How To Avoid Student Loan Debt At A University – From Experience

how to avoid student loan debt

In college, money is not abundant. In fact, the entire time I was in college, me and everyone around me were penny-pinching and constantly trying to make ends meet. Congratulations, I have amazing news. It is possible to make it through college without going broke AND it’s actually possible to make it through college without a surmountable amount of debt. I was NOT a trust fund kid and if I wanted to head to a university, I had to put in the work. If you’re wondering how to avoid student loan debt at a university, you’re in the right place. Here’s exactly how I did it and had an AMAZING time, too (and graduated without a single dollar of debt)!

Transfer from a community college

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There is a huge push for kids to go straight to university once they graduate high school. And while this is sometimes obtainable (based on your grades), it isn’t for everyone. If there is a university you have in mind that has a full-ride scholarship for kids with good grades – go for it. But keep in mind that these types of scholarships usually ONLY cover tuition and do not help cover housing, textbooks, living expenses, food and more. So, while these are often a great start, they are not an end all be all. If you didn’t have amazing grades in high school (I’m Little Miss Got A D In Algebra II), then I highly recommend starting at a community college before transferring. 

I started at my nearest local community college for one year before transferring to my university. You wouldn’t believe the benefits of doing it this way. First of all – I was able to take all of my boring mandatory classes at way cheaper prices (math, starters English, science labs, etc). This means, that when I got to my university, I could put my money toward my actual degree and not waste any time on taking pre-requisites. Next, I was able to apply for so many different transfer-based scholarships. I didn’t realize how big of a market there was for transfer students but the scholarship pool is vast. If you live in AZ and are transferring to ASU, UA or NAU, Earn To Learn was one of the most amazing resources.

Apply for scholarships & grants

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On the topic of scholarships and grants… APPLY! Every year, the FAFSA application opens between October 1 and June 30. I’d recommend logging on October 1 and applying right away. Right it down in your calendar and put a reminder on your phone! The FAFSA can really help you when it comes to financial aid. If you have no idea what a FAFSA is, it is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Basically, when you fill out this application, it determines whether you are eligible for student aid, such as grants. Personally, I was eligible to receive the Pell Grant the entire time I went to college. Grants and scholarships are money you never have to pay back, unlike loans. This application looks at your family’s joint income to see what kind of help the federal government can provide you. Even if it turns out that you aren’t eligible for much federal student aid, you should still fill out the FAFSA every year, because sometimes it is needed in the application for other scholarships, like private scholarships.

Speaking of scholarships, apply apply apply! While you can apply for scholarships online like using the Common App, I would actually recommend going onto your university’s scholarship page on their website instead. Here, you can find scholarship opportunities for your specific major, for diversity groups, national scholarship programs, transfer students and more! On this page, I was able to apply for FOUR different transfer-specific scholarships and I was awarded all of them.

After my first semester at my university, one of my journalism professors (my major), told my class that they were having a hard time getting people to apply for scholarships. Crazy, right? They had a ton of donors who were wanting to donate money to college students but no one wanted it! That day, I carved out a few hours of my time to apply for all of the scholarships on the list and I was awarded FOUR of them and I was able to renew them for future semesters. These scholarships all ranged from $500 to $2000 dollars a year. Apply for every single scholarship opportunity that comes your way – you never know what you’ll get picked for!

Have a SET class schedule for your time at university

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If you’re wondering why I know all of this information – I was a transfer mentor on campus for three years. That means that I was the go-to gal for some incoming transfer students. I helped them with their schedules, with any questions they had, with applying for scholarships and so much more. Let me help you! Now that you’ve officially applied, gotten in and have a way to pay for your university (through scholarships and grants, right?), it’s time to plan out your class schedule. You’ll be set up with an academic advisor who will help you understand what classes you need in order to complete your degree. They will set you up with a schedule for your first or first few semesters.

 

After this meeting, it is often advised that you go back to them each semester to sign up for classes. While this can be nice occasionally, it is not usually necessary. Your university should provide you with a system that you can go through and see what classes you need. You will also be able to sign up for these classes on your own before each semester, and you’ll have deadlines for this. Basically what I’m getting at here is that you should have a SET class schedule from the very beginning.

When I started at my university, I mapped out my next three and a half years (I would be graduating early because I already took all my prerequisites at community college). I wrote down every class I needed onto a semester-based schedule and did the research too. When mapping out your schedule, make sure you know what order you’re supposed to take these classes. Sometimes classes are prerequisites for others or even co-requisites for others, meaning that they have to be taken at the same time.

As a mentor, I saw so many students waste time and money by not knowing what they were supposed to take next, or taking their classes in the wrong order. Hell, sometimes they enrolled in classes they didn’t even need for their degrees. By filling your schedule with classes you don’t need or messing up your schedule by taking classes in the wrong order, you will be wasting a lot of money. That’s another semester you’ll need to be there, and another… and another. Consolidate your schedule as much as you can. Take as many classes (or credits) as you can handle (I usually took 15-18 credits a semester, but one time I had to have a waiver signed because I was taking 21). Cram it in and don’t waste time, graduate early if you can.

