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I was sitting in my desk waiting for the bell to ring, squeezing in a few more seconds of chatting with my friends. I had my history notebook out waiting for class to start so Mr. Granger could start a new lecture.
Conversations buzzed while my classmates laughed and goofed around, taking full advantage of the three short minutes between classes. Just before the bell rang, our guidance counselor Mr. Wilson walked in with a box of folders.
Within a few seconds, the bell rang and everyone slowly finished their conversations and sat quietly.
Mr. Wilson was there to talk about careers and college, and with him he brought the sweet, brightly colored 90s folder that held my 5th grade career day report. Apparently I wanted to be a teacher because they wouldn’t let me write about my dream to play in the NBA.
I still remember the speech my guidance counselor gave me. It was the same message he gave to every junior and senior. He repeated it almost every chance he got. Apparently it was important for us to learn.
“You’re almost ready to graduate high school and you need to think about your future. Your junior and senior year are important years for you to work hard and get good grades. Remember to take higher level classes and complete all of your graduation requirements.
Colleges look at students as a whole, so get involved in extra curriculars, finish at least two years of a foreign language…Brandon are you listening? This is important for you too. You can’t get by on good grades alone.”
Did Anyone Else Get the Same Message About Going to College?
The message went on a bit longer, but it was basically the same every time. My high school pounded it into my head how important it was to go to college. College was the gateway to a successful life in a career that would pay us more than we could imagine.
They got me hook, line, and sinker. I started to feel that if I didn’t go to college I wouldn’t be successful.
17 year old Jamie worked hard to research career choices so he didn’t get left behind living a less than amazing life. I was nervous to choose my career at such a young age, but so many of my friends seemed to have it all together, so I worked hard to find my dream career and a college to go to.
My career of choice: Accounting!
Teaching and professional sports were off the table.
My uncle Greg was an accountant and I always thought he was successful and seemed to like what he did. So I took an accounting class to get my feet wet and loved it. Numbers were easy for me. I felt so good about choosing my lifelong career and was ready to live a successful life after college.
Get good grades, go to college, get a good job, and you’ll be set for life. I was ready for the good life.
What My Guidance Counselor Forgot to Tell Me
When I was researching career options, I considered two major factors. How much money I would make and if I would actually like the work. Accounting seemed to fit both of those requirements.
The part of the equation I forgot was how much a four year University would cost me and how I was going to pay for it.
My family wasn’t poor, but we certainly didn’t have money coming out of our ears. I didn’t have any money saved up and neither did my parents. The only way I could afford to go to college and live my dream life was to take out student loans.
I wish my high school did a better job of educating me on the options to pay for college and possible alternatives to taking out massive amounts of student loans. I’m sure someone mentioned it, but there wasn’t a lot of emphasis on being financially smart in my approach to college.
I wish I heard more horror stories about student loans. I wish someone talked to me about the realities of paying for college entirely with loans and the repercussions I would face nine months after I graduated with my degree and mountain of debt.
Why did such an important part of the conversation get pushed to the side? I wish I knew the answer and I wish schools did a better job of preparing students for the realities of their futures.
College Isn’t the Only Option No Matter What People Tell You
Now that I work in education, I want to do everything I can to educate my students about paying for college, student loans, and alternatives to taking out tons of loans in the first place.
The problem is, schools are still preaching the same message to students that I heard in high school! Except now the message starts in middle school. I’ve been asked to share the message with my students.
I hate it. First, I don’t believe all students NEED to go to college to be successful, especially not a four year university. Second, students need to know the costs of all types of post secondary education, their options for paying for college, and the restricting realities of paying back student loans after they graduate.
Changing the Script on College
Anytime I talk about college with my students, I go off script so they know their options. I tell them about our student loans. I tell them how hard it was to pay off $73,000 of student loan debt and how we had to delay our dream of starting a family because we couldn’t afford student loans and day care.
It’s important that they know the mistakes I made so they don’t have to make them. The last thing I want is for them to be trapped by debt like I was.
Now that I’m on the other side of college and student loans, I’m not fully convinced that going to college is the right path for everyone. Especially with the potential to graduate with a ridiculous amount of student loan debt.
And if you decide that college is the right path, I’ve learned there are better ways to do it than I did. (I mean, I did apply for a grant that I used to go on a trip to Florida instead of paying my tuition, so I wasn’t a model budgeter by any means in college.) :/
3 Ways to Avoid Massive Amounts of Student Loan Debt
1. Work Your Butt Off, Pay as You Go, and Graduate College Debt Free
I don’t regret going to college for a second. I found a career path that’s allowed me to change lives and I need my degree to do that. I also met my wife, so I’m pretty happy about that too. 🙂
The only thing I really regret about college is how financially irresponsible I was. I never learned much about money growing up and it showed.
