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How To Graduate With ZERO Debt: A Tactical Guide for Adults Going Back to School

You’ve got enough financial stress on your plate.

There’s a mortgage, or rent. Typically a car payment or two. There’s the savings, mutual funds, and investments you’re funding. And then there’s the debt—the overall U.S. household debt has increased by 11% in the past decade.

Going back to school may seem impossible because you can’t see how you’ll carve out the money. And you certainly don’t want to accrue more debt by taking out a student loan that adds another payment to your monthly bills.

 

  • Average student loan debt: $30,100.
  • Average student loan repayment period: 10 years

Going into debt to achieve your bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, or doctorate doesn’t have to be your reality. To ensure it doesn’t happen to you, you need to build a proactive debt-free tuition strategy.

Here are 6 proven steps to building a zero-debt college plan.

Step 1: Know What It (Actually) Costs

Often, people only look at tuition when defining the cost of going back to school. But what about all the related costs? Tuition is only part of the equation. The first step to building your zero-debt college plan is to identify the true cost of going to the school you want to attend.

The true cost for an adult going to school should include:

  • Tuition & Fees
  • Books
  • Supplies
  • Computer & Technology
  • Transportation
  • Food

Build a cost profile for your top three schools. Determine how much each will cost you in tuition, books, transportation and food. These figures will be best guesses—but can help you smartly build your budget and funding strategy for college.

Not sure where to find this information? Use the Education Department’s College Scorecard to get general cost information. Or, head to your desired school’s Net Payment Calculator to get a more accurate price tailored to your situation.

Step 2: Ask Your Employer About Tuition Reimbursement

You’re doing this to advance your career, right? Many companies realize that your professional development is in their best interest—and may be willing to pay for or defray the costs.

Some companies will pay for all or part of your education, particularly if it directly relates to your role. Bear in mind that restrictions typically apply: you usually have to maintain above a specific GPA, and to remain with the company for a mutually agreed length of time after graduation.

To see what’s offered at your company, contact your HR rep.

Step 3: Find Free Grant Money

Free money, also known as gift aid, should be the cornerstone of your plan. Naturally, if your goal is to graduate with no debt, you must develop an aggressive strategy around finding and securing a scholarship or grant—or several.

Here’s where to go to find grants and scholarships:

Step 4: Find Scholarship Opportunities

Many adults going back to school are surprised to learn that they may be eligible for scholarships.

There are thousands of scholarships available—some are merit-based, others are based on competitive abilities, and others for certain groups or demographics (for instance, scholarships for veterans, women, minorities, etc.). There’s a chance that you can find a scholarship or two for which you’re a strong candidate.

Where can you find what scholarships might be available to you?

  • Ask the financial aid officer at your college of choice
  • Use the U.S. Department of Labor’s Free Scholarship Search Tool
  • Search Google for scholarships related to your industry/trade
  • Ask your employer if they have a scholarship program
  • Go to your local library and look in the reference section

It’s important to note that winning a scholarship will affect your other student aid. If you win a scholarship, you’ll need to let the financial aid at your school know immediately.

Step 5: Claim Your Tax Credits

Tax credits are available to adults who are going back to school.

These credits can help to offset the costs of tuition, books, supplies and equipment by reducing the amount of your income tax. In this way, you can leverage your tax return to pay remaining balances on your college bill.

The tax credits that apply may include:

  • The American Opportunity Credit allows you to claim up to $2,500 per student per year for the first four years of school as the student works toward a degree or similar credential.
  • The Lifetime Learning Credit allows you to claim up to $2,000 per student per year for any college or career school tuition and fees, as well as for books, supplies, and equipment that were required for the course and had to be purchased from the school.

To learn if you qualify for these credits, consult your tax professional. The financial aid officer at your school of choice may be able to assist as well.

Step 6: Pursue Alternative Funding

If you’ve exhausted the traditional routes of aid and gifts, but still haven’t accounted for the full cost of your schooling, you may want to pursue creative funding strategies to cover the remaining costs of your schooling.

A couple ideas worth considering:

  • Crowdfunding: In the age of social media, crowdfunding has become increasingly viable as a means of raising capital. GoFundMe is one of the more popular platforms, but there are
    several others available. Do your research, however, as some sites only fund niche-specific causes that might not include education.
  • Individual Contributions: If the reason you’re going back to school has a noble or relatable purpose, consider asking people in your network for a donation. Word to the wise: tread carefully and only use as a final resort.
  • Sell Something: Have a talent or skill that you can leverage? Maybe photography, or creative writing, or design? Create a product and sell it to raise additional money for your college costs.
  • Fast-Track Graduation: Accelerate your academic program so that you graduate more quickly. If you can shave a year off a four-year program (take summer classes, or carry an extra class each semester), that’s one less academic year that you need to fund. This works even with shorter courses.

Have creative funding ideas of your own? Leave us your idea in the comments below. We’d love to hear about new, creative strategies to fund a back-to-school dream.

Graduate Without Going Into Debt

Getting a college degree does not have to result in burdensome debt. The key is to establish how much money you need, and then develop a strategy to secure it.

There are multiple free or low-cost ways to fund your education beyond loans. Whatever your approach/combination of approaches, establish your target amount, and go after ways to fund it so that you can graduate with a GPA of 4.0—and a debt burden of 0.0.