Find a real apartment/not student living

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Now, where do you live? If you’re able to stay with your family during college so you can save up money, do that. If that’s not an option, there are more, don’t worry! If you have the choice and are not being required to live on campus, don’t. I have more information on this in this article, but dorms aren’t always the way to go. And if you do want to live in the dorms for the “college experience,” only do it for one year. NEVER MORE. Dorms are expensive and gross! Moving on, if you are looking for an apartment, I’d highly recommend looking for one that IS NOT being marketed as “student housing.” These apartments will be leased out per room, meaning that you will be assigned random roommates, they will be overpriced and it will basically be just like a dorm, but at least you’ll have your own bathroom. Or will you have to share that with a rando too? If you have someone, or even a few people, that you already want to room with, find a normal apartment split a normal lease. If you don’t, I’d recommend looking on Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, and in Facebook Groups for leases that people are trying to get rid of. You’ll usually get a way better deal when you take over someone’s lease, instead of signing your own.

Free bus routes

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Your university probably has its own bus system that runs throughout the campus. But beyond that, sometimes there is also a free bus route for students on the city bus. This route might be able to take you to the grocery store and even to your apartment. Check on this and see if there’s a free route for students and where it can get you, and then if there’s not, see if you can get a bus pass at a discounted price.

On campus health appointments

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When I was in university, I didn’t have health care. And that was pretty much fine… until I broke my elbow. What’s a girl to do now? Luckily, most universities have health services on campus. And even better than that, they also have health care plans for students! For only $135 a semester, I was able to get really cheap ($25-$50) doctor appointments, X-Rays and castings done. This is an insane deal that I feel like a ton of students have no idea about! They also have a pharmacy, so you can get your medication on campus too. They also have mental health services, so I know you can schedule cheap therapy, too! Definitely check out these options before you go anywhere else.

Dental care on campus

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Obviously, if I didn’t have health insurance, I didn’t have dental insurance. Luckily, my university had a dental hygiene program in which students NEEDED experience. For only $60 (and the same price for alumni, so I can still go!), I was able to get a cleaning, exam, x-rays and fluoride. They also provide sealants, too, if needed. These students have to take a board exam to graduate and they constantly need patients to work on, so I was actually able to get a FULL MOUTH deep cleaning done for free as a board patient. If you are in need of dental care, see what your university has to offer!

Beauty school on campus

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Similar to dental care, if your university has a beauty school, you are bound to be able to get discounts. If you ever need your hair, makeup or nails done, always check there before looking elsewhere! Students need practice, and you’ll get your appointment done at a way better price than usual.

Student events on campus

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As a student, there are at least 15 free events a week. And most of these events offer free food and free fun. On my campus, they had a theatre that played free movies every week. They also had so many different types of events throughout the weeks like sports games, tailgates, bonfires, cookouts, activities and crafts, learning sessions, concerts, carnivals, open swim or swim movie nights, ice skating, hiking trips and more. There’s always something free to do on campus, and most of the time you’ll get free lunch or dinner out of it, too. A great way to save money is to be on the lookout for these events and to sign up for every single one that interests you! Especially if you don’t have a car with you, you can be bussed over to the bowling alley, the ice rink, to a beautiful hiking destination, or to town!

Campus gym/free fitness classes

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If I could go back in time, I would utilize my university’s gym so much more. There were free fitness classes every single day, and the gym itself was gigantic. And it was all free to students. Check out your university’s health center (or gym) and don’t be nervous to try out new things! I should’ve bussed over to take yoga classes every morning! I should have gone to the gym when I got off work. I’m telling you now, this is one of the best benefits of a university that you will never get again. I wish there was a gym like this free for me to use now.

Used textbooks only/free online PDFs/share PDFs

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Why the hell are textbooks sometimes up to $500?! It’s ridiculous. Is it not enough that we have to pay thousands of dollars to go to the university, but we have to keep dishing out money to take the classes we are already paying for?! Even at your university bookstore, always looked for used copies of the books you need. These will be marked and will be so much cheaper. If they are available elsewhere for cheaper, buy them for there instead! It might take a lot more work but if you gather a group of people in your class and all buy one book together (and split the price), it will be so much more manageable. I did this a few times. Five of us from the class headed over to the bookstore together, bought one book and then assigned one person to have it. This person would snap pictures of the chapters we needed each week so could all read them. Obviously, this is a lot of work but saving hundreds of dollars is worth it. You can also do this if you are able to find a PDF version of the book online. These can easily be sent out to a group of people. But before purchasing, make sure it is an actual PDF and not through a website in which you have to log in to read (like Chegg). 

Websites like Chegg have a limit of how many people can be using the account at one time, so if you’re planning on sharing a book with a group of people – it will not let you. These types of websites usually also have protocols in place to make sure you can’t screenshot or copy/paste anything. You can take pictures with your phone, but it’s probably not the best option.

Either way, splitting the cost of books with other people in the class can be one of the best options, besides finding the cheapest possible used options.

Sell textbooks to your university, Amazon or Bookdrop

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And then, when you’re done with them, sell them! Sometimes, your university will take them back, or Amazon, or even Bookdrop (if you have this near you). What I do each semester is load all of my books into each of their websites to see who will pay the most for each one. If Bookdrop will pay $50 for one, and then Amazon will pay $27 for another, I often split them up and send them to whoever will give me the best price. Again, this is a lot more work than just taking them all back to your university but it can be worth the money.

This isn’t everything but it’s a good start! I hope this helps you understand how to avoid student loan debt while attending a university! If all else fails, give your university’s financial aid office a call! Also, check out this student discount list! Let us know if you have any other advice in the comments below!

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