youth can't get jobs these days? Do I need to point out that lots of "creative ways" fail -- or succeed only when they are backstopped by substantial family resources? Is this advice really going to work for people the way that low student loan rates have, by and large, worked for people?]
• Make the most of summers. I worked full-time but also spent time interning for film companies. Some of my friends found paid internships during the summer, worked at camps, or took classes at community college for a fraction of the cost. One friend who did this was able to graduate a semester early, thereby saving several thousand dollars on tuition.
[I'm getting the sense that when Ms. Bell says that she's "middle-class," she's may be extending that status pretty high up the income range. But maybe not -- maybe she's just Supergirl! Is society better off when those who aren't Supergirl can't afford college?]
• Live frugally. I had a 10-meal per week plan and bought groceries for the rest of my meals. I also lived in a less expensive dorm and had two roommates instead of one, which saved money on room and board.
[Not everyone can afford off-campus housing period. This sounds a bit to me like "I vacationed in Aspen rather than in Gstaad because it's cheaper!"]
Figure out simple ways to save money. Even if it’s only $20 or $30 a month, it adds up over a year.More than one financial-aid counselor told me it would be impossible to graduate debt-free. It often seemed like the naysayers were right. But persistence helped me pull it off. And even if I had fallen short, I still would have had to borrow much less than the average student. I may not have had as much free time as some classmates, but I enjoyed a rich and fulfilling college experience while also graduating debt-free.
Graduating without debt means that now I can apply for jobs that I really want—instead of feeling like I have to grab the first one that will help me start paying off a student loan. Today, I’m indebted only to my parents for being so unreasonable.
Ms. Bell, a freelance writer, graduated from Biola University in La Mirada, Calif.
The implicit message of Royce’s seminar is that “if Rebekah Bell can do it, so can you.” And the implicit inference from that is: “if you aren’t able to do it, it’s your own damn fault.” For many students who lack cattle and contacts, and for those who can’t depend on support from church groups to go to a Bible College, what would really help them is for student loan rates to be back at 3.4% — or lower. (In many developed countries, higher education is free — because it is seen as an investment in the citizenry.) While not as extreme, it’s a bit like telling students that if they work hard they might be able to make it into the NFL or NBA — and if they don’t, then aren’t they really the one’s to blame?