A friend of mine chose a different path through college. She didn’t have a ton of financial support from her parents either and didn’t save much before venturing off on her own.
But she found a way to graduate for college debt free. She also worked her a$$ off to pay for college while she was studying.
While attending the university as a full time student, she worked 30+ hours a week as a bartender/server at a touristy restaurant. I have no idea how she functioned enough to study because it seemed like she was always working.
When tuition was due she wrote a check that was backed by money she earned. She created her own financial backing to avoid taking out loans like I did. She actually inspired us to start working at a restaurant when we became serious about paying off our student loans.
Most college towns have restaurants and especially bars. If you can find your way into a job that pays you tips, you can totally pay for college as you go. Restaurants aren’t the only job option, but I know from experience that they pay well.
Awesome Jobs to Help You Pay Your Tuition as You Go and Graduate College Debt Free
If you’re in college now and looking for options, I have a list to get the creative juices flowing.
- Front Desk Clerk at a hotel (bonus if they let you do your homework while you work)
- Uber or Lyft driver
- Food delivery service (my uncle did this to pay his way through school)
- Department store
- Dog walker for Rover
- Bank teller
- Grocery store
- Tutor (families are willing to pay well for this)
- Campus jobs: food court, library, custodial, intramural referee, etc
Get your hands on any job you can, and from there try to maximize your income. I hope you see how many options you truly have to pay as you go. It’ll be hard work, but so is paying it off later. Another point for paying as you go is you won’t have to pay any interest later. That means more money in your pocket.
2. Try a Gap Year to Figure Out What You Actually Want to do with Your Life. Bonus: You Can Save Money at the Same Time
When I first heard of this idea, I shuddered a little. My college focused brain couldn’t understand an option that didn’t involve going to college right after graduation. But the more I hear of people doing this, the more I’m becoming a fan.
I first heard of a gap year when I helped lead the high school youth group at our church. Instead of going to college right away, students were opting to take a year or two off and just work.
I think a gap year is brilliant for a couple reasons.
A gap year helps you save money. It’s no secret that college is expensive, so it’s good to go in with a plan to pay for it. If you graduate high school with no money, take a couple years to save up. Even if you don’t save enough to pay for college outright, you can still work during college to graduate debt free.
Many high school graduates have no idea what they want to go to college for. It seems silly to give money to a college if you don’t have a plan. Of course you might find your passion in one of your generals, but that’s a costly chance to take.
I thought I wanted to be an accountant but I changed my mind before I even sat down in an accounting class. It wasn’t until I was a sophomore that I realized I wanted to be a teacher. I basically wasted my freshman year, $16,000 down the drain.
Plus, I had shiny object syndrome. I took so many classes and all of sudden wanted to add a bunch of minors to my degree. I took psychology and coaching classes. I found the subjects fascinating and tried to soak in more and more.
The problem with that was it slowed my progress and took me longer to graduate. In the end I didn’t complete a coaching or psychology minor, but I did go to college for six years instead of four. That’s two whole years of student loans I wouldn’t have taken out if I took the time to plan out my finances and choices ahead of time.
If you have a son or daughter that’s unsure of what they want to do with their life, save them some money and suggest a gap year or two.
3. Choose a Cheaper Option: Tech School or Trade School
The last alternative to a four year college and massive student loan debt is a two year tech or trade school.
When I was in high school, I thought two year colleges were a waste of time and not as good as a four year university. Wow was I wrong. I’m happy to say I’ve learned a lot since high school.
These days two year tech degrees are in high demand, which means more money when you graduate. You’re also more likely to land a job right away, which is a nice alternative to bachelor degree grads who can’t find a job anywhere.
The other major bonus of tech school is it’s crazy cheap compared to other colleges. You can spend about $8,000 to get a two year degree as an airplane mechanic and basically be recruited by several companies to earn $28/hour. Lower costs make it easier to graduate college debt free.
That’s such a better deal than my four (six in reality) year teaching degree. I started at about $15/ hour and paid a lot more for my education.
Granted I really enjoy teaching and needed a bachelor degree for it, but sometimes it’s hard to argue with the numbers.
What’s the Best Option to Avoid Student Loans?
There’s no best answer to this question. It really depends on your situation, your goals, and how much work you’re willing to put in. Of course you can coast through college like me and end up with a butt load of student loan debt, but there are much better options out there.
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What do you think? Is college worth the cost? How could you avoid student loans if you could do it over again?
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As an Educator and Personal Finance Blogger, Jamie has helped hundreds of families learn how to budget, save money, and pay off debt (go here to subscribe and start your debt free journey). Read our debt free story, “How We Paid Off $73,000 of Debt in Less Than Four Years”.